Making New Friends

COVID changed everything. 

Turiya of Alaska experienced an abrupt shift as March 2020 rolled onto the timeline. Literally, it took one afternoon to bring all programming to a place of frozen powerlessness.

I remember that day vividly.

The phone ringing, numbers and names appearing on my small, glowing iPhone screen: Anchorage Corrections, Spring Creek Corrections, North Star Hospital, McLaughlin, Chanlyut House, others, all of them. The voicemails filled my inbox.  Finally, I listened to one message at a time, all the same just slightly different. The doors were closing with no idea when we might be able to see our students again. Deep within my mind, all I heard were the sounds of magnetic reinforced locks and sliding bars slamming abruptly closed behind me. Next, the sound of my phone crashing into the nearby wall as it flew from my hands in frustration and rage. Most of all the uncontrollable sounds of tears and sorrow. 

Then, lots of quiet and then. Nothing. 

And now? 


As the world slipped deep into social media, ordered to-go meals from Grub Hub and drank cases of White Claw I began to feel the ever present anxiety of survival. Understand, there is no benefit package or secured compensation for a service yogi. The institutions Turiya helped also compensated us. It’s important to be honest about this. This closure was a double loss: purpose and income. It was tempting to begin to sell mindfulness tools for a high profit margin, take advantage of those in stress with promises of yoga magic as did so many of my wellness colleagues, but if you know me, you know that’s just not my way. Sure, I hustled and scrambled but never for raw profit. Most of all I was seeking the sense of service. Soon enough opportunities revealed themselves as they often do when we are open. These doors remain outside the periphery, out there in the land of possibility, waiting for us to be available, ready, and most of all present. I had nothing but presence in those early days. 

Enter, screen right, a Wellness Coordinator from the Native Village of Port Heiden. She had attended classes and studied meditation with me in the  year leading up to the pandemic. Right before the shut down, she took a position at the village only to have COVID occur shortly after her settling in. After a while, she reached out to me and asked if we would we be interested in offering virtual classes, maybe even physically coming out to offer yoga in some way? 


It felt right and the sort of work we imagined Turiya of Alaska existing for in these new times. The planning started. Metallic voices on cell phones, dropped calls, meeting village leaders in the strange and new domain of Zoom. Finally, the fateful day arrived when I stepped onto the screen in the newly converted spare room turned virtual studio. I could go through all the awkward moments, the sound barriers, weird sounds erupting from microphones, learning about cameras and how to create space within the virtual context. How about the time when the screen emptied as folks suddenly scrambled off?  The salmon were running at the North River the Wellness Coordinator’s friendly face later explained. 

Our relationship grew over time. We experienced so many moments of growth together! Nevertheless, where the heart is, where right intention reigns, that’s where success truly happens. Faces became names, names became people, and from this the humanizing seeds of relationship emerge. 

Eventually, virtual classes turned into an invitation. “Come out and practice in person with us.” Soon enough this idea became reality. I packed several bags full of yoga gear, warm clothes and climbed into a series of small planes that would take me to Port Heiden. It was a whirlwind: lost bags, making do, meeting folks in person, learning more names and settling into a different rhythm. I admit that roles changed, I became the student and they became the teachers, these individuals, real flesh and blood not just abstract beings on the other end of a Zoom call. I was reminded of the  lesson that every person whom we have ever served has taught us. I learned again that yoga isn’t a package taken to folks out there. It’s not something delivered or sold but rather an experience to learn and connect. It is kindness, being present and most of all understanding what is needed by those we serve rather than what we think they might need or what we learned in a sequence.

Fast forward to the now–two trips and fifty classes later–I am preparing for my third journey to once again visit our friends in Port Heiden, looking forward to seeing their warm faces, eating meals together, learning and just being.

May we all be free!


I started my 200-hr yoga teacher training in Seward, Alaska inside of a men’s maximum security prison. About a year and a half later, I finished it in the comfort of my own home, in front of a gas-lit fireplace, on the same gold-colored yoga mat I had rolled out so many times in the back row of the Chapel inside Spring Creek Correctional. My cohort had changed drastically, though, and now consisted of 16 other (un-incarcerated) adults. The reason for this dramatic shift in venue? Everyone’s favorite pandemic and scapegoat: COVID-19. Yesterday, in a special meeting, the Anchorage assembly voted to end the city-wide mask mandate effective immediately. While masks are still “highly encouraged” for unvaccinated adults, I can’t help but ask myself some questions: What was all this for? And, more importantly, did anything really change… did we really learn anything from this experience? As always, the answers differ drastically depending on who you ask.

The countdown back to “normal” has been an obsession over the last year or so. I hear it all the time. The people have spoken and they want to know: When can we just get back to normal?

