1998: Written Interview, “Yoga Means Union”by Renee LaLone, graduate student of SALT Institute for Documentary Studies. April 25, 1998
“I’m happiest when I’m in a yoga pose. Honest to God. My body feels, well, just magical. I could live in yoga poses,” Elaine McGillicuddy says while seated on the floor on her home. Tall and gracefully thin, she leans her 62 year-old frame over her legs in a forward bend. Her pale hands lay relaxed on the floor in front of her feet as she gently lowers her head to her shins, short salt-and-pepper hair concealing her face. “People see a picture of me in a yoga pose and they say “ouch.” But it’s not that way at all. It’s like, just bringing total circulation everywhere in your body. I see yoga as a lover, you know? Yoga’s my lover. In a sense.” Her voice is muffled by her legs. Behind her, a large, studded wooden cross hangs above an upright piano, upon which are two pictures. One is of her and her husband, smiling formally into the camera. In the other, she and four other women stretch in various stages of yoga poses on rocky grass-covered shoreline of Maine.
Elaine is a yoga teacher. She is certified in the Iyengar Hatha yoga style, and has been studying it for over 20 years. Prior to yoga, she was a nun for 15 and a half years with the Ursuline Order. Now married, she met her husband, Francis McGillicuddy, in Waterville, when he was a priest and she a nun and Campus Minister at Colby College. Both left their ministries, in the wake of Vatican II, to be married. Currently, Elaine teaches at the Portland Yoga Studio, is involved in local peace groups, and teaches the Dances of Universal Peace. Elaine and Francis also take yoga and biblical studies to inmates in local prisons.
“Somebody said, all we have to give other people is our experience,” Elaine says with a crinkled forehead and lighted eyes, referring to why she feels compelled to teach. “I mean, you can share knowledge, but that doesn’t touch the heart. That doesn’t pierce through to the heart the way one’s own experience does. I feel that after all these years, I do have a lot of experience, and I have learned a little bit about sharing my way. I like the idea of not being a model on a pedestal. I don’t want to do that. But sharing something about wisdom, or my journey, indirectly or directly – sometimes in yoga class I can do that more easily than if someone were teaching math or English. That’s what I like about the Dances and the yoga. I can bring in a spiritual dimension.
For some, the very word “yoga” conjures hippies, body contortions or strange smelling incense. Elaine explains what yoga means. “In Sanskrit it’s Yogah cittavritti nirodhah. Which means: ‘Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.’” The Hatha yoga style that she practices has two different meanings: “It can mean something like effort or oomph. But another, more common meaning, has to do with union. ‘Ha’ is Sun, ‘tha’ is Moon. So it’s like Sun-Moon. Yin-Yang. Masculine-Feminine. Polarities. Union. So when you say ‘Hatha yoga’ it’s like saying Yin-Yang Union.”
Elaine teaches at the studio she founded in downtown Portland with Francis about eight years ago. From the third floor, the yoga studio looks out over Congress Street. Originally designed as a dance studio, it houses two formal practice spaces, two large closets and a bathroom.
Narrow, clean-edged wood floorboards shine, reflecting the soft light radiating from two halogen lamps. The larger, inner room is where most of the classes are held. Two white pillars stretch strongly from the middle of the room, holding the whit, gilded-tile ceiling fifteen feet above the warm, hard floor. Two philodendrons adorn two windows that face the brick side of the building next door.
Tuesday night intermediate class starts at 5:30. Elaine and Francis arrive a few minutes early to snap on the heater and the lights. A single strand of Christmas lights peeks out from an open closet where stacks of gray wool blankets, sticky mats and foam blocks await use. After taking off their shoes and coats, students file into the room and pick out props from the closet. They the line the walls, set up in relaxing poses and wait for class to start.
“Relax shoulders, relax hands, relax jaws, eyes, let the belly be free.” Elaine moves quietly around the room and lets everyone settle in. She then starts each class with a song. Sitting against walls with blankets and bolsters underneath and around, the group of 10 or so students sing “Oomm” in a single unwavering note. And then in the same note, “Shalom . . . Oomm.”
Sun salutations are first in the series of poses tonight. Students take a deep breath in, raise their arms to the ceiling, breathe out and bend down at the hips to the floor. “20 digits in a row,” Elaine guides as hands and feet are placed next to each other, fingers and toes spread out and gripping the mat. Breathing in, taking the right foot back to lunge position, arms raise up: warrior pose.
