Katchie Ananda is an internationally recognized, certified Anusara yoga teacher whose leadership in yoga and social change prompted Yoga Journal to name her one of five top yoga teachers making change in the world. She is the co-founder of Yoga Sangha, now Yoga Kula, a studio in San Francisco renowned for its commitment to “Spiritual Activation,” and Anusara yoga. Deeply inspired by her teacher and mentor, Jack Kornfield, Katchie is an avid practitioner of Vipassana Meditation and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, where she is committed to raising awareness about the interconnectedness of life.
San Quentin sits on the north side of the San Francisco Bay. On a drive across the Richmond Bridge you can see a corner of it pushing out beyond the hills. The list of current and former inmates reads like a who’s who of America’s Most Wanted: Scott Peterson, Charles Manson, “the Night Stalker,” Richard Ramierz, Richard Allen Davis. Men folks gave up on long ago, long before they got to be men. Just reading the list of names lends a heaviness to your heart suggesting a long cycle of revenge, anger, violence, pain, anguish that it seems only a miracle would stop.
And Katchie Ananda, a well-known, local yoga teacher who seems to have a least a portion of that miracle in her back pocket, wants to get back in. It’s been a year since she was able to teach to the inmates there. “I still have my brown card,” she told me. “The wardens changed, and we haven’t been able to go back,” she said. You can hear how much it means for her to be there. And through that how much of a difference it makes for the men who live there.
Teaching yoga in prison shakes up the image of yoga being for young, white women with perfect bodies, fabulous hair, and sunny, bright leotards. But as Katchie told Yogi Times a few years back, “Yoga is not just for thin, young, flexible women. Yoga is for everyone.” And she means it.
Yoga is more than a way to keep fit. It’s truly a spiritual practice, which is the way Katchie learned it. Following her years as a dancer in Switzerland and Brazil, she followed yoga as a practice. And she brings it to everyone as a way to build community, as a way to help folks see themselves, their potential, and their purpose–all of which lends to moving us toward a more just society. After all, we have to start with ourselves if we want anything to change. Still, I was startled a few years ago when I heard she taught in San Quentin. San Quentin a maximum security prison in which there are all manner of prisoners.
So I asked her: “What made you decide to go into prison and do yoga, and why do you stick with it?” She said, “It’s my way of giving back to society. To me, it has always seemed particularly important to give people another chance, and where better to do that then in places where some of us have been locked away and had the keys thrown out?
“The old [Eastern] scriptures are full of accounts of men who lived a life of crime and then turned around and became saints. The Tibetans’ most important saint, Milarepa, was a murderer and created mayhem before he renounced his way and became a follower of the Dharma.By helping those in prison redeem themselves, we really get to redeem ourselves. We all need second chances.
I would think that the Dharma can be very significant for people who have little hope. Our society has a tendency to focus on punishment without the possibility of redemption, and I believe that is a tragic mistake. We all make mistakes and it is important for us to learn from them and be able to move on and make a difference with our life.”
Ironically San Quentin itself is named after a prisoner, not a saint as so many of the cities around the Bay are: San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Santa Clara, San Ramon, San José, San Rafael… “The land on which it is situated, Point Quentin, is named after a Coast Miwok warrior named Quentín, fighting under Chief Marin, who was taken prisoner at that place.”
And so, this is where Katchie comes to do the work of bringing heartfelt redemption to those who so many people have forgotten. She works on helping each of them recall that they matter and can still, from this distant place, influence others–both their loved ones and those with whom they’re in community.
I was curious about the connection between yoga and activism that Katchie often makes. If you look at the articles on her Web site or even if you’ve gone to one her classes–which are unlike any other yoga class you’ve attended, guaranteed–you notice that the connection between yoga and social change is often made.
Katchie, teaches yoga and at the same time teaches you about you, about your beliefs, the things you’re holding onto deep inside that you’ve always promised yourself you’d let go of. She is a master at encouraging all levels of students and has a welcoming energy that invites community to grow right where she is. Through her presence, and the the truth she offers while she teaches this incredibly ancient practice, there is the activism. And going beyond that, making the stuff of it more obvious for folks who just can’t quite see it, in the past she offered something called the Spiritual Activation Series in 2007. Guest speakers (Julia Butterfly Hill, Evon Peters, angel Kyodo williams, etc.) came to speak to folks who’d just participated in a yoga class. The idea was to connect body, heart, and spirit.
