Pilates, Prison & the power of the Breathe

Today I was sitting in a Cafe having a coffee with a lovely young Danish girl who is super fit and strong and an avid Cross Fitter. We talked about how often she trains and how it helps and challenges her mentally, not just physically. She is doing 14 training sessions a week.

I found myself asking her if she thinks much or at all about breathing . . . I was surprised when she said no. This led onto me sharing how ‘breathing’ changed my life and how I wish I’d cut myself some slack earlier in my life to just stop and BREATHE. It was really only when I discovered the breathe focus in bodyART 4 years ago, that I personally understood & used the true power of the B R E A T H E.

Breathe is life of course. Dah, sounds simple right? However my wake-up call was when I had become a single Mum at 43, was going through a difficult divorce and my Mum was dying of ovarian cancer. My children were not even 5 and 7, I drew deeply on my professional ballet dancer discipline to keep myself going, relentlessly. I started having random anxiety attacks . . . I’d be driving on my own somewhere and my heart would start palpitating almost out of my chest, I'd be gasping for air. I would have to pull over and stop, it was absolutely terrifying! I’d sit and slowly breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, until my heart slowed down and I was reset back to being in sync with myself physically and mentally. It was a huge shock, I’d always been in control and this would come on at any given moment, out of the blue. I’d love to say I addressed the underlying reason after this started, but I didn’t, however my personal coping calming tool was simply to B R E A T H E. I didn’t even consider the overwhelm and stress I was under at the time. My system was so wound up, this was clearly a huge warning bell, to slow down and cut myself some slack . . . but I didn’t.

I also found myself recalling this story with a very powerful message related to breathing awareness & the power of human connection. I want to share this now, my one year experience teaching Pilates to mentally ill inmates at maximum security, Port Phillip Prison. I was given an opportunity to have a tour of the St Pauls Unit where St Vincent’s Hospital run a rehabilitation program for mentally ill inmates that have a chance to re-enter daily life after they have served their time. My contact told me after hearing what I do and teach, and how passionate I am to make a difference to peoples lives, that if I felt I could cope with the high security rather daunting Prison envirement, I would be welcomed to teach weekly as part of their rehab program. My curiosity and a bit of feistiness kicked in and I followed up on the offer to have a tour of the Prison Unit.

The Prison tour was very confronting, major security checks just to get through the gates, everything had to go in a locker, no handbag, phone or anything could go with me. I was collected by a staff member to walk to the Unit building, but then left in the inmates open grey common room alone, where all the cells led off from & inmates wandered freely about, while I waited to be met by my contact. This was a moment I will never forget, inmates started walking up to me and asking who I was, why I was there etc. I realised I had no clue what the protocol was . . . should I be friendly and engage? Should I tell them who I was?. . . I was a woman standing alone in the common room area of a mentally ill male prison unit. It felt like an eternity until my contact turned up to give me a tour but I suspect it was really only about 5 minutes. I felt so incredibly vulnerable and unprepared for those few long minutes. The tour was interesting, as was hearing about the program. The inmates wore dark green tracksuits and I was not allowed to know why they were there or what crime they had committed, only their first names. When we sat down to discuss what I thought & felt about teaching a Pilates class there, I decided to give it a month of weekly Pilates classes and see how it went and how I coped. It was a challenge to myself and without realising at the time, life-changing research that contributed to my passionate teaching & belief in the power of movement with music, human connection and breathing.

My first Pilates class with the inmates was memorable in ways I did not expect. I was only allowed one CD for a CD player and my mat and I had to dress androgenously, cargo pants, T-shirt, cap, not much exposed flesh. I had signed forms about privacy and not disclosing any information I may hear or was told about inmates, but I was also advised I was not to ask any questions and was not to answer any they asked me, especially private ones about my life and where I was from. I was not allowed to touch them and vice versa. This of course is the opposite to what I do with my usual clients, I often do a face to face consult to find out as much as I possibly can about their history, health and what they would like to achieve and why. I delight in asking the right questions and usually do a fair amount of hands on correction as well as assisted stretching requiring a lot of touch contact. I was supposed to wear a security alarm around my neck and a member of staff would always be with me as well (they did the session with the inmates usually - the alarm was ditched early on as it got in the way - the staff member wore it instead)

I began the session with some upbeat music, to get them moving & hopefully spark a few smiles. The few inmates who turned up, were in a section of the common room area with me, I had them marching, squatting and moving their bodies in different directions. As they stood in front of me, I was struck by a young inmate to my right at the front, with a clean shaven attractive face. He was totally switched into what I was saying and very connected & co-ordinated. He spoke articulately with a Canadian accent and was very respectful. Some of the other inmates were scary, eyes rolling around in their heads, fidgeting, medicated, quite confronting for me. One inmate was very funny and kept making comments like ‘oh yes when else do we ever get to dance in prison!’ It struck me, this young guy in front of me on my right, could have been one of my sons and I found myself wondering momentarily, why he was there and what life had he been born into to end up in a mentally ill prison unit. The Program Co-ordinator had explained to me that some of the inmates were in and out and back again, as they were born into drug addicted families and bad circumstances that never really taught them an honest life with good values to draw on. It also struck me how we are all just people and sometimes we only want to see the pretty side of life we choose to. Yet we don’t choose what we are born into, we are lucky, simple as that a lot of the time. It was like being a meat eater who denies what goes on in an abertoire and facing the reality of seeing animals being killed for our food. Let’s be honest, it’s not something we rush along to see, we’d rather avoid it. I was seeing the sadness, ugliness and disturbing side of being human, in this modern high pressured crazy world.

