I felt nervous, pulling into the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women’s parking lot yesterday, for my first hour of teaching Pilates to prisoners. At the top of the list of my anxieties were:
will I be safe?
what if they are mean to me?
what if I can’t control the class?
And slightly less pressing were these:
can I take off my shoes?
can I make jokes?
can I say “pubic bone”?
The nervousness persisted as I signed myself in at the gatehouse, and spiked when the guard on duty, noticing my mostly-modest tank top underneath my sweatshirt, quipped “Zip up your sweatshirt, and don’t unzip it.” I could feel my eyes widening and my head nodding vigorously in concordance as I tried to not freak out over the implications of her comment. Anxiety escalating, I waited for a chaperone to escort me from the gatehouse to the gymnasium where the Pilates class would happen. And then the guard, with a single comment, dispelled all my worries - “I wish I could come take your Pilates class!”
With this small kindness, I forgot my fears and relaxed into the experience.
The guard and I chatted about gym Pilates, and DVD Pilates, and their advantages and pitfalls. The chaperone arrived, and I found myself casually talking with her as we walked through the compound. It was a beautiful day, and there were women everywhere: sitting around trees, playing kickball and cards, taking strolls with friends. During the 3-minute walk, I didn’t feel nervous anymore, but I did notice my own discomfort around looking directly at the inmates. Perhaps because they stared at me, and I wasn’t sure yet whether to receive the attention with a smile or a tough-as-nails stare.
Still unsure on this issue, I met the volunteer coordinator, who brought me into the gym and unlocked the room with the yoga mats. “Do you have your own?” she asked. “Well yeah, but its in the car. I can just use one of these” I responded. “Okay, well just so you know for the future. These inmates have everything- AIDS, STD’s, everything. And they sweat. You might want to use your own”. I said okay*. And then I met my first Pilates practitioner.
A very large black woman comes sauntering in, and I can tell she’s not my average un-incarcerated client. “B” is at least 50 years old, 6ft. tall, and 280lbs. She’s also extremely warm, and guardedly, but genuinely, curious about Pilates. She introduces herself, tells me her nickname, and takes my lead as I begin laying the yoga mats down on the gym floor. As the other women wander in, we introduce ourselves, and they join B in helping arrange the mats according to my instruction. We set up the mats in two rows, facing each other, with me, teacher and demonstrator, in the center of the rows.
And then, surrounded by 11 female prisoners …
I taught a regular, boring old Pilates class. Nothing happened. For the most part, the women wanted to learn the movement, eagerly tried all the exercises, and appreciated the effort they were exerting. Everyone did everything, almost. B had bad knees, so she did side-lying hip work while the rest of us worked in tabletop. One woman refused to do any more stomach series: twist (and I can’t blame her; I made them do like 50). Otherwise, we went through a regular, boring old Pilates class just like any other.
There were some differences; for example, a very loud set of (necessary) fans required me to speak extremely loudly the whole time. It was a much more diverse crowd than I’m used to - equally black, white, and Hispanic. I made certain not to touch anyone. I didn’t unzip my sweatshirt. But I did take off my shoes, make jokes, and say “pubic bone” several times- to no response. The class was about as well-behaved as it gets, and after class, they even clapped. Most of the 11 came up and told me they would definitely be back. One, citing her release date in seven months, lifted her shirt, grabbed her belly and expressed her feeling that “I am fat! I need to lose this before I get out!”
What I took away from the experience yesterday is that , more than anything else - inmates, social deviants, bad guys- these women are just women. They want to learn Pilates, lose weight, and do good things for their bodies. I don’t need to worry about safety, or someone being mean to me**, or controlling the class, or avoiding eye contact with them. At least, no more than in any other Pilates class.
*just in case you’re interested, I would put my entire life savings on the fact that no one has ever contracted HIV from a yoga mat. And if someone claims to have, well, I would re-gamble my entire lost life savings on the fact they they are lying about who they’re sleeping/sharing needles with.
**one of the guards, when I asked “will anyone be mean to me?” replied “for every one that is mean to you, which no one’s gonna be mean to you, there’ll be two putting her in her place”.