Nuggets From James Fox's Call

Posted by Pavi Mehta on Apr 28, 2019
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This week's riveting Awakin Call was beautifully moderated by past Awakin Call guest and co-creator of Buddhas on Death Row, Maria Jain.

We'll post the audio of the call soon, but for now we've posted our extended notes that will give you a flavor of the stories and insights.

By way of brief intro to James Fox: he is the founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, an organization dedicated to establishing yoga and mindfulness programs in prisons and rehabilitation centers worldwide. Since 2002, he has been teaching yoga and meditation to prisoners at San Quentin Prison as well as other California State prisons. His book, Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery (2010), has been requested by and sent free of charge to over 30,000 prisoners. He has trained more than 2,000 teachers and his program has been replicated in more than 350 jails, prisons and rehabilitation facilities in 28 states and globally. In 2015, he was honored by Yoga Journal with a Karma Yoga Award. In addition to his yoga experience James has a background in restorative justice principles and practices, and has taught victim/offender, violence prevention and emotional literacy courses for prisoners.

Can you share a bit about your practice?
Normally I wake up and spend at least a half hour sitting. Then I teach at least twice a week at San Quentin. And the teaching is traditional yoga so we do asana as well as meditation and mindfulness practice. More of my personal practice is focused on the contemplative aspects of yoga and trying to live yoga -- and to actually not talk about it a lot. When we were going over the Yamas and Niyamas in class one of my students asked if I always lived like that and I said, “You know what? No. There are times when I fall short and when I realize that I have I recommit myself.” I am hoping for a greater state of awareness so that when we realize our conduct is not skillful, or our level of awareness is not what we would like it to be, then we can make the change and rededicate ourselves to that kind of lifestyle.

First encounter with Yoga
I came in contact with it because I was living in SF and had friends who were practicing. I was a runner at the time and developed a pinched nerve in my back. My friends urged me to try yoga. This was in the 80s and I had the typical male athlete response, “Yoga? You've got to be kidding me. Yoga is for women.” I had to suffer enough to come around.

I already had a mindfulness and meditation practice. Steven Levine was my first teacher and I did retreats with him and Ondrea. The very first time I practiced yoga I saw, “Oh this is a mindfulness practice. It is allowing me the opportunity to pay close attention to my moment-to-moment experience and to work with non-judgment with how I feel in this moment.”

Early years
I pretty much practiced Iyengar yoga the first few years of my practice. I got the structure and form down and then started traveling to Bolder CO and got exposed to Richard Freeman's teacher's there in Ashtanga and after that it became a real mix of different styles and different meditation practices.

There was always a voice in me from a very early age urging me to be of service. I was well educated I have a Masters in International Affairs and I took that route and within a few years there was still a feeling of emptiness. Yet I didn't really clearly identify it. Then I had the opportunity to go into the wine business and I moved to CA and over a short period became a marketing executive and it was a lot of fun. In the beginning I thought, “Wow this is great!” But there was still this voice that said, “What about your deep desire to be of service?”

My yoga and mindfulness practice was taking me deeper into myself and it felt like I was living a split life. And I thought, “This is out of alignment.” There was a desire to bring my work and heart together.

Yoga and the Connection to the Body

Yoga gives us the ability to maintain more of a connection with bodily sensations. This capacity doesn't come from the mind or the brain -- that takes us out of intuition. It's retraining us in a particular kind of way to be more instinctual. There's a great expression that prisoners use when they see someone caught up in mind chatter, they say, "Man you're tripping!" Most of us are mind-tripping most of the time. We lose connection with our bodies.

So noticing when you're tripping. Bringing yourself back into your body, realizing there's nothing to do in this moment but to live in this body, take this breath, feel this moment, and ‘hit the pause button’ (a terrific phrase my students use) and recalibrate your autonomic nervous system, and let that become a habit rather than the habit of, “Oh I've got too much to do. I am stressed. I am busy.” And then your life becomes this path of awakening and staying awake.

Keeping the Practice Practical in Prison

For all of us doing this work and bringing yoga into prisons and bringing yoga to people who haven't been exposed to it and are struggling with trauma, it's important that we keep the practice practical and that we are able to communicate in a way that connects the relevance of the practice to their life. You can start with stress and anxiety as precursors to addressing trauma-- if you're struggling with addiction, this is a practice that can provide you with some tools to help regulate yourself and perhaps give you some piece of mind or moments of piece of mind.

