As I gathered the pieces of my fragmented memory, evidence was revealed to me that I had been beaten senselessly and thrown through a glass-top table...all in the attempt of trying to leave an abusive relationship. My jaw was broken in three places. I had countless cut, bruises, contusions, and swelling in my brain. The man who assaulted me was also my son's karate sensei. He had infiltrated my home, my work, and all of my relations. I went from a strong, smart, independent woman, to a shell of a human being.
My recovery has been long and arduous, but strangely worth all the suffering. From that experience, I was able to utilize my testimony for advocacy. I developed programs, ran hotlines, and hosted events to raise education, awareness, and financing in the campaign against domestic violence. I published articles, books, and hosted events on local television and radio. I learned and taught self defense courses, mixed martial arts, and boxing. Yet, regardless of all that work and measurable healing, I have still battled for years with PTSD.
PTSD is so much different than general anxiety. PTSD takes a low level anxiety to an unbearable/unmanageable state. A trigger can make me tremble and shake, hyper ventilate, scream, cry, vomit, and be filled with fear for my life however irrational my fears may be. I may even know I have lost control but cannot stop the descent while its happening. While all my "fighting back" in form of extreme physical fitness, self-defense, and boxing temporarily empowered me...it never gave me peace. I was always on guard and amplified. It is yoga that helps me attain peace inside where my triggers begin to subside. Yoga helps me to see that I have nothing left to prove. I am safe. I am free.
Kory has witnessed my "exorcisms" on my mat many times over the past two years of my practicing. I have come a long, long way. Inversions and heart openers are the hardest for me. They leave me vulnerable and I sweat profusely. My nervous system shatters under the pressure of my PTSD. I tremble, shake, and sob sometimes uncontrollably. But Ashtanga takes me as I am. It waits for my body to cooperate with me. This is my self-study. I knew I was in for a long road ahead when Kory gifted me with Pincha Mayurasana (peacock pose) in the Ashtanga Second Series. Pincha Mayurasana is an inversion which the body bows back like a feather in the breeze. For me, this is an unstable/unsafe/vulnerable expression for me. I am always wary of anything where I could be flipped over and smash my face or my neck. I protect myself from reliving the event of being thrown through glass, which is what these poses trigger in me.
How serendipitous that Kory arranged for Tim Feldman to visit our shala and yoga community. I knew I must meet the man that inspired me to become an ashtangi. I can barely convey the meaning and the healing that came through Tim Feldman the very first day of his stay. When I got to Pincha Mayurasana, I started trembling. I shared with Tim in brief my story. The compassion and tenderness he took to guide me is one I will never forget, that I believe washed away 14 years of trauma and anxiety.
First, Tim reminded me that I needed to find the "Leila" in my asana. I knew what he meant. "Leila" in Hindu culture means, "divine play." I needed to let in the playfulness of the pose. I need to be light and free. So funny, as I say this to my students regularly, and I can apply it, with exception to my PTSD. I needed to hear it. To be given permission to use my own medicine and to honor the essence of my own name. I was not even to attempt completing the pose. I was to let the pose breathe to find its sweet center of balancing.
After playing for some time, Time stood in front of me, he guided my legs overhead and into a fall. He was teaching me how to fall to take the fear of it away. He made me do this...over, and over, and over again. But here's the magic of it: Every time I rolled up Tim was standing in front of me with an outstretched hand to pull me into the light. Over and over we did this until my trembling stopped and falling became as free as the pose was supposed to be.
You see...Tim was reprogramming my memory. In Sanskrit, this is known as a Samskara- a pattern of thought that is carved into the psyche initiated by memory (in this case, trauma), which influences your current reality. A good example, is someone who has been bit by a snake. A coiled rope in the road, or a water hose in the yard could trigger an irrational reaction based on the imprint of previous experience. Until the person learns to create new and positive images and associations, they will be subject to reliving that traumatic moment in history.