Yet the word “normal” means very different things to different people, no? Is mine the same as yours? Probably not. Do I even relate to the word “normal” anymore? Honestly, not really. Is it normal for me to have to wear a mask all day while I cook, sweating profusely, over a 375+ degree grill or slang beans on an espresso machine that expels 190 degree water? Not really. It’s also quite unpleasant and half the time I feel like I can’t breathe. But is it normal for our country to spend more money and resources on military than the next 12 nations combined when I haven’t had even the most basic access to affordable health care since I was a student at UAA in 2017? Yes. That portion is normal for our reality; with around 30 million americans uninsured in 2020, my story is hardly unique.

So I ask again. What does “normal” really mean and why are we so impatient to get back to it? Does packing ourselves into bars, restaurants, gyms and overpriced hot yoga classes distract us from the fact that the middle class is rapidly shrinking, old rich white men are still in charge after all this time and plastic bags will soon take over the world?

As for my yogic-related revelations I will share this one piece of my experience with you. You don’t, nor have you ever, had to fit into some sort of neat little box in order to practice yoga. You don’t need a tiny flexible body, the most expensive yogi-toes to cover your top-of-the-line mat, the perfect sports bra and legging combination or even an uninterrupted hour of time to dedicate to a sequence you so thoughtfully curated. Your practice is not limited to the time you spend on your mat; yesterday I practiced yoga on the grocery line at Carrs or while I was in the weeds on the grill at work. When I feel like I need to reset my mind, stretch or move through even the most basic of movements like a twist or forward fold I do just that: use whatever props I have for whatever I need at the time. You are permitted to stop overthinking it.

Just some light food for thought in these wild times we call the present. As the OG Jerry Springer said, “take care of yourselves and each other.”

Stay classy, Anchorage.

Keeping the faith.

We’re so sorry we’ve been silent!

Turiya has seen more changes in the last few months than we could have ever anticipated. When prisons and other facilities in Alaska were closed to outside volunteers (that’s us!) we found ourselves discouraged. What does this mean for the future of our organization and, more importantly, for our students both in and outside of the walls?

We are saddened to say that we have not been able to return to Anchorage Jail or Spring Creek Correctional as the prisons are still closed to outside volunteers. We are fortunate though to keep in contact with some of our students via letters and they are keeping their practices alive.

We are also happy to report that we’ve got quite the virtual schedule set up at some other facilities. Northstar Hospital, the Chanylut House through CITC, Wisdom Traditions Counseling Center, Alyeska Pipeline and Covenant House have all been open to virtual and/or audio yoga and meditation sessions. Turiya is alive and well!

And also…(drumroll please)….

We’ve got a 200/300-hour teacher training brewing!

It’s true and this is not your traditional studio training. Our training will utilize a variety of modalities to keep students engaged and constantly challenging and evolving their idea of what it means to truly practice with an emphasis on service. Interested? The full details are posted below:


Welcome to the Integration Yoga Teacher Training Program (IYTT). This program is based on the traditional form of yoga training. Prior to hourly based learning, students went to a specific location and learned from those more experienced. When ready, their instructors deemed them able to teach others. This helps explain the duration of our program. This length grants participants the space needed to develop an authentic practice and achieve confidence with the material. Since the historical contexts have changed we combine this approach with the modern hourly based model. Upon completion, graduates may register with the Yoga Alliance and meet its requirements for an accredited certificate. 

This training offers a course of study leading to both a 200hr initial teaching credential and for those interested in a 300hr advanced certificate. Both programs include the same core modules and requirements found in the 200hr study. After completing these, one may choose to complete additional modules and work satisfying the specifics for a 300hr level training. The basic certificate program will run from mid-October through the beginning of May. Those seeking to complete the 300hr extension have until the end of May to finish. 

Format: We refer to the IYTT as a hybrid experience combining several particulars. These include virtual learning, monthly themes, weekly topics, film, audio, small groups and self driven explorations. The Thinkific web based program will serve as our primary platform granting freedom to centralize everything in one place. We will record all lessons to facilitate convenience and as a reference for ongoing study. One third of virtual training may be completed from recordings. When and if possible we will gather in person at different venues around Anchorage. 

Essentials: IYTT will focus on four essentials intertwining throughout the duration of this training. 

1. Wisdom Yoga emerges from the wisdom traditions of the ancient world that have combined with contextual influences. Time will be spent investigating different streams of thought such as classical yoga, aspects of Zen, Taoism, and western mysticism. 

2. Practice Developing a personal practice is essential in order to guide others. We will delve into different expressions of yoga, class design, teaching modalities and theories of what it means to be an instructor. 3. Mindfulness Teachers must ground themselves in self-reflection, meditation and mindful living. One’s practice on the mat is only a small part of the picture. Who are you? What does it mean to live as a yogi in modern times? Topics such as understanding your unique outlook, meditation techniques and lifestyle will be addressed. 4. Service As we deepen our studies we will begin to notice how our practice provides opportunities to help others. Gathering inspiration from successful service projects students will design and carry out their own in the local community. 

