Perez, centers himself on "Nameste" during a
yoga class for inmates at the California State Prison in
Sacramento, Calif., on April 30, 2014, offered through
the non-profit Yoga Seed Collective outreach program.
Calif. ó Each week, Zack Pasillas hops behind the wheel of
his car and drives off to seek the pleasure and satisfaction
of teaching yoga to a group of adults heís identified as his
very "best students."
mind that to reach them Pasillas must pass through barred,
locked metal gates and several uniformed security inspectors
demanding duplicate IDs. Never mind that he must cross a
dismal, barren yard devoid of greenery, toward the building
called C Facility, erected with all the architectural finesse
of a massive, Third World concrete box.
mind that his prize pupils are a captive audience. Literally.
yoga class California State Prison, Sacramento-style, with
thin blue yoga mats and scratchy gray woolen blankets set out
in rows to accommodate perhaps 20 students at a time. A
prominent sign at the head of the gymnasium says:
"WARNING: No warning shots will be fired in this area.
Warden." The gym once brimmed with inmates and stacked
bunks, with barely room to mingle. But prison-overcrowding
regulations took care of that, and the cavernous room is now
back to being a recreation hall.
35, couldnít feel more fulfilled than when heís at the
prison. Dressed all in black, he was accompanying yoga
instructor Iwona, a Polish-born, British-accented teacher who
would narrate and lead the inmates in a rigorous program of
physically challenging poses. Pasillas was to stay by her
side, demonstrating the poses at the front of the class.
kind of exciting to have a role in trying to bring the right
healing to the right group," he said. "These men
here are having realizations in a really powerful way. Itís
really inspiring to see and itís convinced me that
transformation is real."
inmates at this Level IV facility near the famous Folsom
Prison respond to the lessons with authenticity, respect and
an earnest devotion to absorbing what Vinyasa yoga has to
responded Richard Robinson, when asked his thoughts. "I
get so much out of it. I get a sense of peace. Having a prison
yoga program is way outside the box. The more I got into it,
the more I found peace and calm.
I am learning is that everything starts from the inside out,
instead of outside in." Robinson said. "Itís not
living in the past or pining for something in the future. Itís
learning to live in the moment. Life works the same way. The
more you practice these new things in life, the more you
39, is an introvert, he said, serving a life sentence for
attempted murder, a crime he did not commit, he told the state
parole board. "The application of yoga and meditation is
really grounding. The fact that Iím in here for something I
didnít do used to bug me. Now I have inner peace. I can
accept we are where we are. Everything happens for a
it turns out, is one of the lucky ones. As an African American
from Compton, heís able to attend both twice-a-week yoga
classes. Others, namely opposing Latino gang members of the
rival Northerners and Southerners factions cannot occupy the
same gym or a bloody melee would erupt. So the Northerners
take the class only on Tuesdays, and the Southerners on
is a founder and the outreach director of the nonprofit Yoga
Seed Collective in Sacramento, which is devoted to sharing the
practiceís benefits with under-served populations, such as
veterans, diabetic American Indians, LGBT community members,
inmates and patients at the Sutter Center for Psychiatry. He
also teaches at California State Prison, Solano.
bona fides include 200 hours of yoga teacher training and high
school classroom management. Heís currently working through
a 500-hour yoga therapy program, so he can tap yoga and
mindfulness for those whoíve suffered trauma.
of the Year in 2009 at Heritage Peak Charter School, Pasillas
also offers yoga to students at Sierra School and hopes to
expand his yoga-in-the-schools program. This fall, heíll
teach at Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis.
seen some of my favorite students end up in prison,
incarcerated, because they donít have the same resources and
support as others," Pasillas said. "Iím really
driven to try to break that cycle."
to C Facility. The class here is an offshoot of the Prison
Yoga Program founded by James Fox at San Quentin State Prison,
where inmates have been learning yoga and mindfulness
practices since 2002. Pasillas, Iwona (whose last name is
withheld for her personal security) and other teachers he
recruits have all been trained in the Prison Yoga Program
ancient art of yoga is decidedly different on the inside than
it is on the outside. Prison Yoga Program teachers, Pasillas
said, "are less open-ended in what we do as a group. In
the prison, weíre addressing nonviolence and
impulse-control, not patronizing our customers. We have to be
completely aware and attuned to the gang culture for safety
reasons. In extending our leadership, we acknowledge that
nature may have led them to this path that they donít want
to be on any more."
minutes is quite a while to keep up with the fast-paced,
challenging cycle of positions called out by Iwona on a recent
day. But these inmates, buff, tattooed, physically fit, moved
with military-like precision. Iwona led them through downward
facing dog, uncounted planks, side planks (supporting
themselves with just one arm), cobra, child and warrior I and
warrior II poses, among others.
of the yoga practice is to be with what is, practice being
present and allowing things to be as they are," she told
her students. "Thereís a saying in yoga that what goes
around, comes around. Iím offering this time to you to
support you." And, always, the emphasis on breathing.
"Yoga is the process. Itís not the destination. It
might take many practices before we have our moment. If your
intention is there, this will carry you."
explained that the sequence of poses were meant to challenge
the inmates. Take warrior I and II, for instance. "These
are physically demanding poses that give the students that
element of distress tolerance thatís good for impulse
control," he said. "The state you feel in the pose
is the same kind of state you feel when something upsets you.
Then you can use those skills, with breathing, to give
yourself a little buffer time when something triggers
after more than a year and a half at California State Prison,
Sacramento, Pasillas has noticed change in some inmates. Kevin
Lewis, 45, of Oakland is one of these inmates. Lewis was found
guilty of second-degree murder and has been locked up for 20
gives me a way to combat the things going on in The
Yard," Lewis said. "If you can relax through the
painful positions, you can relax through painful situations in
life. It also helps spiritually and keeps you calm and
class has ended and all the Northerners have been escorted
out, a 112-pound coach escorts Christopher Salazar, 43, into
the gym to give a testimonial about yoga and its
definitely into yoga," said Salazar, who had covered up
his elaborate tattoos, including a Mayan image, with a white
T-shirt. "Maybe because we are in prison, we do yoga
because weíre looking for an outlet, anything that can give
us peace of mind. For an hour and a half, we forget about The
Yard and all the madness out there."
that heís from Orange County, was convicted of second-degree
murder, and misses the ocean at Huntington Beach more than he
can say. "Iíve been in here since I was 18. Itís been
a hard journey."
is one in whom Pasillas said heís seen a change for the
better. When Pasillas first met him, the inmate had a hardened
gaze. These days, Pasillas said he sees calm instead, as in a