A few years ago, I escaped from prison. I’d been fantasizing about it for years, but the precipitating factor was a fight between two fellow inmates that left one in the hospital and the other in solitary confinement.
It was 8:00 p.m. Slim, a tall, skinny dude, had been gossiping with a friend. “Yeah, son, I’ma holla at you later, boy,” he yelled down the tier as the conversation wrapped up. “That shit was crazy!”
I was standing in my doorway, just keeping a quiet watch on my surroundings, when another inmate, Shaolin, rose from his bed and made his way to the bathroom, carrying his washcloth, soap, toothbrush, and toothpaste. A few minutes later, he returned and calmly approached Slim. “Excuse me,” Shaolin said. “Was that you speaking earlier?” Then he repeated his words. “You were the one who who said, ‘That shit was crazy’?”
Glowering, Slim turned to answer the question, but before he could get the words out, Shaolin cocked his hand back like the hammer on a gun and fired off a slap so hard that it echoed through the tier.
“This place’ll bring out the devil in a motherfucker.”
“Damn!” I muttered aloud, as Slim hit the floor and curled up like a newborn. Shaolin stood over his quivering body. Then he turned to face each of us onlookers in turn and explained himself. It wasn’t the content of the conversation that had enraged him but the volume.
“Gentlemen, please hear me out,” began Shaolin, his voice eerily calm. “We are in prison. And that means we spend our waking hours wishing we were anywhere else. One of our only escapes is sleep. So, gentlemen, please let’s respect each other’s sleeping time. If one of us has successfully escaped, don’t bring him back. People can get stabbed for shit like this.”
It was early evening, but we were on staggered work schedules and grabbed sleep when we could.
Turning back to Slim, still prone, Shaolin administered a kick to the face. Not long after, I heard him on the phone. “Hello, Ma?” he was saying. “If I don’t call you tomorrow, I’m in the box,” he said. Then he hung up the phone and went to his cell.
I’d seen violence before, but that sudden explosion, the considered ferocity of the beatdown, shook me. The environment was warping us all. I had to escape — and Shaolin’s method of dozing off each night wasn’t going to cut it.
The idea of getting out began to obsess me. I became stressed, agitated, and angry. Another prisoner, a guy in his mid-forties named Pitt — I’m guessing due to his bulldog-like features — noticed my mood was deteriorating. “Yo, Seven,” he said, using my nickname. “You been spazzin’ out on mad people. You good?”
“Hell, nah. I ain’t good. I need to blow this joint.” I thought for a moment about the violence, the noise, the rambling nonsensical war stories people were always telling, the food, the filth, and my declining sanity. “This place’ll bring out the devil in a motherfucker.”
“If you’re serious, I can help,” Pitt said. I assured him I’d never been more serious about anything in my life.
“Good. We leave tomorrow,” he told me with a smile. “Meet me at the gym 8:55 sharp. And be dressed in loose-fitting clothes.”
I was up by 3:00 a.m., fully dressed and counting the minutes. The time dragged like the ass of a U-Haul truck. Finally, 8:55 a.m. arrived. I found Pitt waiting for me by the gym as promised. We walked in.
“May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be safe. May I have a life of ease.”
I didn’t know what to expect — a crowbar? a door propped open? — but instead I was greeted by the sight of eight colorful yoga mats spread in a half-circle like NBC’s peacock logo.
“What the hell is this?” I asked through gritted teeth.
Pitt smiled. “We ’bout to escape, fam!”
Not me, I thought.
On my way out the door, I bumped into a man — a gray-haired Magnum, P.I.–looking dude — I’d never seen before. Blocking my path, he spoke in a low grandfather-like voice.
“Hello, friend. Are you here for the yoga class?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
“Great,” he said with a grin, grabbing my hand and giving it a good shake. “You’ve come to the right place. My name is Tom. I’ll be your instructor.”
“Yeah, um, well, I . . .”
He cut me off again, finishing my sentence. “Never done yoga before? That’s okay. Just listen to your body. Do what it allows you to do. Don’t force it. Keep practicing and be patient. You’ll get it.”
I gave up. Something about his calm demeanor made it clear that resistance was futile. He popped in a CD of meditation music—Buddhist chanting. We gathered on the mats facing Tom, who took up a spot in the center.
“Notice all of the sounds in the environment,” he said, as we listened to weights slamming onto the ground, a din of loud conversations. “Can you hear them?”
“Hell, yeah, I can hear them,” I blurted. “The noise never stops!”
He chuckled. “Okay, guys, we’re going to start with neck rolls. Go slowly, rolling your head in circles to the right.”
Next, we rolled to the left. We stretched our arms, our legs, our torsos. Soon I found myself in warrior pose, tree pose, balancing poses, up dog, down dog.
Finally, we lay on our backs in the dead man’s pose, legs stretched out, palms up, eyes closed. “Repeat after me,” Tom said. “May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be safe. May I have a life of ease.”
We said the words. Tom continued, “Your feet are relaxing, your feet are relaxing. Your feet are relaxed…” He led us through the various parts of the body—our legs, our hips, hands, stomach, chest, and so on.
“Your whole body . . . is . . . relaxed.”
Then, in a slight whisper, Tom added, “Hey, guys, don’t open your eyes yet. Just listen.”
I can’t hear any of it. No weights slamming on the ground, no loud voices, nothing. For the moment, at least, I’d escaped from prison. And I’ve been doing it every Tuesday since then.
After the class, I caught up with Pitt.
“Yo,” I said. “You think you funny, huh?”
“Nah, just free,” he replied. “And now so are you.”