1. How long have you been practicing yoga?

I have been practicing Yoga for 31 years.

2. How did you get involved with teaching yoga in the prison system, and is Riverbend the only prison where you teach your class?

I ran into Dixie Gamble at Wild Oats Market almost five years ago, and as we talked, she mentioned she was looking for a Yoga teacher for the men she had been doing meditation with at RMSI. I seemed like a likely candidate, and would I be interested? Almost without hesitation I said, sure. I knew Dixie, and I had also been part of a group form The Nashville Yoga Society to start a Yoga class at the Women’s prison 15 years ago, (which did not survive the fears that perhaps yoga was anti-Christian, which it is not) so I had had a taste. I started the next week. Riverbend is the only prison where I teach.

3. How do you personally define Yoga?

4. What is the goal of Yoga?

Yoga means ‘to yoke’. Oxen are brought together in a wooden brace to plow the field. They are separated, but walk in the same direction and on the same path. Jivamukti yoga teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life say the yoga practices are like the yoking mechanism; they put us on the path and direct us toward Spirit or God. When I experience myself as body-mind-spirit, I feel at one within myself, and I am at one with everything. This energy, which is me, is more than what my mind tells me I am. When I practice yoga through the breathing exercises, the asanas (physical poses), and meditation, I am attuning my whole being to the truth of who I am. Because I need the experience of feeling this inside me as real, I practice! Otherwise these are just thoughts, and not my real experience. One’s practice becomes a mirror for one’s life. One of the biggest gifts of yoga to me is the ability to pause before reacting to something. In that pause, that space, I can respond the way I truly wish to respond, not just knee jerk responses. I am using my personal power in the way I feel is best, and not letting the situation take me over, or take control. My own yogic goal is to maintain my body, mind and spirit in the healthiest way I can in order to experience the great gift of love within and without, and participate fully in this amazing and mysterious journey we call life. Yoga has become a way of living for me. I started teaching a yoga class 24 years ago in order to keep myself engaged in the physical practice of yoga, and because I have always learned most about what I am teaching. I’m alive to it, constantly balancing out my reading, study and workshops with actual experiences, and engaging with other seekers and learners who have caught the fire of this venture. This gift of Yoga sustains and restores me to keep moving toward the offering of life as it is. When I am receptive, the blessings appear. I awake breathing consciously, and sleep at peace.

5. What should an individual be expecting when they come to a Yoga class?

Hopefully a person comes to a yoga class as they are. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, talks a lot about starting where we are. That’s a good place to start. No pretenses, no expectations, just being ourself, as we are, and not trying to change that, or pretend we are not feeling a certain way, or having the thoughts we are thinking. Though one may be struggling with something within, the class atmosphere should be one of acceptance.

In a yoga class one can expect to learn how to breathe consciously and fully. This alone is a major event for most people. We can change how we feel through breathing well. Tension and stress inhibit breathing. Rediscovering the power and wellbeing that good breathing brings is exciting. Doing the yoga postures, which include gently twisting the spine, forward and backward bending, strong standing poses and inversions (headstands, shoulder stands) in a class, will increase flexibility and strengthen the systems of the body to perform at top level. The mind will grow calmer during the class, and become as peaceful as the body at the end of class. Lying still in Savasana (corpse pose) heals and restores one’s being.

6. Is Yoga considered to be a religion?

Yoga is not a religion. The practices of Yoga are not at odds with any religion, and can enrich anyone’s own relationship to their chosen religion.

7. What does “Namaste” mean?

Namaste is a greeting. It means the spirit in me honors the spirit in you. In more detail: I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are one.

8. In your opinion, how has Yoga helped the prisoners participating in your class?

I sense that the guys who have done yoga for awhile, become more aware of their bodies as housing and supporting this life-energy and the spirit within. They begin to feel more contentment inside, as they see through the limitations imposed by the conditioning of early childhood and society. I believe they begin to experience the relief that comes when fears are dropped, and they can feel their own power and potential in non-aggressive and wiser ways. They learn to build strength in the body, but also flexibility, and this carries over into the mind. They learn to be still (a hard one for most of us), to receive, to appreciate, and accept their own uniqueness, and in Bo Lozoff’s wisdom, they know their life in prison can be as in an Ashram (like a monastery or place of retreat) or feeling like a victim, imprisoned. They HAVE a choice. I have seen evidence of this choice in the class. Several of the men have taken this opportunity, manifesting an outstanding connection to and realization of yoga. I sense also that many have from time to time, or even most of the time in class experienced a presence inside and out that felt truly peaceful and loving. Erich Schiffmann, author of Yoga, The Spirit and Practice Of Moving Into Stillness, and a teacher to me for 28 years says, “Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are.” Yoga includes the body and its mechanism of breathing as central and vital in the journey toward wholeness and the journey toward being. Practicing breathing, meditation and yoga postures (asanas) becomes not just another task to accomplish, but an alive engagement with one’s life force in fostering harmony, peace and vitality within. Consequently, one beams this out to the world. A yoga class can be a place where healing takes place on all levels of a person. When old ways of how to use one’s power in the world, how to be and treat others in relationships are not working, the offerings in a yoga class can start one moving in a new direction. With patience, an open mind, and bringing one’s body to a yoga mat, one can sense a change within that feels like fresh air moving through.

