VACAVILLE — The 24 men lay prone on the floor, quiet, unmoving, eyes closed.
“Once again, starting at the feet . . . make sure the feet are totally relaxed,” said Zack Pasillas, who led the atypical yoga class at California State Prison, Solano on Thursday. He took the mind-relaxation technique up the legs and into the hips and said, “Relax your arms and your hands. Finally, relax your face, the muscles around your eyes. Feel your entire body heavy on the mat.”
As the inmates focused, they were oblivious to the correctional officers’ large rings of jangling keys as they traversed the gym. They were also oblivious to the opening and shutting of one of the doors or the low murmurs from the other activities in the gym on the Level II side of the prison.
The noises, said Silas Robinson, 40, were easy to block out. He said the first time he did yoga, he could hear the people in the background but by the time Thursday rolled around, he was able to tap into the “that place of peace.”
Robinson is a yoga newbie, with Thursday his third time in the class – it meets three times a week with peer-led teachers and twice a month with Pasillas, one of the founders of the Yoga Seed Collective in Sacramento.
While yoga has been at the prison since 2011, Pasillas has been coming since November, replacing a former outside yoga instructor.
When Kim Young, the associate warden of the prison, broached the subject to other prison officials about having yoga classes, she said “they thought I’d lost my mind.” The program, along with several others, was introduced in an effort to “think outside the box” during the budget crisis.
Robinson said that Young recommended the class to him. He said he never saw himself in a yoga class, but said it’s given him peace and offered camaraderie – now that he’s debunked for himself a stereotypical view of the looks of an inmate doing time for a murder conviction.
“Hard criminals don’t do yoga,” he said of the stereotype.
Like Robinson, Jesse Candelaria, 34, was able to quickly identify what yoga does for him. For Candelaria, one of the peer inmate yoga leaders, it achieves mental clarity.
“When we all come here (to the gym), we’re all going into a good focus,” he said. “We can put away our stresses from in the prison.”
But the hour class is not all easy relaxation – as Robinson will attest, as he tried to stay balanced for five breaths in an arm-balanced pose that has the knees positioned on the elbows. The pose has several names: Kakasana, Bakasana or the crane or crow pose.
Robinson laughed a bit and smiled a lot as he attempted to stay balanced – Pasillas reminded everyone to keep breathing.
“It was foreign to me,” Robinson said of the pose. “By being so far out of my comfort zone, it was hard to hold that pose.”
Pasillas, whose Yoga Seed Collective does this on a volunteer outreach basis to several groups, including at Folsom State Prison, said that the mind aspect of yoga is more important than the physical in that it allows the inmates to learn relaxation techniques that enable them to curb impulsiveness.
“We’re here to provide . . . physical exercise but also mindfulness training so the same choices aren’t perpetuated,” he said.
Candelaria said yoga has taught him to think before acting.
“I can clear myself better,” he said. “I can center myself quicker now that I’ve been practicing this.”
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.