Core Learning: Monthly core modules will immerse us into a variety of topics essential to the art of instruction. Examples include class design, sequencing, asana development, philosophy and trauma informed practices. These will be offered as virtual weekend retreats where we ask attendees to set aside time to focus on material. Rather than sitting in front of a computer for several hours, these will combine different virtual learning modalities, small focus groups and independent study. Alongside this, weekly evening sessions will support our inward motivation and ongoing study. 

Experiential Learning Plan (ELP): Every person has specific learning styles and interests. The Experiential Learning Plan helps us tailor this program to fit these particular needs. Working with an outline we will guide you through developing this at the beginning of the training. Once approved these plans will serve as a guideline for non-contact hours, service work and final graduation requirements. 

Faculty We will draw from the experience of select Turiya instructors who will be the backbone of our program. Expect to hear from Bronson Frye, Melanie Lombard and other Turiya supporters from here within Alaska to share their specialities with us. David Westlake will be our primary guide holding the space for the completion of this experience. 

Questions? DM us.

A Clusterf*ck of Sorrows

As seen in Spenard

Just two Sundays ago, heading south on the Seward Highway, David and I turned around just about at Girdwood and headed back to Anchorage; the wind was fierce, the roads were icy, and heavy snow was forecasted later in the day. This tends to happen in the winter in Alaska, so no big deal, it’s why we make extra trips to Spring Creek in the summer in the hopes it will all balance out. But now, living in the current state of things, where the DOC has revoked all volunteer and visitor privileges… well I wonder if we should have just trudged on, weather and roads be damned. It’s strange that in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty in our world I find myself spending so much time thinking about seven incarcerated men and hoping they are doing ok. It’s hard enough being on the outside and feeling absolutely powerless, but remove yourself from all that by the power of 100 and I still don’t think we could grasp what it’s like to be inside at a time like this. But hey… at least we’d all have toilet paper.

This week has felt like two weeks (actually scratch that, more like a month) in one. Yesterday I helped my best friend close down her restaurant that I help out at once in a while for the next few weeks; freezing what she could squeeze into her freezer and doling out the rest to myself and her other barista. “Boil this ham,” she said while smiling and handing me a giant ziplock bag full of black forest cubes, “you can give it to Sochi.” I thanked her and smiled back, thinking how much our rescue dog Sochi will love that.

Closing down the espresso machine, I felt like I was going to cry. I found myself feeling as though I was saying goodbye to an old friend; a friend who has taught me so many valuable skills in such a short amount of time, both reinforcing my strengths while simultaneously showing me my weaknesses. I get flustered, I’m impatient and way too hard on myself but I’m also kind and laugh a lot, am a sloppy artistic version of a perfectionist and absolutely love making espresso drinks. Shortly after that I found myself wondering: Is this the point? Is this a pause, a break in our rut to sit in our rooms and think about what we’ve done, what we’ve all been doing? To reflect and examine the things in our lives that are or aren’t working, what we need to let go and what we want to consciously keep?

I heard the phrase “clusterfuck of sorrows” today at work on a podcast I was listening to and it just sort of stuck with me. I always appreciate a good line from a song, a catchy phrase or clever saying. Even though this podcast was from a couple of years ago, it just seemed appropriate for the state I was in at the time. Perhaps it has taken me all week for things to really sink in; my hours at work reduced, the yoga studio my husband teaches at closed, our programming for Turiya suspended, my best friend’s (among other) restaurant closed, parking lots normally packed to the brim with Subarus eerily empty and people hoarding supplies to the point where grocery store shelves are bare. If there ever was a time for a “clusterfuck of sorrows” to apply, it would be right now. Right?

So now let’s switch to a simpler, non-judgmental perspective: our pets. You are excited. Your human is home more. Maybe they feed you black forest ham. Maybe they take you on extra walks or throw more balls for you to catch and maybe spend some extra time cuddling with you. There’s more playing, more sticks, more balls of yarn (or whatever it is that cats do… I’m a dog person obvi). And who better to deserve more love and attention than the furry creatures that stick by us no matter what?

So, for now, I can at least smile about that.