I’ll often ask, “How many of you experience stress and anxiety?” It's pretty universal that people will raise their hands. Then I take a practical approach to defining yoga as union or balance and, then I ask, “Union or balance of what?” And almost always someone will shout out, “Mind body and spirit.” And I will say, “I can talk about mind and body but I can't speak to spirit. That's your business. What I can talk about is mind, heart and body and I can talk about that because there is so much evidence.”

There is so much evidence on the mental emotional and physical benefits of this practice. Most of us are out of balance on the mental aspect of ourselves.

The Components of the Practice

There are four main parts of the practice that I teach:

Centering, we learn how to center ourselves. How do we center ourselves when the emotional storms of our lives? We blow with the wind if we don't have centering practices. Conscious breathing, we talk about using breathing as a way to calm ourselves when we need to. Movements, we use specific movement to discharge a lot of the stress and anxiety we hold. And finally we engage in deep relaxation -- not just shavasana deep relaxation is an integral part of yoga. Particularly for people with trauma who have issues of hyper vigilance etc.

The Importance of Creating Safe Space

We definitely are creating a safe space. Sometimes the guys will even describe it as sacred space. A lot of it has to do with our own presence as the leader of the class but at the same time as a participant in a class. A lot of this has to do with a clear understanding of the difference between serving and helping. We aren't there to help. We're there to meet people where they are. So authentically modeling that as a leader. I also talk a lot about how we are creating sangha. This develops organically. I don’t bring it up in the first class. I want them to have an experience and their own feelings about how yoga is impacting them, but eventually I talk about what makes a sangha different from other communities is that members of the sangha are interested in each others' highest good. That's our main interest

There is not a lot of focus on personalities and persona--thank goodness. So being able to verbalize that and put that out. Prisons are notorious for racial disparity. It's not that I consciously address that, but when you're putting out these experiences you're appealing to each person's basic goodness. And you're building that muscle.

One of the places I teach is in the Muslim/Jewish chapel in San Quentin. And the other place is in a classroom that is kind of deep in the prison on the opposite end of the main yard and it is a small room. Hollywood couldn't envision a better prison yoga shala. Concrete cracked floors and all, but it is private. And we are there on our own, able to practice privately and really create that space for ourselves.
It is on us to create as safe a space as possible. How we set the room up, setting up in circle rather than rows for instance. Everything from the language we use to how we conduct the class is geared to create safe space and to deal with issues that come up. The beauty of a yoga practice as opposed to groups that use talk as their main modality -- we are using embodiment as a way of dealing and discharging those issues. If people have emotional releases it's usually after the class.

It's typical for students of mine to come back a week later and share a revelation. It's rare that it happens in the class itself. The beauty is that most of what we do through movement -- it's movement therapy rather than talk therapy. And the wisdom of the body takes over. Acknowledging the wisdom of the body -- ven der Kolk's great book that I consider the textbook on trauma – “The Body Keeps the Score” comes to mind, the body keeps the score on storing as well as releasing trauma if you give it the appropriate opportunity.

First Experience Teaching at San Quentin

The first time I went into San Quentin and was buzzed through a gate -- I heard whistles and catcalls, “What is that under your arm sweetheart? A yoga mat?”

I had no idea who was going to show up to the yoga class, this was in a unit that had dorms, and we'd put up posters announcing the class. The guys who showed up were the bravest guys in SQ who were brave enough to stand up to prison politics.

Afterwards one of them came up and reported, “I had the best night's sleep after that class last week.” It starts with things like that. They realize the relaxation effect. The next thing that you hear about is a release from chronic pain. That happens quite quickly, within a couple classes, and then the longer they practice you start going into the emotional and psychological issues.

Everything spreads by word of mouth. Those five guys told others and within a very short time in my memory the class grew to 10 or 12 and it was challenging to keep up a level of students who were coming week in and week out.

One of the things I realized was that a lot of prisoners don't have really good habits in terms of dedicating themselves to a practice so it took some time for that to establish itself and for those students to come on a regular basis.

What I would say is probably within the first year the class was firmly established with the participants. The staff was a different issue (prison staff-- the guards the sergeants who run the day to day). It was much more foreign to them to have a guy come in to teach yoga 18 years ago, it wasn't like I was welcomed with open arms. It took years for the yoga classes to be accepted and better understood as it is today. The feedback that I get now from teachers around the country is the custody staff can see the impact on the prisoners.


The Challenge of Working with the System

There's a need for this work but still a lot of convincing that needs to be done at the systems and administration level.