Atop her own stick mat in the front of the room, Elaine leads the class in the movements. Her arms stretch wide, her legs strong and firmly connected with the floor. The arches of her feet lift up as veins and bones lace towards her toes, which lift off the floor. Her uplifted chest holds her back straight and head steady.
Breathing out, students bring their hands to the floor and take the left leg back for dog pose. Stretching heels into the wall behind, arms and legs shoot into the floor as strong as tree trunks, fingers and toes hugging the soil of the sticky mat. Bringing the right leg up in front they do warrior pose for the left side. Breathing in, both feet are brought back up front with hands on the floor. They breathe out in time with their movements. Finally, they breathe in, arms rise to the ceiling, then fall to their sides with the exhalation.
Individual adjustments are made paying attention to the foundations: feet and hips should be strong but not tense. Stretching among the sounds of breathing and the floor creaking, Elaine calls out over the room, “Go to the edge of sweet resistance.” Shoulders are sturdy and firm, holding heads steady.
Next, shoulder stands. Elaine demonstrates, showing the right way to do it, then the various wrong ways. Referring to B.K.S. Iyengar, the man who popularized hatha yoga in this century, and with whom she studies under in India, she guides students: “Mr. Iyengar says that one should be able to do shoulder stand for 8 minutes in order to do a head stand correctly and safely.” The sticky mat is placed horizontally against the wall, five blankets are folded in half and placed on top of each other and half the length of the mat, and the other half of the mat is folded over the blankets to provide a non-slip surface for the arms. The head lies back over the edge of the blankets, feet on the wall, hands hold the waist and lower back. Shoulders shift beneath the rest of the body. “Don’t move your head once you’re up there,” she advises. Advanced students can lift their feet from the wall and support them as they reach toward the ceiling.
Some other students go ahead and do other poses that they’ve been working on. One student is an artist, and has been taking yoga for a few years. He likes to use the wall ropes to help stretch his shoulder and arm – he couldn’t raise them higher than his head before starting yoga. Now he’s gained greater flexibility, and uses the wall ropes every class night. He also uses the back bender that sits by the door. Shaped like a whale, its mahogany slats move in a graceful curve. Wooden bones support the back, hold the feet with a small resting ledge, and open the front of the boy, letting the head hang back, throat exposed. Lungs fill more deeply.
Elaine keeps an attentive eye on her students while Francis does warrior poses on his own. Francis is a striking figure in his yoga outfit: brightly colored t-shirt and black shorts with elastic around the thighs. His hair is gray and black, long enough to fall a little from his forehead when he leans backwards. The gray beard that covers his face coupled with his bushy eyebrows almost hides his blue eyes when he smiles. His long legs span the entire length of the sticky mat during warrior poses. It’s not a far stretch to imagine him in black skirts and Roman collar smiling from the altar.
Both Elaine and Francis believe that their energy as a couple affects the yoga classes in a positive way. Elaine feels that “it brings a wonderful spirit to the class. Because people like to see how people relate as a couple. And I think it adds a little humor. . . It’s more fun.”
Francis fills in and helps out during classes, but this presence goes beyond the incidental, he believes. “Well, in our studio, all the teachers are female. Sometimes there’s only one other man here, you know? And I think that it just – our culture being what it is, with the roles of males and females that it’s important for men that I’m here. To show that I do practice, and that I continue in that practice. And that becomes obvious in class, I think.”
Elaine continues her fluid movement around the room, constantly scooting in between students’ stations cluttered with extra blankets and blocks scattered on the floor. She slips her hand underneath their shoulders, lifting to form a concave space at the nape of the neck, a “ski slope” as she says.
Exhaling appreciatively, students come out of their poses and stand up, kicking blankets aside. Elaine uses Francis as a model for the next pose, a supported back bend. He demonstrates while she makes points to the class. For this supported back bend, she expresses caution. “I don’t want you to force it, Dear,” wrinkles on her forehead writing concern for the recent pains he’d been having. Francis decides to try it and sets up in the middle of the room so everyone can see him. Lying back over a folding chair piled high with blankets, he closes his eyes.
