Teaching yoga in the house of detention of Fleury-Mérogis

This article has been translated in english but it’s modified because of some errors.

Inmates at Fleury-Mérogis

Yoga has more to offer than a simple opportunity for self-actualisation. Its social function has been proven time and again. We need to recognise the people whom have given of their time to those facing considerable challenges when it comes to attaining a better life, social reintegration or health. The context where this occurs varies, going from schools and helping the impaired to retirement homes and jail. Geneviève Duverger has, for seven years, which includes her summer holidays, taught yoga to the male population of the largest penitentiary complex in Europe – the house of detention of Fleury-Mérogis. Classes were held face to face, and required her to be locked in together with them. Here she shares her testimonial as a teacher.

Fleury-Mérogis generally accommodates an approximate of 3,000 inmates. The men’s penitentiary consists of five buildings, where inmates are divided into groups depending on the type of criminal sentence they incurred. Specific areas exist for both women and juveniles. Having studied the different psychological profiles, I managed to adapt my classes to their specific needs, only teaching them the aspect of yoga that would be most relevant to helping them overcome their personal issues.

The practice of yoga gives inmates the possibility to undergo a mental transformation, while philosophy helps them understand that same transformation. Here are the four types of personalities I developed tailored practices for: the VIPs, those involved in high-scaling banditry, those of peculiar morals, and finally, juveniles.

Bundling the Isolated

Also called the VIP section, it hosts both police and gendarmerie officials, the elite, and detainees of mediatised political and financial affairs.

These are people whom have lost their social status, the inherent prestige that came with their position, their power, or their representativeness, and feel the need to compensate through a near constant provocative attitude. To tell the truth, the audience is so trying that attempts to implement linguistic and theatrical activities were swiftly abandoned by their initiators, whom simply couldn’t stand the inmates anymore. Neither do they have the liberty to participate in any sports. Their only available option for physical activity lays in a small interior courtyard, where they can take a walk and play ping-pong amongst each other. It’s a prison within a prison.

I hence gave them two three-hour classes a week.

When teaching philosophy, I introduced them to the eightfold yoga path, inviting them to choose one of the eight to study. The unanimously decided upon the yama, what relates to the external environment, to others. It would not do well to ignore the particular interest they showed philosophy. They would intervene haphazardly and ask for my opinion on personal matters. This is where I had to take a fair amount of precautions. Indeed, the highly mediatised stories inmates are implicated in usually include the presence of top-notch lawyers, and potentially disastrous consequences.

I then presented another philosophical aspect, this time linking to their yoga practice: equilibrium and human beings. To explain this, I used the metaphor of the four-legged table.

Kama: pleasure experienced by the body, that when associated with dharmacan bring guilt forward.

Artha: satisfaction through material goods, of which the importance may vary from one person to another.

Dharma: ethics, or the intrinsic morality that often opposes kamaor artha.

Moksha: state of liberation, well-being.

The posture that beholds all four elements is dvipada pitham.

A few weeks later, one of the more discreet inmates, a rapist, asks me if I can spare him a few moments. He confesses that he’s currently following a therapy recommended to him by the administration, which he thinks is utterly pointless. However, he also admits to watching a TV program the night before covering rape, and that it had made him realise the amount of suffering and trauma he’d caused. He then reminds me of a past situation: “One day, you drew something on the board, a table. Now that I feel guilty, I’m not a rapist anymore.” Since that day, when leaving my class, he’d repeat out loud: “I feel guilty, I’m not a rapist anymore.”

I had the tendency to adapt the practice depending on their mood – if I sensed them restless, or if they’d quarrelled not long before, I’d give them a calming practice. Dynamic if they seemed sluggish or apathetic. I regularly had them work on yoga of the eyes, as their field of vision was limited by the small size of their cell.

Highly Monitored Inmates (Grand Banditry)

Those are the people that dabble in grand-scale banditry and have included delinquency in their job description. True adrenaline junkies, they’re furthermore extremely intelligent and thus more than capable of manipulating me.

This particular group wasn’t allowed to partake in any type of activity due to the inherent danger they presented. However, after pressing demands, the penitentiary administration endorsed a special authorisation when it came to yoga classes.