Although yoga has become more popular with the public it's not like you've got these administrators making decisions, who really understand the rehabilitative value of yoga. If they haven't experienced it they typically have a misperception about yoga--pretty women in fancy clothes doing yoga in a studio with candles and so on. They don't understand what a powerful practical adjunct to their other programs yoga is.

The somatic work of yoga is complementary to any cognitive work being offered in a prison setting

We get the feedback from people in the cognitive behavior classes who are also in the yoga classes, and they will say everything comes together in my yoga class, everything I'm learning in the violence prevention class or victim offender class it comes clear in yoga. That points to the value of embodiment therapy.

There’s a much greater understanding in the UK and Scandinavia then there is in the US (from the administrative perspective) of yoga as a rehabilitative practice.

San Quentin is an anomaly in that there is a whole lot of progressive rehabilitative work being done there.

Yoga and the Approach of Restorative Justice

When I went into San Quentin-- Jacques Verduin who set up the Insight Prison Project he's the one who asked me to come in. And over the years that I was with them, it grew the violence prevention and victim offenders program. I became trained as a facilitator of those programs and you could say they were under the umbrella of restorative justice. It's an old and you could say indigenous practice.

Our system of justice here and in most of the world is retributive justice. It's related to punishment and the crime is against the state. Restorative justice looks at an offence against people and the focus is not punishment, but what can we do to address the harm that's been caused, whether its holding circles, and the pinnacle of that would be to bring offenders not necessarily together, but to bridge the relationship between offenders and victims

So this is the kind of work I was involved with where we ran these year long victim offender groups. And with prisoners this is about understanding the harm that they caused so they get that what they did was harm someone and their family and their community, and they also get that, “I harmed myself, and my family, and my community.” And ideally this is not just an individual responsibility this is a societal responsibility.

If we look at restorative justice we look at it from a society standpoint. How is society contributing to the harm being caused.

What does yoga have to do with this? The way I look at it, first of all in practicing yoga and these embodiment skills you are becoming more sensitive to yourself. I ask how many of you yoga teachers have become more sensitive to yourself after practicing? It's universal. If that can happen that can lead to empathy for other people and developing that path of empathy really leads to fully understanding the harm that I caused with my words and actions. Again, this is all of us---to varying degrees of seriousness but it is all of us.

Yoga After Release from Prison
Many of the men I've worked with (prisoners serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole) are being released now. The recidivism is 1.3% vs 65-70% for the rest of the prison population. It's a dramatic difference.

Many of them get in touch with me after release -- I don't chase them down, if they want to get in touch they call me. And some of them -- a minority continue to go to studios and continue yoga. But Asana practice is one of the 8 limbs. Do they all enroll in studios? No. They have to have a place to live, find a job, reunite with family - how much time do they have for a yoga class and would they feel comfortable there?

More importantly what did they learn that they take into their lives, and its a universal response, the things I learned helped me with impulse control with extreme stress with reuniting with family, more stress in reentering society than in prison. So the centering practices, conscious breathing practices are what I get the most feedback about.

I have one student who now works with the public defenders office in SF, one who works with parolees. This is kind of common, this is where these guys have the greatest skills, and we’re fortunate in the Bay Area that these kind of job opportunities exist for them.

Formative childhood experiences

James grew up in an Irish-italian area of Chicago, grew up Catholic. His earliest moment of awakening was as an altar boy at age 11 or so. Most of the mass was in Latin at the time, and he had to learn some of the prayers in Latin. He got up to serve 6:30 am mass. The altar was marble, he would be kneeling on the steps serving mass and saying prayers.

He had a moment of experiencing samadhi - really feeling the union with the divine. The feeling of connection. Growing up, his parents' influence was do unto others as you would do to yourself - they really modeled kindness and equality in James' family. That was an influence.

Another cultural influence was violence and addiction in the community he lived in. And it was pretty much accepted. This motivated James, he realized that had he been exposed to practices like yoga, it would have helped him navigate some of the difficulties and the anger issues he brought into adulthood. Yoga really helped.


You've been enabling teacher trainings for others to be able to carry on this work. For people who may have grown up in a more sheltered environment, do they have a role to play in this work or would they not have the credibility to hold space?

I think it would be more challenging. It is easier to emphasize if you've had similar experiences. There is a lot of work that needs to be done on cultural competency for all of us coming from privileged backgrounds, and the various levels of privilege. Working in an environment that's mostly POC - it is a lot of personal work that needs to be done. I am challenged to stay current with it myself. To stay awake to understanding what I don't know.