The students scattered around the room doing bridge pose go up and down, breathing in and out, intent and rest balanced by pointers from Elaine. “You’re working against gravity in this pose,” she walks around the room, bare feet hitting the floor with a slap. Smiling, she bends over one student and makes him lift his chest higher. When he’s set, she stands up straight and says to him, smiling slightly, “If I had a resolution for 1998, it would be to lift your heart.”
Padding around the room barefoot, Elaine closely observes everyone’s poses. “In every pose that you do, you don’t want to be in the middle of a rock and a hard place. You want to be able to wiggle around a little.” Raising arms over their heads, chests stretched wide by the force of leaning backwards, they settle into the pose. Several moments pass; Elaine assists students individually, putting more blankets under legs, checking to see if necks are supported.
Looking up at the ornamental ceiling, Francis is still in the pose. His lanky arms hang loose while his long legs are tucked underneath. Elaine moves across the room to stand next to him, hands on her hips. He hasn’t moved since he lay back, not because he’s hurt, but because he likes it. Elaine bends down on her knees, ready to make a point to the class. “I went surfing one time, and I caught a wave and came all the way to the shore. It was exhilarating!” She chuckles quietly and happily, wrinkles forming around her mouth and eyes. “When your body says, ‘oh, you’re really getting a lot of fruit,’ stay longer.
Smiling, Francis closes his eyes and remains. He has caught the wave.
With twenty minutes of class left, Elaine and Francis turn down the halogen lights, and students lie flat on their blue and purple sticky mats. Some have a folded blanket for a small pillow, others place rolled up blankets underneath flared knees open like a butterfly’s wings. Elaine passes out rice bags, which students place over their eyes. This is savasana. Corpse pose. One is supposed to relax completely, ideally not falling asleep in the process.
After checking everyone, Elaine moves to the middle of the room in between the two pillars with her water bottle. The room is quiet; movements few. Straight-backed and cross-legged, she sits. Last week, someone requested a song. She sang, “I am the Good Shepherd” in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Tonight, she tells everyone to let their thoughts fall into a moving river. Taking a deep breath, she begins. It’s time to float.
“Surrender your bones to mother earth, create space between your flesh and your bones, create space between the flesh and the skin.” Slowly, her voice glides over the room, lighting on the bodies strewn about. “Even though this is corpse pose, the mind is active, quietly observing. Continue to surrender, the breath as well as the body, the brain as well as the breath. My favorite image of corpse pose is that of a sleeping child. You know how heavy a sleeping child is.”
Moments of soft silence and gentle breath pass. “Bringing the awareness inward,” students take a few deep breaths and begin to roll over and sit up. They move their blankets aside, and rice bags slip to the floor. Seated, in unison, all bring their palms together in the middle of their chests and bow heads murmuring “Namaste” to all. “The divine in my honors the divine in you.”
“I call them, the postures, vehicles of self-exploration and discover.” Sitting on a purple foam yoga block in her home, Elaine reads what she wrote in an article a few years back. “‘They promote flexibility, strength, balance, relaxation, among other preventative and therapeutic health benefits as varied as its practitioners.’” She looks up from the piece of paper, “So, the benefits are as varied as the needs that people come to yoga for. Some people come to it because they have arthritis or back problems. Some people come to it because they need peace of mind.”
“It’s not just physical, by any means,” she continues. “Somebody said that the body is the print-out of the consciousness. When you deal with the body, you’re touching the unconscious. When we suffer traumas, or sorrows, that gets buried in us physically. So when you start practicing yoga, and open up the tissues where the emotional traumas are held, it releases something spiritual or emotional. It’s emotionally cleansing. One of my teachers said, any hurt that you get in life, it hurts on the way in and it hurts on the way out. When we hurt, we
tighten up. If you look at a baby – a baby’s not tight. Right? A baby’s like a water balloon, which is what we all are. And as we get civilized, and society says, ‘don’t do this, don’t do that,’ we get hurt and tighten up and we kind of get in our little shell.” Demonstrating, Elaine curls up in a ball, arms wrapped tight around herself, legs pulled in tight. “We’re protecting ourselves, we’re creating a boundary so we won’t get hurt again. But then, the muscles get so tight it becomes a prison . . . so what yoga does, it begins to release that with the breathing and the letting go and then it affects you spiritually, too. You can still close down, but you have a choice. You’re not just stuck in that frozen, you know – that armor.” Unfolding herself, she straightens her back and continues.
