Just Breathe

Gregory Headley, Contributing Writer

On a Tuesday in early March, 11 men dressed in T-shirts and sweatpants or shorts assembled in the gymnasium of the Wallkill Correctional Facility. It was 8:55 a.m. Another five minutes and they’d be standing in the warrior pose.

“I am safe. I am happy. I am healthy,” they would say. “May I have a life of peace.”

But not just yet.

“A-B 3, this is a fire drill!” a voice called out from the PA system. “Please evacuate the unit and file into the gym.”  

The unit officer then followed suit.

“Everybody off the unit and into the gym,” he said, sounding a little like Roscoe P. Coltraine from “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

One of the would-be yogis wore a look of extreme disappointment on his face as the other inmates filed in. “How the hell am I supposed to act tough,” he asked, “after my unit sees me stretching like a girl?”

Ignoring the interruption and the rare presence of an audience, the instructor began the class.

“Please take a mat, everyone, and find a space.” His calm, deep voice gave him the air of a cruise ship captain. About 50 years old, he looked like the silver-haired version of Bernie Lomax from the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s,” but healthier.

By now, the gym was filled with around 30 prisoners men convicted of god knows what.

“Go ahead, sweetheart,” one jeered. “Stretch it out.”

“Yo son, you look like a beached whale,” another said, motioning toward a short, heavy-set yogi.

“Ignore them,” the instructor said. “They are not here. You are in your time, in your space.”

It sounded as if he were trying to convince himself as much as his students, who meanwhile tried to focus on their side stretches.

“Yo, I thought you was a thug,” one critic yelled out with a laugh. “Thugs don’t do yoga!”

The yogi in question shot him a look.

“Focus,” the instructor continued. “Breathe in one breath and count to five.” The group inhaled as the instructor counted down in his usual monotone.

“Exhale,” the group replied in unison, “One… two… three… four… five…”

“That your phone number, baby girl?” a heckler yelled. Another would-be taunter stepped closer to the group and watched attentively, studying a look of stress and intrigue on his face. He said nothing.

The instructor balanced on his forearms, holding his body upright, feet to the sky.

“Oh, so now you showing off,” another onlooker said. The instructor ignored him and, seemingly without effort, moved his body side-to-side then front-to-back. “It’s all in the core,” he said.  

Shortly after this show of inner strength and patience, the instructor turned to the crowd. “Please, can you keep it down?” he urged. “I am not telling you. I am asking you. Of course, you can do as you wish.”

Amazingly, the crowd grew silent. The yoga group went into the dead man’s pose, lying flat on their backs, eyes closed.

“May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I have a life of peace,” they chanted in unison, repeating the words 10 times.

Eyes began to open. The instructor dismissed the group. In the meantime, the emergency drill was over, and the crowd had gone back to its unit. When the yoga group reconvened for its next session a few days later, the number had increased by two former hecklers.


Read more from The Wallkill Journal’s April 30 issue here.

Email Gregory Headley at [email protected].