How do you model vulnerability as a strength?

By being real. By being myself and in certain instances sharing aspects of my own path and how I became more vulnerable and understood what a strength it is. By teaching yoga in a way that, it's such a balance to teach yoga in a way that it’s a strong practice and at the same time you're developing self-sensitive skills. One of my favorite practices in asana is effortless effort, engaging fully in physical effort while finding internal balance of dropping into internal effortlessness while the body is putting forward effort.

Finding balance between effort and effortlessness---you can definitely draw upon when you're outside of the class. You're very vulnerable if you're constantly efforting and can't find a way to back off when you need to - you're still susceptible to reactivity. Effortlessness is a super strength. This is also very martial - I am very interested in Taoism and diving into the balance of yang and yin, how do you counter and intervene habitual reactive behavior.

Participants find their own level of vulnerability. If I'm able to guide them into that space, if I'm able to expose them to these tools, the rest us up to them, how they embrace it.

Wondering if you might know if similar programs are being offered to soldiers returning home with PTSD?

There are lots of programs for veterans. Mindful Yoga Therapy is a great program. Veterans' Yoga Project. Exalted Warriors... Google yoga programs for veterans. I did some studying about that because I was very interested if prisoners face the same level of trauma as returning combat veterans.

Consider a prisoner who is a gangbanger who had to be involved in very violent acts. About 10 % of men incarcerated in the US are veterans who have a hard time reintegrating and end up in criminal activity. I came to the conclusion that while there are separate issues to this, the brain is impacted by trauma. Not traumatic brain injury but psychological impacts of trauma. If you took someone's life in the streets or in Iraq, the brain gets "I'm impacted by trauma, I cannot sleep, I cannot regulate my responses." There is similarity in the effects of trauma endured.


Do you work with teens who are not in prison but at risk of? With your own practice, if you have a spare hour, what do you do for the fun of it?

Unfortunately I don't have the time to work with at risk teens. We have programs but I don't do that work. There are plenty of orgs doing a lot of good work, going into schools, urban areas.

When I have an hour to myself, I usually engage with nature. I'm lucky to live close to nature, and my wife is an avid gardener and it's great therapy for me to get lost in a project in the garden or move dirt around. Being immersed in nature. And I really like the bike rides - that's a regular practice of mine.

What breaks your heart James, and what is your strength?

That’s a beautiful question. It's interesting because I say this in teacher trainings: if you're doing this work, it's important you're prepared to have your heart broken over and over again. And how do you rebound and deal with a broken heart. This is not about armoring yourself. Working in prisons, hearing the stories and witnessing some of the indifference to suffering, it definitely breaks your heart. I have found it's very important to go back to those moments, to feel it. Feel the sadness, the grief of that situation. And then to be able to move on. I think that is the practice of building resilience.

I think you're also talking about secondary, vicarious trauma that you may take on because of the work you do. Yoga allows you to discharge the anxiety and trauma you take on. So it is a combination of allowing yourself to feel, to have a broken heart, and dedicating yourself to your practice. And reaching out to your allies. I've got my allies and they are people who also are doing work in prison. When something is overwhelming, I reach out.

What is your growing edge now and what is the program in the horizon?

The growing edge is - since the beginning of this year the Prison Yoga Project has a new ED Bill Brown. He is taking us to the next level with management systems and developing systems to help with our revenue generation because that is a big need.

As we build capacity to meet the demand that is being presented to us - the opportunities and requests we receive from various institutions and different parts of the county. There’s always that edge of raising funds and being very quality focused. We do not need to be bigger, we need to focus on the quality of what we do. Doing things like additional training with our teachers--that keeps us evolving and current around issues of cultural competency, trauma and other issues that impact us.

A personal edge for me is extracting myself from the day-to-day. There was a time when we were sending books - by now we've sent 30,000 - I packed them and mailed them out myself. Now I'm pulling back and focusing more on being an advocate. I'll always teach the classes but I'm not as engaged in the day-to-day anymore.

What can we as the extended community do to help support and further your vision in the world?

Hold us in the light. Pray for us if prayer is what you do. Pray not only for those whom we serve, but colleagues and organizations around the country addressing these issues. If you have the means to support us financially, please support us. If you're interested in our trainings, even if you're not interested in going to work in prisons, you will find them of value to your own practice and teaching. And just gratefulness for being on the path with us.

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