I asked her about how she ended up making that connection, between yoga and social change. “You were originally a dancer. How did you end up doing yoga—especially yoga with a big emphasis on social change?”
She said, “I was an activist in Switzerland even before I was a dancer. I grew up in a Waldorf School that had a big emphasis on Social Change and the greening of the environment. When I later found yoga via my dancing career, the circle closed and I realized that all of our habits eventually find their way into the body, which means that we can also work with our body in order to change our habits.”
“What’s an example of that?”
“One of the old scriptures talks about the mind as a lifeforce link. So whatever the mind-body does, your life energy follows. We try and influence life with our minds, and it can actually be easier to change the mind through our bodies. It’s the yogi’s secret.”
“And so given that, what are some of the changes you’ve noticed among the folks you teach regularly in San Quentin?”
Katchie said that “Perhaps the most significant change I have seen is an increase in self-confidence. The yoga I teach is a part of the T.R.U.S.T, a program that focuses on all kind of approaches to build self-confidence. There is yoga but there are also anger management classes, for example. It’s all part of instilling a greater sense of confidence in the men. It’s important for them to realize that even if they’re in prison, they still can make a difference.
“One of my students there was part of an educational day for at-risk youth to make sure young people understand that they should turn their life around so they wouldn’t end up in prison. It was very touching.
“Another important aspect of change is that the men learn how to relax. It’s hard to settle your nervous system in a place like prison. There is so much noise and it’s crowded. Some of them have a hard time sleeping and end up exhausted. One of them fell asleep during savasana (resting pose) while I was singing [Katchie ends her classes by singing and playing on the harmonium], and he told me later that was the first time he’d truly relaxed in a month!”
In a place like San Quentin it’s difficult to grasp how people are able to find hope or purpose. Those of us on the outside–those of us who have not been on the inside–often refer to the Hollywood version of prison–none of it pretty, but none of it real either. I suspect there must be an unlying tension and chaos that does not ease because people are fighting for dignity and for their lives. Something you can’t see in a film. Something you can’t know unless you have that as a constant underlying experience. I wondered when do prisoners have respite from that, enough to find the space for hope, for purpose.
When I connected with Katchie I asked her, “One of the things you say on your Web site is that you’ll “help connect each person to their purpose in life through the practices of Yoga and Dharma.” How do you do something like that in an environment where folks may have completely lost a sense of that? Does the focus change?”
She said, “No, it never does, no matter the circumstances. Dharma simply means to state the truth, to recognize the law of the universe and that is always true. It is all a matter of adjusting your language and speak in way your audience can understand.
“One of my teachers once said that the true meaning of yoga is “mind your own business.” During one of my visits that became the teaching of the month. My students told me that it had even had reached cell blocks where men didn’t even know me.
“Another time I was talking about yoga being the space between the event and one’s reaction to the event.Reaction versus response. That was helpful for them, to take that extra breath during an unpleasant experience and so they could respond to it instead of just reacting. Many of them are in prison for exactly that reason–because they reacted to a situation instead of responding to it wisely–that teaching seemed to make a real difference to them.”
Although we most often relate to activists as folks on the outside who organize and protest, after realizing that yoga can bring such hope and purpose to those who are most often expected not to have it, it’s clear anyone can be an activist–anyone who’s committed to influencing his/her community. My final question to Katchie was: “Besides supporting their physical health and well being, how does doing yoga help support activists?” When I originally asked this question of Katchie, I meant folks on the outside but after studying her words and this interview, I realize activists are every one of us.
Her response is truly fitting: “Yoga and Dharma practice is our inhale—our way to connect to a greater vision, ourselves, our highest intentions and our good heart. Activism is our exhale – acting on our values and bringing an embodied awareness to our life and community.
“I believe that every human being longs to make a contribution that leaves the world a better place–sometimes we just have to be reminded how to go about it!”
For more on Katchie Ananda, please check out www.yogasangha.com.