Sometimes simple things can have profound impact.
When one of Allie Chisholm-Smith’s clients at Ahimsa yoga studio asked to purchase eye pillows—small fabric bags filled with flaxseed—for use with inmates at Beaver Creek Institution in Gravenhurst, Chisholm-Smith not only offered to donate them, she asked if she could do a yoga workshop with the men as well.
It’s as though things have come full circle for her.
It’s been 25 years since Chisholm-Smith studied community justice. “I’ve always been interested in how to make that offender cycle change,” she says. “The offender cycle is that you just always think you’re doing wrong. So then you start to do wrong to affirm it. There’s this really powerful place where you can dip in and start to release some of those stories and maybe find out that you’re not actually all bad.”
She decided that working in the justice system wasn’t for her, and soon after began studying and teaching yoga, but she has never let go of that early passion. And she sees daily how yoga practices can help people to relax and to release their negative self-talk.
Eye pillows “totally relax the optic nerve because they’re creating complete darkness, and they slow your heart rate down and they calm your nervous system. Just the weight on your eyelids and your brow apparently does that,” says Chisholm-Smith. “I figure if we can get [the inmates] breathing, because that changes your mind entirely, and then working with their bodies in a kinder way than just straight weightlifting or boxing or whatever they’re doing, then it can create maybe a little bit more peace in their tissue.”
She’s still waiting to hear if her request to run a workshop at Beaver Creek will be approved, but if it is, and it goes well, she hopes to be able to do more.
“Yoga’s goal is freedom and it’s to find freedom no matter where you are,” she explains. “It’s not, ‘Oh look, everything’s peaceful, now I feel peaceful,’ it’s how do you feel peace in the middle of craziness. So if those guys can feel a shred of that while they’re in there, a shred of their own responsibility for themselves, how great would that be? And then we can stop that intergenerational cycle because it just goes on and on.”
She recalls a time, years ago, when she worked with the Elizabeth Fry Society, an organization that works with women and girls in the justice system, that illustrated how seemingly small things can make a difference in a life. “We did this program called Women Growing and we went to offices and watered spider plants. [I thought] how is this at all helpful? And I happened to be matched with an Indigenous woman and I remember one morning she said, ‘Yeah, my best friend was found in the park this weekend chopped up in garbage bags,’ so she’s carrying those kinds of stories around, and I said to her, ‘What do you get from this [watering plants]?’ And she said ‘I’m helping something grow. Do you have any idea how cool that is for me, how affirming it is for me?’ So you can’t under-rate those moments where someone feels like maybe they have a shred of decency after all, then they can do good things in the world.”
A prison doesn’t have to be physical, she notes. “When I did that studying at York, it was about how our own self-talk puts us into our own kind of prisons and if we can change that internalized oppression that we carry…and start to see ourselves in a different light, we will treat each other better as well and treat the earth better.”
She sees it in the classes she teaches, as well. “Even 50-year-old women come in here with their shoulders so incredibly tight they can barely breathe, and then if we start doing mantras like I am enough, I’ve done enough, the tears start to flow. We all need to hear it, right?”
And she hopes to reach the inmates in a similar way. “I just think that we need to know there’s huge potential [in everyone]. Don’t discount somebody. No one’s ever done.”
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