I got through the first class and even though a couple of inmates just wandered away, I could feel the few that stuck it out to the end, were noticeably calmer and feeling better than when they started. I was immediately aware how the power of moving with music, human to human connection & focus on breathing, had already made a palpable difference to these mentally unbalanced, disturbed men. A couple of weeks in, I told them about who Joseph Pilates was, how he had begun developing the Pilates method in an Infirmary during the war with bedridden soldiers who were weak, by using the bed springs to start strengthening muscles (the start of the modern reformer bed) It somehow validated that what we were doing wasn’t a girls thing, it was a human thing, which they needed to hear when being taught by a small enthusiastic female. It made it more OK to do my class, which was the programs challenge when offering the inmates different activities to help them adjust & to be equiped for everyday life again.

After the first month, I decided to continue, the sick feeling in my gut when driving to Truganina was diminishing each time and I was getting to know some of the staff and a few regular inmates. I gained great admiration for the staff, the people who ran the program, the security and psychologists who had empathy for the inmates and also made me feel at ease and welcome in my job teaching once a week. Strangely enough I work so often solo in my usual business, unlocking and setting up Studios alone, packing up and cleaning up alone, hours of admin alone, I really enjoyed the human interaction before and after my Prison Pilates Classes in a way I had not thought about until it was happening as a weekly routine.

One day after the class, I turned around to find a huge piece of very detailed matchdot artwork unrolled behind me, the inmate showing me was one of the guys I found quite creepy in my class. He said to me,' I wanted to show you what I am working on.' It was really amazing and I was surprised and delighted to see it and simply said to him, 'that’s amazing, how clever you are!' He looked straight into me eyes and said ‘thank you’. It was a moment of human connection and what was even more amazing, is after that, this same guy frequently came to my class, his eyes fully focussed. He no longer seemed creepy and he often proudly showed me the progress of his huge piece of artwork after the class.

One of the things I found myself saying to these inmates, was how I’d dealt with my own anxiety and the power of really using the B R E A T H E. We did a lot of breathe focussed movement and we also always finished the session lying on the floor, with a relaxation meditation, focussing on breathing. A tool they could use whenever things were challenging or overwhelming that was theirs to use always, that no one could take away from them. This seemed to resonate with the inmates and I also remember one inmate telling me excitedly after the session, it was the only time he felt he didn’t have any worries at all.

I would hear bits of info about various inmates from the Psychologists on staff when they walked me to the unit from the security gates and back. I found out one of my regular inmates, another young quiet guy who never missed a session, had come in, in a really bad way. One psychologist told me, they didn’t think he’d make it but he had gradually started to respond to the program. I would feel his eyes never off me and his concentration in the class was intense, he improved a lot over the time I was there. As Christmas was approaching, I explained I’d not be there for a couple of weeks and I’d see them in the new year. He beamed a huge smile at me and said, you won’t see me miss, I’m getting out. I felt a real joy to know this guy had another shot at a good life on the outside and I in some small way had helped him towards that, but also given him a self-reliance tool to use if he needed it, to B R E A T H E.

My own family and partner were not super comfortable about me doing this job, they were concerned for my safety and when I explained what might happen in a lock down, we had a system for my safety. I messaged I was there in the Prison Car Park before I had to relinquish my mobile phone and when I was out and departing. If they didn’t hear I was departing, it may mean I was stuck there in a lockdown, they could phone in to check, but I was not able to phone out. Luckily for me I was only cancelled once to not go to teach my class, due to a lock down.

When the budget was cut and my session became once a month, I found it wasn’t as effective, it felt like starting from scratch every time and I was not dealing as well with going to the Prison, the sick feeling was happening again every time. I eventually told them I felt it was no longer working & impacting on my own mental health and I would need to stop. They were very sad to see me leave but understood. I recalled one of my questions when I started, how long will this be for? His answer was, as long as you can stand it. The experience I fell into, took up the offer and opportunity, is one I value greatly. It definitely proved and strengthened my belief in the beneficial power of human connection, mindful movement and BREATHE awareness.

(See references - here)

My point is . . . the power of mindful moving, human connection and breathing, particularly on a regular basis, can make a palpable difference to ANY human mind, body and spirit, especially if it is delivered in a non-threatening human to human way.

I don’t regret much in my life, but I do wonder if I’d discovered & understood the power of the B R E A T H E sooner, what a difference it would have made to my health today. Would I have had the same high levels of stress that really effected my health, I seemed to have inflicted on myself for far too long? I will never know, but I am putting it out there for anyone of any age and stage in their life to benefit from. ATTENTION TO YOUR BREATHE is something absolutely anyone can do, at any time and truely benefit from.

Andrea Gaze 24.1.20

B r e a t h e & mobilisation at the start of bodyART - enables connection with yourself, calms & synchronises the nervous system.

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