Receiving Perspective

Words by David Westlake / Photo by Darcy Stein

January provided a beautiful opportunity for us to travel to Mexico. We spent the time leading up to this journey deciding where in Mexico we wanted to explore. We’re not exactly the resort types and enjoy finding our own way. We decided on a little known fishing village named Papanoa for our first week of travel. It was perfect; away from tourist destinations yet still resting on a long sandy coastline. There we found a local “boutique” hotel, then began to dream. But, something else happened during that period. People began to question us. Have you been there before? Aren’t you nervous? Is it safe? Isn’t Mexico dangerous? Don’t they kill Americans? We smiled when asked, tried to reassure people and even went into long litanies about how wonderful our experiences in Mexico have been. Still, more questions and concerns came at us. 
Finally, there we were picking up our rental car, figuring out a stick clutch again, converting kilometers to miles and then it hit. The fear! The suspicion and anxiety planted with every one of those questions. It started to rise as we made our way down Mexico Highway 200 towards our destination. Then, a military truck drove by with a huge mounted machine gun on the bed. The landscape changed, my inner gesture turned and my mind became clouded with all the perceptions of Mexico I have learned and heard growing up. What was a beautiful road of rolling green hills, palm trees and ocean vistas became a land of suspicion. Every person I saw along the road or in the little villages we passed now seemed shady, ready to rob, abduct and then hand me over to the drug cartels. Then, a federale police truck rolled by. Surely, they would turn around and force us to give a fat bribe. We would give them everything we had and then be stuck in Mexico. Now, here I was driving myself and my wife into the heart of darkness. The inner dialogue continued. Luckily, the manual transmission combined with mad speed bumps helped pull my awareness back into the moment so I could see what was really in front of me. It was actually a pure joy to be driving through Mexico. 
We arrived at the hotel sugared up on rocks overlooking the ocean. Truly, what we had imagined until we entered the grounds. People everywhere, families, men, women and children, even dogs all resting around the private pool. The unpleasant stories came back. Were these people looking at us? Were they wondering how much money we have? Do they have drugs? Still, I kept smiling as we made our way to our room. Although somewhat earthy it was a beautiful space with gifts on the bed and cards written in broken English awaiting us. After some moments of setting up the room the way we liked it, we rested a little while and my mind relaxed, smoothed over by ocean sounds. Later, we went downstairs to explore the area and find something to eat. Since it was late evening now and everything was closed we decided to eat at the hotel and found a table with a view. 
All the folks who had been poolside earlier now made their way into the eating area. They pushed the tables together, politely asked for our extra chairs and then all sat down. Were they different or was it that my perspective had changed?  Now I observed a sweet family on vacation together, children, young parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Children played, small dogs sitting on laps and people warmly speaking to each other, occasionally laughing at some story. Funny how our inner perceptions, beliefs, and ideas about life alter how we actually see and feel towards the world, most of all the people. 
I smiled to myself then to Darcy. I should know this! Every week, we drive through barbed wire, cross over magnetic door thresholds and pass behind bars to meet with people who have heavy words hung around their identities. Prisoner, Inmate, Patient, Resident, Client and so on, so many words describing them, numbing awareness and clouding perspective with the dehumanizing definitions behind each term. Nevertheless, every week we see through such veils and find something very different. Thanks Mexico for the friendly reminder… even on vacation.

Its not my job to make the plants grow.

December 8

I know I usually start when we check-in but I feel like I need to toss a little plug in for the drive down to Seward. We weren’t able to get down there for a few weeks because of questionable road conditions and my lack of a 4-wheel drive vehicle, so we decided to leave early on Sunday morning and make the drive down regardless of the state of the highway (well… not regardless regardless, but barring anything besides an active blizzard or tsunami).

Besides the section from Anchorage to Girdwood being a little dicey and a whole lot windy, the roads were more or less sanded and my humble Toyota Camry (coupled with David’s winter driving skills) got us there safe and sound. As many of us Alaskans know, the two-ish hour drive south to Seward is breathtakingly beautiful but it had been quite some time since I’ve made it at the same time first light was happening. First light is that quietly magical time before sunrise when the first bit of light hits the sky and you have the amazing opportunity to witness the sky getting lighter and lighter until the eventual sunrise, which in this case was about an hour later. I don’t need to tell you about the beauty of an Alaskan sunrise in winter, but there’s an added bonus when you throw a dash of first light and a pinch of bombing down the highway to max into the mix.

Once we arrive, we make our way through the long, narrow corridor to the main visitor entrance (which for some reason is always extra freezing and usually smells strongly like men’s cologne). I press the little black button on the intercom and a voice chirps back almost immediately.

“Can I help you?”, the voice asks. “Hello”, I respond cheerfully, “we’re here to teach yoga!”

The voice on the other end tells me it might be a while before someone can check us in, but we should head on into the lobby and wait. When we finally check in and get our radio and badges, we head through the heavy clank-clank-clank doors down the stairs and through the gym. We see some of the guys right away sitting on the bleachers outside of the entrance to the Educational hall waiting. They greet us with smiles and hello-how-are-you’s and we all head into the chapel that Big Black has already transformed from a regular old multi-purpose room to a sacred yoga studio space.