Tim explained that this samskara was like a knot in my brain. Every time he held out his hand and helped me up from the fall, he was helping me form a new association and memory. No longer was a I afraid to fall and rise from the dark tunnel to the horrifying reflection of my battered face staring back at me. Every time I flipped it was like a waterwheel washing over my brain and smoothing over the deep trenches of the loop that for 14 years had been playing. Now I fall, and I see an outstretched hand in front of me, leading me back to the light, back to the present, back to reality.
To the powers that be at Yoga Alliance that say we cannot use the word "therapy" in our yoga teaching, I strongly disagree. Yoga has been the most liberating therapeutic work I have ever received. In 10 minutes, I was able to reverse 14 years of fear and suffering. I have witnessed too many stories over the years to feel any differently. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. If you are a survivor of domestic violence, there is hope and there is healing. Click the resource, or contact me personally. I am here. I am listening.
When I first started writing you this letter, I had no idea where you were. Last I heard from you, you had been accepted for a transfer from the Federal prison in Lompoc, CA to "final destination unknown" on the East Coast. Prison transfers are a heavily secured process. Neither inmate or family are informed of the final destination until the prisoner's transfer is complete.
The first time I went through this in September of 2016 when you were sentenced- I had no idea where you were for over a month. I will never forget how terrifying it was to have you taken away...just like that. As a mother, to be denied access to any knowledge of your child's whereabouts and well-being is the worst kind of grief. I cannot imagine how frightening that first transfer was for you at such a young age, having had no criminal record to make sense of this new life behind bars.
Over the past couple years since your incarceration we have gone through so many stages of grief and loss. I have come to learn that there are many things that go on behind bars that you will never be able to share with me. Things that you wouldn't dare share with me at risk of your own safety. You have had to learn entirely new survival skills upon being inducted to prison life. The Federal system that governs the external laws of crime, punishment, time served, and basic provisions. But there is also the inmate populace that governs internal politics, segregated and run by gangs subject to their own code of ethics, rights, and responsibilities.
I've gone through the shock and denial; the bargaining with God and the institution that holds you thinking I could summon the magic as a mother to have you set free. Couldn't I just talk to someone to reverse this terrible misunderstanding? Couldn't my own good deeds supersede? What was my worth as a person if I could not save you? You see, the Federal system has no leniency. Even to dispute your sentence can set you at risk of added time or consequence of mistreatment within your facility.
I've had to come to terms with my own powerlessness- not just to reverse time, but that I am powerless over the fact that the punishment doesn't fit the crime. I suffer knowing the horror that you are convicted amongst child rapists, pedophiles, drug lords, and violent criminals. I struggle to understand the sense of it...knowing you were the youngest inmate there with the least record. I have suffered witnessing changes in you that you have adopted in order to survive. I have vacillated between being too hopeful and not enough; too involved and not enough; too parental and not enough. I am so sorry for all the ways I have fallen short in trying to navigate these uncharted waters.
I fell hard and picked myself back up again many times since your incarceration vacillating between magical thinking that I could get you out, and then shaken awake to my own powerlessness to save you. My powerlessness to save you only made me spiral all the more. In kicked the guilt and shame. All of this must have been my fault. I made you, and you are a reflection of me. I failed. I wanted to punish myself for failing you as a mother. I made lists of my failings. I didn't want to go out to eat because you couldn't go out to eat. I didn't want to see a movie because you couldn't go to the movies. I didn't want to buy new shoes, because you couldn't buy new shoes. In my mind, any expression of joy, peace, or happiness was quickly extinguished by guilt that I didn't deserve it and needed to be suffering with you.
Under the stress of it all on both of us, we began to grow apart for a time. I have grieved your innocence as much as your crime as you have wrestled how to survive. I missed my little boy. I always said you made being a mother easy. Even for all the years it was just you and me, you were so easy. So sweet. So kind. I know you're still there inside. I pray the system doesn't steal any more of your innate goodness. I love you. I will always love you. I cannot imagine what it is like for you to try to adjust, absorb, and fit in to this new culture to survive it. It breaks my heart that you are not even free to express openly and honestly what you need without consequence. I am so sorry...
