I don’t ever really get nervous until we get down the staircase and wait for the very last door between us and the gym to unlock and click-click-click slide open. You have to stand pretty close to the door and put your feet in these tiny little feet marks on the floor. They are abnormally small, and I always make a comment like, “oh yeah… little feet pose”, or “the littlest feet I’ve ever seen”. I sound totally calm, but inside my heart is pounding and my mouth is dry. Anything could happen. I remember the first time I told my father I was going inside. “You’re going INTO jail?”
Ok, so let me back up a little. For the last year, my husband and I have been traveling to Seward, Alaska once or twice-ish every month (I say “ish” for our wonderful winter road months) to lead a yoga teacher training for six men inside of Spring Creek Correctional Center, the only maximum security prison in the state. When most Alaskans talk about Seward, they’re probably smiling and fondly speaking about fishing, the Sea Life center, or that restaurant The Cookery (where I still haven’t eaten but really want to), but us… well, we think immediately of “the guys” in Spring Creek, this amazing group of six men who are so hungry for knowledge and more out of life that it is inspiring to be around.
The very last door opens, we walk through it, and it click-click-click slides closed and locks behind us. This locking sound is not at all subtle and is the realest moment of the day; the moment you realize you’re locked in a maximum security prison with all sorts of characters. The moment that reminds you you’re making a conscious decision to spend time somewhere not many people would venture, for a reason that is much bigger than you.
Under the gym’s harsh fluorescent lighting, we see a few guys playing basketball and a few guys sitting on the bleachers. It’s pretty chill in Spring Creek today, and my heart starts to slow down a bit. The CO (corrections officer) who checked us in escorts us to the double doors of the educational hall, which is basically a hallway of rooms with a computer lab, a recording studio (did you know they made a podcast, similar to Ear Hustle?), an office, and a chapel. The chapel is where we practice, but it’s not really a chapel how you think. It’s more like a multi-purpose room used for yoga and other groups (did you know yoga is offered seven days a week here?). I do a radio check and the CO smiles and leaves us to it (David and I get one radio to share). The guys greet us with warm hellos and smiles, and their energy is infectious. The rest of my fear and anxiety is vanquished in this moment. We say hello to everyone, including Starsky, our resident yoga dog (did you know Spring Creek also has a dog training program?) and I take my shoes and socks off and head into the dojo. One time the guys said “no shoes in the dojo” and it just sort of stuck. I take my usual spot, back row, center mat. There’s 9 spots in the room, rows of 3. I’m always in the same spot, me being the creature of habit that I am. Usually I’m between Huff and J-Dubs, but today, I’m between Mac and Big Black (Mac, who has finally returned to Spring Creek after being transferred to Goose Creek because of a riot in his housing mod a few months ago, is in Huff’s spot since he’s absent today). J-Dubs is leading our open practice, as our teacher trainees have been rotating through who leads open practice for the last several months. But today is different, in the best sort of way. For the first time ever, we have a CO joining us for class.
And it was in that moment I almost burst into tears. A “heartrealm” moment as some of us yogis call it. I almost couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening here, that a CO could practice yoga amongst a room of inmates and two nutty people who were teaching yoga in prison. It was a surreal moment and it hit me what was happening here.
J-Dubs nailed it. He led a great class, and when we went around the room to give feedforward, I made sure to comment on how I knew he was practicing; you can tell you know, when the instructor gives subtle nuances or refined cues you know could only have been discovered by being in the pose many times. The response from everyone was overwhelmingly positive, with some room for improvement sprinkled in. The rest of the day went smoothly, and before I knew it I was cleaning off my gold yoga mat (yes, my yoga mat is really gold colored) and packing up to leave.
We say our goodbyes, walk back through the gym, and David stands in front of the first locked door in the littlest feet marks. It’s always bittersweet leaving here. I can leave, get in my car, stop for a London fog, drive back to Anchorage, cook dinner, take a shower, and the list goes on. The guys are still in there… that’s their whole life in there. And I know they made a decision at a certain point that got them there in the first place, but there is still something that gives me that unsettled feeling. And then the unsettled feeling is replaced with another feeling.
Grateful for the ability to watch such a profound transformation unfold, on a small scale, and in that bigger picture sort of way. David and I make our way up the staircase to the check-in desk, return our visitor badges and radio, and get our IDs back. I offer to drive the first leg of the trip home. We start the 2-ish hour drive home, and as the mountains begin to zip by me, I look over at David and can’t help but smile. He’s looking at me, smiling back, and we both just sort of know.