Today we start with the portion of class that is always the most profound to me: checking in regarding how all of our practices are going. There’s a somber energy I start picking up on when the guys start to express their anxieties regarding the infamous out of state transfer. If you’ve followed the DOC drama in Alaska, then you’ve probably heard rumors about some of our prison population being transferred to out of state facilities. But when you are the actual prisoner in this system and your fate is constantly up in the air, you’ve got to navigate your way through the rumors you hear, deciphering what is true and what is simply thrown out there for shock value.

One of our students shares that he’s been harnessing the strength of his practice to get him through a particularly challenging phase. Not that you’d know anything about this whatsoever… but his job is finally getting to him. He holds one of the higher paying positions inside working as a peer mentor to those on his mod (which also happens to be the mental health mod). One of the perks of this job is that he has a “solo” (a cell with no cellmate, or “celly” as they’re called inside) which for some would be a reason in itself to keep this job indefinitely. He shares his experience providing direction for his peers to get on the right track including being available for counsel and advice, which classes to take and which groups to join. He describes what it’s like to get invested and be a positive role model, guiding his fellow prisoners in order for them to shorten their sentences and be released into society as productive individuals. And then he describes the frustration and dissatisfaction that ensues when he witnesses the revolving door phenomena: prisoners being released and coming right back in due to various reasons.

And that’s when Jdubbs chimes in.

“It’s not your job to make the plants grow. You plant the seed and give them water… but it’s up to them to grow.”

This sums up so much in such a simple, yet profound way. I start thinking about all the times I have been disappointed or disillusioned by outcomes that were beyond my control. What are we actually disappointed in when something doesn’t go according to plan? Is it the realization that we have no actual control, or the frustration with ourselves for getting so invested and attached to a specific outcome? These truths swirl through my mind as we come to the end of check-ins and begin practice. I release these thoughts as best as I can and begin to find my breath.

Before I know it, it’s time to clean our mats and put the room back in working order. We all shuffle around, putting blocks away and organizing books, papers and mats. We say our goodbyes, walk through the gym and wait for the heavy clank-clank-clank doors to unlatch and let us out into the free world. The roads are starting to freeze as we make our way north back to Anchorage, where we will go about our lives as normal, keeping these profound experiences and truths tucked away in our back pockets.

Oh, the places you’ll go.

By David Westlake

“Hold on,” I declare as we make three very sharp swerves that even at a slow speed seems incredibly dramatic.  
“Oh my god, What are those for?!” Darcy asks as she grabs the dash.  
“You know… for car bombers or anybody attempting to smash through the gates,” I say nonchalantly as we move past these road obstructions and further into the base. 
We are silent at the heaviness of that idea alongside the seeming normalcy of this wild absurd truth. 
That pretty sums up why we find ourselves driving onto Elmendorf Air Force Base and heading towards the barbed wire windowless building that houses the TACPs (tactical air control party specialists) for our yoga classes with the men and women of this unit.  

TACPs you ask? These folk are the closest thing that the Air Force has to ground based special forces.They go in with front line combat units and oversee air support; this puts them amidst total chaos. They have been deployed a variety of times, seen active war situations and return home living with the memory of experiences radically different than what they come home to. Often this transition is a challenge for many. A variety of symptoms and hardships may arise including depression, domestic complications, addiction and worst case scenario, attempted suicide (many of which are, unfortunately, successful). On account of this, a representative from the Alaska chapter of the USO reached out to us about teaching yoga as a way to re-connect with themselves. 

We park and text the commanding NCO that we are here. Emerging from a gray door, he walks up to a secured gate to let us in. He continues on to walk us through a labyrinth of dim hallways and into a huge open gym area unbelievably full of exercise machines, rows of secured lockers and  oddly enough a sauna resting in the back corner. There in the midst of all this is the space in which we will practice. Painted onto the floor of this soon-to-be yoga studio rests the unit’s symbol and motto: “Death on Call”.   
I nervously start to set up, unrolling my mat and then letting it snap in the air before coming down. Something magic rests behind this little ritual. The dust of life and some dog hair shake off as the mat sets down, revealing a design of a raven upon it. I look at the symbol and then step onto the mat; this will become the center of our practice. We set up mats around in a semi-circle. Moments later, young men and women wearing government-issued exercise clothes come in and find a mat.

