Looming walls spiked with barbed wire, policemen on constant patrol, and an impenetrable iron gate – these intimidating signs are enough to keep most people away from such a place. For others, like Sadhguru and Isha Yoga Teachers, they are an invitation and an appeal for help. Over the past 25 years, Isha has been conducting yoga programs in Central Prisons all over Tamil Nadu for prisoners and police alike. Below is a poignant, yet truly inspiring sharing from an Isha Yoga teacher about her first class conducted in Central Prison Vellore in 1998.

An Isha Teacher shares: It’s been nearly 20 years since I first stepped into a prison. If I had to remember and share an experience from any of the other classes that I taught at that time in my life, it would be impossible. But, the memory of this one prison class is etched in my mind as if it happened yesterday. Even today, I remember the faces and names of a few participants from that class. Here is my brief account.

During my own Isha Yoga class with Sadhguru in 1993, recordings of sharings from prisoners, who had participated in Isha Yoga programs, were played for us. I was so touched when I heard these that I had a deep longing to visit a prison myself. So five years later, when Sadhguru asked me conduct a class in the Central Prison, Vellore, I was, predictably, quite excited about it. However, when I stood in front of the huge iron gate while two police women searched every nook and corner of my bag and me, I wasn’t so excited any more. I felt like a criminal myself.

From a Slow Start to Smiling Faces

Sadhguru had designed a special 11-day class schedule for the prisons – each class started with games, and the participants were to be initiated into an advanced practice along with a special version of Shakti Chalana Kriya. I was told that 45 female prisoners, 8 policewomen, and the Superintendent of Police would be attending the class. But when I went in along with three supporting volunteers, there were only 15 prisoners who came for the class. Seeing this, I requested the SP to bring at least 25-30 people to make the most of our 70 km travel each way for 11 days. They went around and brought a few more, but I wasn’t happy with the numbers. Reluctantly, I started the class with a dodge ball game for those 20-odd prisoners.

“When I stood in front of the huge iron gate while two police women searched every nook and corner of my bag and me, I wasn’t so excited any more. I felt like a criminal myself.”

As the game progressed, all other prisoners were somehow drawn to that area, and soon we had almost everyone, both prisoners and police, playing there like children, shouting, yelling, mocking, and cheering. They were fully on. However, there were two ladies who just stood far off with stiff faces, seemingly trying hard to remain hard. After the games session, I asked them all to come into the hall for the first class session. This time, they all joyfully went into the hall and sat, except for those two ladies.

As I was entering the hall, I heard these two ladies yelling behind me because two policewomen were trying to forcefully send them into the class. I quickly went up to them and requested the policewomen to leave them alone. After they had calmed down a bit, I bowed down to them and asked them to come just for one session. “You need not come from tomorrow onwards if it doesn’t work for you. Just for today, I ask you come and experience it,” I gently pressed them further. They were so touched and confused by my behavior – which seemed so odd to them – that they decided to come for the first class and didn’t miss a single class after.

The Sharing That Shocked Me

As days went by, each games session became a celebration of the joy within the participants. The SP and the policewomen who participated in the class were truly wonderful people. They created such an ambiance where the prisoners felt comfortable to share their personal stories. The sessions were from 7 am to 11 am, and this meant the prisoners had to miss their tea to be on time for the class. On the second day, some came late as they couldn’t be without their daily dose of tea. However, at our request, the policewomen helped us to organize tea for all in the class itself, and everything fell in place again.

“Most of them were from very poor families, married young and had abusive husbands and in-laws. Some were even orphans who were sold to criminals for their use.”

These were not your simple everyday prisoners. Most of them were on life term – convicted for murders, drug trafficking, terrorism, etc. I particularly remember this one big lady who wore an equally big red bindi on her forehead. She didn’t talk at all until the closing session. To make her open to what was being offered there, I did many things – spoke to her directly, encouraged her to speak, had her sit in front – somehow hoping that she would open up and share. She would do what I said, but would not utter a word, she would simply smile back at me. So on the closing day, I was delighted when she got up to share.

She started her sharing saying, “This is the first time in my life I regret murdering fourteen people.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It turned out she had murdered members of a rival gang who now were looking for revenge. “I will write to that rival gang leader to kill me, if he wants, for chopping his son to pieces so cruelly. But let him not fuel the violence further by killing my family members. Then, at least, this cycle may come to an end!” she said with a heavy voice. It was an utterly touching sharing, but that was not why my breath stopped!

A New Life for the Tortured Ones

There were also a few who, one could see easily, were not capable of the ferocious acts for which they were convicted. After the 3rd day, many opened up to me and shared their stories of innocence, crime, shame and pride. Most of them were from very poor families, married young and had abusive husbands and in-laws. Some were even orphans who were sold to criminals for their use. I had to work hard within myself to hold back my tears in front of them, but each night I would come back and cry thinking about their unbelievably torturous life situations. It was truly heartbreaking to see such suffering. “I slept well after years, I feel peaceful, now I want to live,” were some of the most-used expressions in their sharings over the 11 days.

“That day, I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore and had to let them flow. No one was watching me crying anyway…”

Because of their sheer intensity and deep longing to find something more to life beyond the situations they were in, these ladies became very receptive by the 4th day. I remember on the 5th day, after the initiation, they sat still with eyes closed for a FULL ONE HOUR – something I had never seen happen before, nor did I see again, in almost 20 years of teaching classes. That day, I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore and had to let them flow. No one was watching me crying anyway – their eyes had been opened to something much bigger and much deeper.

Today, most of them would be out of prison. Life is not easy for these people even outside the prison walls, but I hope they have continued their practices and carried Yoga with them wherever they may be.
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Twenty years later, Isha now offers a 3-day program called Uyir Nokkam in prisons, as well as in businesses, communities, and many other venues. The first Uyir Nokkam prison class was held on June 15 this year for 91 prisoners – 80 were on remand and 11 were convicts. Even during this program, the class started each day with games at 7 am, prisoners missed their tea, and they shared the same expressions of suffering, intensity and transformation.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about the Isha Uyir Nokkam program.