For so long, I know I have had a limited view of what is going on with you. I was determined to get information on the inside. There must be a way I could better understand your world. And as my best friend, Jess reminded me, I have always done my best when I am able to participate in some kind of advocacy. When you were first incarcerated, I had heard of yoga being offered in prisons. I quickly wrote to several institutions and got shut down every time. Finally, I found the Prison Yoga Project. I was so excited to register for this training, hoping I could get a better foothold and understanding in your world. I completed that training on August 19, 2018.
Many of the people that attended the training where yoga professionals who also were clinical counselors, psychologists, and social workers. Myself and Riley were one of the few who actually had loved ones in the system. So this was a very emotional training for both of us. It is amazing how the universe gifts us with exactly what we need at the moment when we can't think of anything else. I had tried everything with my own will to reach you and felt like I was failing. But no sooner did I enter that training, that I was flooded with so much love and sentiment. I got to meet one of the prisoners, Stephan who had gone through the Prison Yoga Project with James Fox while he was incarcerated. He recounted the difference it made for him and continues to make for him in the years he has been released on parole. I was so moved by his testimony that I ran after him as he left and held on to him sobbing and sobbing...wishing it was you...and feeling as though somehow it was...that I was transferring that energy to you.
The most beautiful part of that moment, was that this reformed prisoner who endured 30+ years of incarceration and all the horrors that go with that time...that prisoner held space for me, Jacob. He held me strong knowing I was a mother in pain for my son. In that moment, I felt so much hope. A viable connection. I now have a way to the inside. Jacob, I love you and I will never give up on you. You can push me away, turn me away, or try to protect me from the difficult truths, but I will always come for you. There is nothing and no one in this world that can keep me from you. I am your mother every day.
No sooner had I graduated the program, that you reached out to me to let me know you are safe in Oklahoma for the time-being. We have had a few of the best phone calls we have had since your sentencing and we have been writing every day. Thank you so much for letting me in again. All my work in this world means nothing without you. I have been meditating every day for a window of understanding between us again, and I feel that we have reached that new understanding. I am hopeful for you and for us.
While much of the information confirmed some of my worst fears, at least I was able to hear it from a reliable source. At least now, I feel like I know as best as I can, and given the information I have, I can now communicate more effectively with you. There are proactive things I can do. There is so, so much more I want to share about all that I have learned, but it has taken me two weeks to write out this part now because I am still so emotional about what it means to me. I will write much more on this as events further develop of how I can utilize this training to serve you and others like you that are incarcerated. I long to serve to offer an outlet of hope in yourselves and humanity; to offer coping strategies for navigating life behind bars as well as back into reality.
James Fox, founded the Prison Yoga Project in 2002. He is an incredible man who is highly regarded in the system as a true advocate for the incarcerated. He believes in servitude and is wholehearted and as genuine as I have seen with his work in prisons. It is my hope that I can put you in touch with him personally as well as some of the inmates who have since been released that participated in the program. I felt so flooded and inspired by James Fox's initiative and the personal testimonies, that I immediately approached him with the idea to start a scholarship in your name under my school, ANANTA Yoga Without Limit to help certify paroled inmates to teach yoga and pass on the gifts they once received. This is my continued act of love to you. I will continue to champion your cause and your name.
As I always say from the children's book I used to read you as a little boy:
"I'll love you forever. I'll like you for always. Forever and always, my baby you'll be."
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~Mary Oliver
All ANANTA Asana Ashtanga Ashtanga Yoga Napa Valley Domestic Violence Families Of Prisoners Healing Incarcerated Inmates James Fox Karmamarga Karma Yoga Kory Sheffer Leila A. Fortier Mentor Mothers Mothers And Adult Children Mothers Of Prisoners No Mud No Lotus Pincha Mayurasana Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Primary Series Prison Prison Yoga Project PTSD Samskara Scholarship Second Series Service Seva Survivor Testimony Tim Feldman Trauma Trauma Sensitive Practice Yoga Yoga Therapy