I gave them three weekly three-hour courses, sometimes abruptly changing locations. The inmates falling in this category were randomly moved for security reasons.

When teaching philosophy, I oriented myself towards santosa, acceptance. Seeing as they are destined to long-lasting incarcerations, this would give them a tool to live through it more easily. They regularly stated that they didn’t have any freedom whatsoever. I replied that it was furthest from the truth. That instead of whining, they should use their freedom of thought: “Think differently and the world around you will change.”

I added: “When you will have become familiar with dharana, or concentration, you will be able, after our yoga practices, to focus your attention on one objective while in your cell. Just like M. Eiffel pictured the tower mentally before laying it on paper, so that it could be built.” I assured them that they could pray, not necessarily implore, but to believe with an unwavering force to ask for help from an entity superior to us, human beings. One must always positivize when with them.

Yoga practice are divided in two types: the first seeks to calm them, while the latter energises them mentally through postures andpranayama.Antahkumbhakais used to breath – breath retention using the lungs’ full capacity, always related to the issue of adrenaline.

The most prominent challenge with this group concerns a sense of superiority. It can be found in any different form, such as judiciary, i.e. the one with the biggest judicial case, or it can be intellectual – who is the most educated and cultivated. It even went to the affective side when disputing who would be the teacher’s pet… It was a detail that I had to constantly keep in mind, else they would have quickly dominated and controlled me. When interacting with these inmates, you only had two options: dominate or be dominated, though always with a smile.

During one of the summer courses, I found myself in a one-on-one conversation with an inmate twice sentenced to life. He attended the class on an irregular basis, and should he show up, would intervene in an untimely fashion. I gently reprimand him, underlining that his attitude causes problems when it comes to class progression. He says he understands. By then I found myself in a room located far away from the exit, having crossed what seemed like an endless corridor of 24 cells. Immediately after the warder locked the door and moved away, the inmate asked: “aren’t you afraid of being taken hostage?” To which I promptly replied: “Don’t do that, I’m not sure someone would be willing to pay a random to get me free!” The other inmates burst out laughing. At the end of the class, he came to me and apologised for his behaviour.

Among the received benefits, I noticed that the inmates got along better with their warders, and awaited their parlour more serenely.

When coming to yoga class, they had adopted a particular dressing style: a white t-shirt. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the rest to show them that practicing yoga had become a reference.

District of Peculiar Morals

These are transvestites and transsexuals. Their hygiene is dubious, and the excitement they project is due to the lack of drug and alcohol intake.

At the start, I only provided them with a two-hour yoga class per week, until they finally came to me and said: “So we’re too stupid to follow philosophy classes just like the cops do.” I then went to see the administration and deposited a request to teach philosophy to this particular group, later accepted. I gave each and every single one of them a desk as well as pen and paper. They felt valued and listened attentively to what was said: it was moving. I sought their opinions when it came to finding examples to illustrate my theoretical explanations, which gave them a sense of responsibility, even if their examples always referred to the Bois de Boulogne…

When it came to the yoga practice, it was quite hazardous. Because of their regular drug intake, it took no time for them to become out of breath. Here, it was vinyasa, progress, that made sense. Hence most postures were realized while sitting down. This way they would face me, which would make it easier for them to concentrate on my explanations.

Because of their clearly defined feminisation, I decided to initiate them toBharata Natyam, a typical South Indian dance performed during the Christmas festivities.

Juvenile Centre

Also referred to as the minors’ section.

I used yukti, the subtle trick, and sauça, cleanliness and self-respect, to teach them to love their bodies. Hopefully this would prevent them from destroying it through the plague that are drugs.

When it came to the practice of yoga, I most often conducted classes pertaining to energy, as a way to channel their aggressiveness. They said that they felt well and that “this yoga was chill because later, they’d be able to run faster than the cops.” They admitted to me that they didn’t want to disappoint their mothers anymore. Those whom had lost their mother or whom had never known her sometimes called me mother instead.

During my philosophy lectures, I recalled a quote by Victor Hugo, whom, during the XIXth century, wrote in Les Misérables, “Open a school and you close a prison.”

I acknowledge that my seven years of psychoanalysis, together with my knowledge of the detainment environment, enabled me to become involved in this work all while preserving myself.