So by now I am feeling a little awkward and having one of those moments when I wonder: who I am to teach these folks anything? How can I even begin to understand their story and what brings them to this moment? And what they carry with them? Soon enough, the room fills and before me in easy pose sit 15 serious faced TACPs (and my wife with her gold yoga mat and a very high bun). The room grows quiet except for a buzz of machinery somewhere in the distance, oddly echoing softly like a metallic AUM. 
These moments before a class, before any words are spoken, any practice begins… these are the real moments of truth. It’s the place of naked rawness when a teacher lets go, opens to the students before one and flows into the experience. Plans fall away, destinations disappear, only the awareness of the immediate need remains. 
We bring our hands to our symbolic heart, greet one another, then begin to breath. Here comes the moment that connects, the breath flows and the practice begins. One pose leads to another and then to another. We move together, slowly breaking through the awkwardness.

Then it happens.

We begin to leave behind the gravity of life and discover the grace of inward freedom. Eyes close, breath deepens and even a sigh can be heard as we shift into the subtle. Time is unraveled and before I know it, we are heading into our final stretch before savasana pose. Darcy hands out eye pillows as everyone makes themselves as comfortable as they can on their mats. I offer a simple breathing meditation before letting them rest in silence. After a few minutes, I look over the crew assembled. Some lay still clenched in their bodies, others lay calmly while others have slipped into sleep as the tiny twitches in their bodies reveal. Under all of this is the breath and with that the shared experience of life.

This is the connection. 

I close my eyes for a few moments and then start to speak, inviting them back to themselves. After a few simple movements they rise to seated poses, some looking at me with a little of daze in their eyes, others with uncertainty but most of all with a gentle warmth. 

“Namaste,” I say.

 Then, across the room “namaste” echoes back to me and then to one another. A few still seconds then it’s back to life. People rise. Mats are sprayed, wiped down, rolled up. Eye pillows are neatly put away. Some thank us for coming while others make small talk and ask about our plans for Thanksgiving. Soldiers moving this way and that way as we are led back through the dim labyrinth of corridors and out through barbed wire to the parking lot. 

Until next time TACP’s, we still have places to travel together. Om Shanti…

You can’t stay high for too long.

Sunday Oct. 13th

We get down to the chapel a little late today, but it’s “ag” (all good), as they say inside. Big Black moves the place holder mat in my usual spot to make space for me. I thank him and roll my mat out, saying hello to everyone. We’re all here today, making the three by three rows full. We wait a few minutes; they’re usually slow to announce that yoga is beginning. To be exact, they call a “yoga movement” to let the guys know we are here. We all kind of joke about how ridiculous that sounds–a yoga movement?–sounds kind of silly. So some of the guys aren’t here yet. But Big Black is allowed to come early so he can set everything up. We’re in the chapel (basically a multipurpose room) so it is normally filled with long, grey catering-type tables and chairs stacked up high. But I only see it like that when we are leaving, when we arrive it is usually ready to roll.

After open class, we all check-in about how our practices are going. This is always the most profound part of my day in Spring Creek; our students are always so insightful. One of the guys talks about aparigraha (non-attachment, part of the eight-limb path) and how you are still you without labels and possessions. I ponder this for a moment and think about all the things I consider myself attached to… and then I cringe a little. Now Big Mac has the floor and he talks for a while. He is super profound, self-reflective and a really hard act to follow (now it’s my turn). I share about how taking ballet these last three months has really amped up my yoga practice (it’s true… ballet is French and serious). Then I make a joke (but not really a joke because it’s true, I have never worked my feet so hard in all my life) about experiencing the worst foot cramp I’ve ever felt, and then the pure joy that follows once it subsides. I also talk about the discovery of the inner thighs (the for real discovery) and how that completely changes everything, sort of like using ballet as a new lens for my yoga practice.

Then someone mentions something about balance and how you need to maintain yourself evenly inside; not getting too high or too low. Just even.

“Mmmhmmm”, Jdubbs chimes in, “you can’t stay high for too long”.

The rest of our time in the chapel goes well and before I know it it’s 15 minutes before we have to pack up. David leads us in Nidra for the rest of the time, and at the risk of sounding basic, it’s pretty cold in the room today and it’s hard for me to relax. I start wondering if all the rooms are cold like this–like turn up the heat someone–and then I remember where I am. Duh.

We pack up, set the room back to chapel status, and leave the guys with a bottle of lemongrass mat cleaner. We make our way back through the gym and the light pouring in through the windows is quite the sight. Despite being a prison, the view from Spring Creek is actually pretty magical (surrounded by mountains and glaciers and such) in that Alaska-is-super-majestic sort of way. After we’re though all the click-click-clicks of the heavy doors we exchange our visitor passes and radio for our IDs. It’s always an interesting transition going from behind all sorts of locked doors to being more or less free driving at 70 miles per hour down the highway back to Anchorage. I’m definitely grateful for the length of the drive; it’s just about perfect to make a jump like this.