9. What are the benefits of yoga?

The path of Yoga, union with all that is, and realizing this inside oneself is the greatest benefit. It is what one is truly seeking. Eckhart Tolle, writer of A New Earth, experienced this in a short amount of time, and has shared his wisdom through his books. All of us are working with ourselves throughout our lifetime. We come to appreciate the insights, changed attitudes, and ways of being in the world, relating to loved ones, friends and strangers, without judgment, that allows us to be happier, freer, and more deeply contented. Our work is discovering our own resistances, and taking the small steps toward wholeness.

Doing the yoga postures on a regular basis, steps up all of the body systems. We feel better! We feel calmer! We are more relaxed and easier in our day to day life. We may even give up coffee, or cigarettes, or Cokes in order to give the adrenal glands a chance to rest and help build the immune system.

A consistent yoga practice, in many cases, can help prevent Heart Disease, Osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, Diabetes Type ll; the list is very long! Correcting and alleviating back problems through practicing the poses, has been a gift to me.

10. Yoga is described in eight stages: yama (restraint). niyama (observance). Asana (sea), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana,(holding on), dhyana (concentrated meditation), and Samadhi (self-collectedness), which of these stages is the hardest to practice, and why?

Patanjali, considered to be the father of Yoga (300 BC) codified the keys to happiness in the form of the Yoga Sutras. He said there are five obstacles keeping us from experiencing bliss. These are referred to as the five kleshas.

  1. avidya: ignorance or unreal cognition
  2. asmita : egoism
  3. raga: excessive attachment to pleasurable things
  4. dvesa: excessive aversion, hatred
  5. abhinivesha: fear of death

Patanjali recommended the eight-limbed system of yoga called Ashtanga or Raja Yoga. Each limb of the tree of Raja yoga represents a purifying yoga practice.

The first seven are achieved through effort; the last, through grace.

  1. yama: restraint or abstinence
  2. niyama: observance
  3. asana: posture, seat
  4. pranayama: restraint or control of the life force
  5. pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
  6. dharana: concentration
  7. dhyana: meditation
  8. samadhi: superconscious bliss

Willingness to try something will overcome perceived difficulties. Yoga is not about turning yourself into a pretzel. Each individual finds the way to do the practices best for that person. If there is a real desire to work daily with the Yoga Sutras, I highly recommend Judith Lasater’s, Living Your Yoga.

11. Yoga is based on the philosophy of Samkhya with the exception of Yoga assuming the existence of God.
How does this existence of God compare to the Christian existence of God?

The following is clarified in talking with Zo Newell, friend and religious scholar at VU Divinity School. Samkhaya is a very ancient dualistic philosophy. We have the false belief that consciousness is matter. Matter happens on its own. We suffer because we think we are our bodies. I’m truly pure consciousness. Patanjali takes this for granted. The Sutras equal Samkhaya, one of the philosophical schools in India. Patanjali introduces Ishvara, the Lord. This special state of consciousness is called Purusha. Each of us is a little consciousness, a special state, our true nature, which is inside. Patanjali says to follow the eight limbs or surrender to Ishvara, this special kind of Purusha which always existed and is always free.

Ishvara is not a creator God, It’s not exclusive or loaded with moral values. It’s more like “inner wisdom” or a “higher power”. Ishvara is like higher power. It’s not a personal God whom we worship like the Christian God. It’s more like a spiritual force. If you look within, you’re already free and whole. You’re only caught in the belief that you’re not.

12. Laughing Yoga, what is it and how is it different from a regular Yoga class?

Dr. Madan Kataria an Indian Doctor and student of yoga was writing a paper for a medical Journal titled “Laughter Is The Best Medicine”. The experience of laughing a lot, brings the same benefits as doing yoga postures and breathing. Discovering that the body does not know the difference between fake or spontaneous laughter, a small group assembled in a park in India to tell jokes and laugh. The jokes fell along the way, and spontaneous ways to get folks laughing arose. Today, thanks to Dr. Kataria, thousands of people around the world enjoy the benefits of a daily dose of laughter at 6,000 Laughter Clubs in 60 countries. Laughing upon waking for a short while will change how you enter your day.

13. Are there any gems of wisdom you would like to share?

Whatever your life journey, it is incredible. Life is very short. Life is a gift...we did not create ourselves. You might just possibly not be who you think you are. Let something unexpected speak to you. Listen to your heart. In every minute you can choose life or cling to your resistances. In the poem “Regrets” by Lucius DuBose, he ends with these words: “...What I would change is, once invited to the dance, I did not go.” May this not be you.

Blessings, Namaste, Julie