Featured Student: Colin McClees
Colin Mclees, 24, has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for two years in jail. He comes to every class – three times a week – and also practices in his cell (it's actually called a "tier" and holds about 100 inmates) most days when class is not held. Below is an essay about yoga written by Colin.
Also, I invite you to read a letter I received from Colin's mother.
There is a Transformation occurring in my life, in my body and mind, because of Yoga.
By transformation I mean a process, something like a journey, a series of accumulating results. In this timeless sojourn, I have traveled no farther than my mat.
No words can offer the practical knowledge that accrues through one’s practice, one’s own constant and habitual practice.
In Yoga I realize myself, my body; I come to know my limitations, desires, strengths, attachments, thoughts. Through the proverbial window I can observe the totality of my physical and mental self.
The dedicated movement of the body has been a catalyst for change: both by the direct effects of the rigorously disciplined routine, and, as importantly, by the keen and focused observation of these effects during practice and throughout my days. That the observation of sensation is an essential part of this yoga practice seemed paradoxical to me; yet through experience I have found it unquestionably true.
In my stillness, in inertia, I come to find myself as I really am. I am not my ego, my thoughts, or someone else’s projections.
Our culture, our programming, demands that we focus on pleasure, money, image, and possessions: we strive to find gratification by worshipping the external. In this stream of confusion we are swept away and neglect what is truly of consequence, the internal reality.
Yoga is a return to what matters.
Yoga is a reprieve from the self-imposed exile of self.
For me the profound beauty of Ashtanga Yoga is that it illuminates different dimensions of my existence. It’s as if I'm viewing my life with new 3-D spectacles instead of two-dimensional glasses. What was distant is now as close as my heartbeat.
In the act of unrolling my mat and performing the sequential asanas, I am controlling my breath; I am learning; I am loving; I am healing; I am cultivating awareness and equanimity.
I have gained flexibility I could not previously have fathomed. I now perform once-daunting asanas with little struggle or resistance. The sound of my breath has become precious to me.
Additionally, my digestion has improved and my appetite seeks healthier, more nutritious and wholesome food. This has been a natural, largely effortless outcome of nearly a year of yoga practice.
Another point: I have also been afflicted with considerable lower back pain, a result of poor posture, my height (6' 4) and a slight case of scoliosis. Yoga has soothed muscles that were once so tense I barely could stand a massage! I experienced discomfort simply by the act of being in one position for any extended time, whether lying down, standing, or sitting. I can now move or rest in comfort. Another sweet benefit is that I now sleep serenely amidst the worst external conditions.
Front to back: Colin McClees "lifting up" after Marichyasana, A. Jason Greene, Phillip Grayson, Faheem Marzuq
Since I'm incarcerated, I literally am enclosed in steel, in a zoo complete with animals (dehumanized humans). My bed is in fact the third tier on a drab steel bunk with a mattress no thicker than width of two fingers. Surrounded by 100 other less-than-savory men, there is constant commotion. Thus it is remarkable that I sleep blissfully, not having to wake up constantly to switch positions, and that I rise feeling well and rejuvenated in the mornings.
Incarceration cruelly and ironically joins sensory deprivation with sensory overload: the deprivation of comfort, affection, spontaneity, compassion, nature, love; the overload of all the unwanted sights, sounds, people-smells and experiences that you desperately want to avoid. It is an environment that breeds stress, depression and negative emotions – so the tranquility Yoga has afforded me is quite simply beyond description.
Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living.” Meditation is the prerequisite to this examination, at the core of essential spirituality. For someone such as me who has had such a stunningly difficult time sitting still, Yoga is the only vehicle I've found to transport me to the sanctuary of self-discovery and tranquility. And in the culture of incarceration where the ticking of the clock is not just audible but deafening, we become all too cognizant of the cacophony of distractions and demands.
So consider your response to the proposition that you could make your body stronger, lighter and more flexible than you could have ever imagined, while sculpting your physique and simultaneously nourishing your spirit and nurturing your mind. Why resist? Or perhaps the better question is why would you not want to engage the practice? Yoga is a trail you must travel by yourself, but the path has been paved through the experience over thousands of years of the collective consciousness of millions of people. As the late great Pattahbi Jois said, "Practice, all is coming.”