On Intentions

Girls Detention at McLaughlin Youth Center, a 6-week series by Danielle Holness

This was my final week in a 6-week yoga series with the Girls’ Detention unit at McLaughlin Juvenile Center. Taking this on, I was nervous, extremely nervous. Teens, although tough on the outside, are very sensitive. They are growing, finding themselves and most of all they are so susceptible to influence. So I knew going in that it was so much bigger than me or yoga. I didn’t go in each week to give them a workout or simply to de-stress. I wanted to give them the tools to make positive decisions moving forward. The decisions that would inevitably set the stage for what is remaining of their teens. And the things I say over the course of the 6 weeks could influence their entire lives.

Each week we got a little deeper, worrying less about yoga asana and more about meditation based practices. I knew when I started that I had to entice them with the “cooler” aspects of yoga (asana), and as we gained each other’s trust and learned one another’s personalities, I discovered my purpose there and I set an intention. It was simple, to help them understand the importance of having an intention. 

Over the past 3 weeks I introduced setting intentions, and affirmations as a form of meditation. When I asked if they knew what the word intention meant, none of them did. And that was ok–to be honest–it’s normal. When do we ever discuss intentions throughout our life, especially if you’re not a part of a yoga community? Honestly, I don’t recall ever hearing it unless there was some misunderstanding in a conversation. But to have an intention for your day, or your week, or your life made an impact on these girls. There are no rules when it comes to setting an intention for yourself, there are no guidelines, there is no one standing over you telling you that you need to do it for x,y, and z reasons. And I think that’s why they liked it, it was freeing, it was liberating. If they don’t stay true to their intention they’re only letting themselves down. Setting an intention is self-accountability. That’s probably the biggest lesson they can learn while incarcerated at such a young age, it’s also the most important.

My sessions with these developing minds gave them the space to express their creativity. There are so many rules when you’re a teen, and even more when you’re in juvie (with reason), but that isn’t how every child learns. Some children need the space to be themselves without fear of being misunderstood. For example, there was a young woman who was outspoken, loud, cracked jokes at inappropriate times and a lot of those jokes were at the expense of others or even towards me at times. But instead of taking offense to her personality, I instead appreciated the way her face lit up when she smiled, how she brought laughter to the other girls, and that even though she doesn’t always have the most positive things to say, that its simply her way of communicating. In our society it’s looked down upon to make jokes about people but there are so many cultures and family dynamics where it is normal, so I rest assured knowing that it was not her intention to hurt anyone’s feelings, it was just her way of joking around and expressing herself in the only way she currently knows how.

Another example was a girl, 13 years old, quiet with an extremely short attention span. Looking at her you wouldn’t know she was 13. She looks older and being around her, you would never guess that she has severe anger management issues. But she showed up and was present during her first week with me and continued to show up every week for the next 4 weeks. When we spoke about intentions, I would ask them if they were comfortable sharing what their intention would be for the week until I saw them again, and on her last week, she said “to let negativity pass through me.” That was so powerful; it takes some grown adults ages to understand this concept and here is this wide-eyed, 13 year old understanding what she needs to do to grow and move forward. The staff told me they saw a difference in her behavior since she started going to yoga, less outbursts, and less angry. Everything I could have hoped for each of them after coming to a yoga session.

Tuesday was my last session with this group of beautifully goofy and insightful teen girls at McLaughlin. We partook in a gentle yoga sequence and I explained the importance of hip openers as they release the trauma and emotions that are held there. They giggled and cracked jokes, but when it was time to get serious, they were attentive.  They took Savasana with me for the last time and they were the most still and silent they had been of the times I had met with them. Usually Savasana was a time for them to play with and sniff their lavender-scented eye pillows… but this week they laid there, silent, and breathing deeply.

My parting gift to them was a page long reminder of the positivity that is within them, always within their grasp if they just take a moment to breathe. It included a quote*, two affirmation meditations, the importance of setting intentions, and finally the meaning of Namaste. Seeing and honoring the light within yourself and within others. Even when it’s difficult to see the light within someone else, just know that when someone is negative towards you they are most likely projecting their internal struggles. Everyone has them and we all have a bad day where someone else is negatively affected as a result. I sent them off knowing that this will serve them at one point or another, even if its years down the line. I was able to go in and make an impact during my short time with them, during a time in their lives where others may have given up on them. These kids ARE NOT lost causes, they just need a little more understanding, more patience, and belief that they will grow from the place they are currently at. They have their whole lives ahead of them. Before they walked out, I told them when they get out, to look us up and we’ll give them a lavender eye pillow. Something to look forward to and one last reminder that someone is always there, and that we care about them…

And with that I say Namaste.

