image from freerangestock.com
I hold my #PilatesInJail class on the upper level of the laundry area where the heat is intense and there is just enough room for about 6 yoga mats. The inmates say the thermostat must be broken because the furnace runs all the time and the pod (their living quarters) is really hot. I think the dryers downstairs must vent directly into this room. For exercise class, most of the women are allowed to wear shorts instead of the usual striped canvas pants. This is quite a luxury for them and they are keen to strip the stripes off as soon as we get upstairs.
Early in the class, seated on our mats, I ask them to sense their weight, to feel their right and left sitbones pressing evenly into the thick yoga mat. We are working on weight transfer in our more advanced exercises and it's helpful to start with the simple and symmetrical. Experienced Pilates and yoga students know that thoughtlessly flinging your weight from one leg or arm to the other will often land you in a humbled heap. But we have to start somewhere!
We take perhaps 30 seconds to balance the weight on our sitbones and I ask them how it feels.
"Grounded," Valerie replied. "Calmer."
This strikes me as an interesting place to take a right turn, so I do. I ask, "What do you hope to get out of participating in this class?"
"Peace." she replies. "To lower my stress."
"What will 'peace' feel like?" I push her a little to draw from her own experiences.
She is puzzled but game. A short conversation results in the students agreeing that peace can be described fairly clearly with "My chest won't be tight, I won't clench my jaw, and I'll be grounded."
So I ask the group: "Is your chest tight right now?"
"Are you clenching your jaw?"
"Yeah, maybe a little."
"Relax your jaw. Massage your jawline, use your thumbs to push into the soft tissue underneath." We massage our jawlines, pressing firmly up into the soft tissue below the tongue, palpating the thin delicate edge of the mandible, and take a few seconds to close our eyes and appreciate the results.
I take care to speak slowly, pausing when appropriate, as I guide them around the body.
"Sense your weight in your sitbones. The right sitbone has the same amount of pressure as the left sitbone. Feel the weight, you are grounded. You're not fighting against gravity, it supports you. Your jaw is relaxed. Your breath is soft and quiet."
I give them time to locate and identify each of these sensations before I bring them back into conversation.
"Valerie, would you say you feel peaceful right now?"
"Mmm. Yes." She certainly looks peaceful!
"How did you do that? What did you do to achieve your goal?" We recap the simple physical awareness exercises we have done so far and we discuss how simple they are. How little time they take. How easy to implement.
I am on a mission now. "Peace isn't something that's over there. It's not a goal that you have to go someplace to get. Being at peace has a physical component to it. It's not just a mental or emotional state. It also has a very clear physical aspect to it. For any person or animal at peace the jaw is relaxed, the breath is soft and quiet and they are in harmony with gravity. These are all things that you can create for yourself out of nothing. You don't have to travel anywhere, you don't even have to leave the pod. You don't have to solve all your problems. You can create it - instantly - by putting together the sensations of peace. Your reptilian brain doesn't care how these sensations of peace came about. All it knows is it is there."
You know what? I think she really really got it. The expression on her face is hard to describe, but if you're a movement instructor you'll know what I'm talking about. When you can provide a image that generates an authentic breakthrough moment for the student, you can feel it. I was moved by her reaction. She momentarily "walked" out of that jail and into the clear spring air, away from the smells and torrent of noise. Me and my little class sat on our mats, high up on a stifling concrete balcony and realized we can be set free by our minds just as completely as the inmates are imprisoned by the state.