* “Everything changes when you start to emit your own frequency rather than absorbing the frequencies around you, when you start imprinting your intent on the universe rather than receiving an imprint from existence.” – Barbara Marciniak

Oh snap

August 25

So we’re standing in the lobby at the desk where we check in. I’m waiting to go through the metal detector and fixing my hair (which I always wear in a very high bun when I go inside). I maneuver my hand around for the infamous second wrap of the hair tie and in that very moment it snaps, breaks, and flings to the floor by my feet. This sounds like an inconsequentially small detail, but if you have thick, long, wavy hair and you’ve ever practiced yoga… you know that hair ties are not optional (and also it’s just kinda weird to walk into max with your hair all like… haaay! I’m flowing over here). I look at the CO checking us in with a hint of desperation in my eyes. She reads this look like a pro and offers to get me a rubber band from the little office behind her. With overflowing gratitude I accept this offer and the check-in process continues on without a hitch. We get our radio and head down the staircase. David does the radio check and we hear a distant voice on the other end telling us we’re good to go.

We walk down the staircase to the last locked door and I’m back in little feet pose (if you’re confused, read the previous blog entry!). There’s no CO with us this time and the gym is empty. As we’re walking towards the chapel where we practice, I notice something I’ve never seen before. To the right of me is a small, rectangular room with a sign above it that reads “BARBER SHOP”. This instantaneously piques my interest (I sort of have a thing for the sacred tradition of Barbering) and I make a mental note to ask the guys about what sort of barber situation they have here. Already a million ideas are running through my head. Do I know any barbers that would volunteer their time to come down here and cut some hair? I continue through my mental checklist of barbers I know and file that away in the back of my mind. We’re almost to the chapel and it’s time for yoga.

Big Black greets us with an equally big smile. He gives us a copy of the “Spring Creek Now”—the prison’s monthly newsletter—and beaming, explains that the yoga club was interviewed and he got to write a little description of the yoga they’ve been practicing. Today, all of our crew is here, and we’ve got a new student who is interested in training to be a teacher as well. David leads our open practice today with a 20-ish minute yoga Nidra—also called “yogic sleep”, or the state of consciousness between waking and sleeping—at the end.

Big Black’s words on yoga

We take a little break and then go around the room to check-in about how our practice has been going. A lot of the guys talk about how oppressive the smoke has been down here (it turns out just yesterday they were all on lock down due to very smoky conditions) and then E says something that kinda blows my mind. He talks about there being no escape. Once it’s smoky inside, you’re totally stuck in it. I can’t speak for everyone in Alaska this summer, but all the smoke has definitely been an intense experience. It has felt stifling some days here in Anchorage and imagine multiplying that by being confined to a small cell? I guess you could say it was one of those sobering moments. I thought of the worst smoky day we had in Anchorage and all the things I could do to escape. Go to a yoga class at a studio with an incredible ventilation system. Hide out for a bit in a steamy shower. Shut all the windows in my house and light a scented candle… and the list goes on.

And then it was my turn to check-in. If you know me, you know I’m all about that real talk; I don’t sugar coat or dance around much. So I share that I’ve been slacking hard with my home practice. I haven’t been setting nearly enough time aside before work to practice and connect with myself and I can’t blame it on the smoke or my runny nose or having a migraine or my dog wanting to play or the floor needing to be swept or anything else of the sort. It’s just me, trying to escape myself. And then I start thinking about the guys, carving out time to practice every day (and for some of them twice per day), in their cells, or common areas where they get cat-called in down dog, without access to a beautiful studio with incredible ventilation, and I think to myself:

Wow Darcy. Step up your game.

Class ends and we say our goodbyes. We walk back through the gym and I eye the “BARBER SHOP” sign once again. I asked J-Dubbs earlier about what really goes on in the barber shop and he explained there are no actual barbers that come in here. It’s just other inmates, cutting each other’s hair, mostly doing hack jobs. He says if you want a good haircut you’ve got to find someone who knows how to cut hair and convince them to cut yours (and FYI-that’s when Big Mac chimed in and told us that Goose Creek has a barber school and I thought that was totally awesome). I still have a million ideas running through my head of how to improve this situation, but I get behind that train and let it go on without me. There is so much opportunity for growth and change, but it’s a slow and gradual process and I’ve got to let it unfold naturally (with a little nudge here and there of course).

I stand in little feet pose and look up at the camera while the first door click-click-click slides open. We walk back up the stairs, return our radio and visitor badges, and get our IDs back. I take the rubber band out of my hair and return it to the woman behind the plexiglass window.

“Thank you so, so much”, I say.

I drive the first leg of the trip back to Anchorage. David and I sit in silence for a while before I start rambling on about how amazing it is to realize how much common ground we all have; how much of what we experience every day—thoughts, feelings, expectations, emotions—are the same as what others experience, just in all different contexts. “Same same but different” is the phrase I like to use. We muse on this for a while and then smile at each other. Another successful day inside max and we are already looking forward to our next visit.