“Every now and then you see in the paper, although more in the past than now, that some people, fundamentalists, people will think that yoga’s pagan. It’s Hindu, or it’s suspect because it’s different. I think ignorance breeds that kind of narrow-mindedness. And as people are more educated or read a little more, she pauses, thinking. “They more broad-minded and are willing to try something else. They’re not just in a rut. I think it takes imagination to think of doing something besides aerobics.
“When I came to yoga, in a sense,” her eyebrows wrinkles, “I think I came to it more for the physical part, because I had been in the convent for 15 and a half years and there was a lot of spirituality and I was just interested. But I’ve come to appreciate that we’re not spirit and body anyway. It’s just this continuum, you know, of the energy being that we are. We’re on a continuum. It’s mysterious and quite wonderful.”
When she was five years old, Elaine was hit or nicked by a car. No major injuries were inflicted, but a knot of scar tissue developed in her hip. For over 20 years now, she’s been unraveling that knot with yoga. “It used to feel like a metal cable, and then it felt like a cord cable, then it felt like a rubber cable. So I have seen what it was like – this hard, painful thing become flesh. I felt it. And every day I can feel it better and better and better. So I’m encouraged by the results, see,” she says while tilting her head to the side. “I’ve become acutely sensitive to changes in my body and all that that, I mean, at one point I thought – ‘Am I weird? Or am I neurotic or something? I have this acute awareness.’ and then I thought, no. We all have a genius, we all have a genius for something, and this is mine.”
Elaine lowers herself to the floor of her living room. Legs placed wide apart, she stretches her heels away from her, the balls of her bare feet reaching toward the ceiling. She wears a Portland Yoga Studio 5-shirt, takes a swig of water from a 2-litre bottle and straightens her back. No matter where she is or what she’s doing, she is in a yoga pose. “Everyone is in some kind of posture.” Sometimes in church, kneeling on the kneeler during Mass, she leans back to stretch the hip socket that was injured so long ago.
Born in 1935 to parents she describes as “self-made,” Elaine grew up in the small town of Springvale, Maine. She and her parents lived downtown in an apartment directly above their beauty parlor and dress shop. Both her parents were native French speakers, having immigrated to Maine from Canada. They taught their only child both French and English. “I was French-speaking from childhood. I’m very grateful that I lived at a time that Franco-American speaking children didn’t feel that they should hide their French.” Classes were taught bilingually at the Convent school where Elaine attended grade school. The Ursuline order nuns ran the school, and it is the same order that she joined not long after graduating from high school.
As a child, Elaine used to go on the roof porch of the apartment where they lived and surrounded by flower pots, she would lie in the hammock and read. “I was an avid reader. I read so much my mother used to have to hide my books.” In between Sanford and Springvale, Elaine and her two cousins would play in the woods. At the time, it was said that a young French girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw the Virgin Mary. She was later proclaimed a saint. “So as children,” she explains, “we were all filled with this and we would play seeing the Blessed Virgin in the woods by the Mousam River.
In high school, I started – I don’t know when I had the swoons, you know, kind of a feeling of being called to the convent . . . I experienced the coming of yoga in my life as akin to entering the convent. Because yoga means union. It’s a call to union, and early on actually, it was the physical part of yoga that attracted me, rather than the philosophy because I had a lot of theology anyway. But I was attracted to yoga, knowing from the beginning that it meant union and I saw it from the beginning as a – as a vehicle of union with God.”
Elaine entered the convent in 1954, and left in 1970. “I was in the convent 15 and a half years. Many changes happened in the Church during that time. I entered before Vatican II, the Council that opened the windows, and just turned the Church upside down.” She brings her left leg in towards her body, and shifts her right hip a little bit forward in order to lengthen her right leg. I think my decision to leave was part of this upheaval in the Church, and the world, I mean, the ‘60’s happened there. I always used to tell people the reason that I left the convent was multifaceted. It was a convergence of many different reasons why.”
“Vatican II happened in the ‘60’s.” She centers herself on her sitting bones, “there were rumbling, I think.” She pauses, remembering with bright eyes, “We used to do folk dances when I first entered. Then we got word from the Cardinals in Rome. The Congregation on Religious said no more folk dancing. So we’d get these messages from on high. Then I didn’t realize that we were run by a group of men in the Vatican,” she says, lifting her eyebrows in exasperation.
Part of my reason for leaving was this thing that I didn’t understand. I felt called out the way I had felt called in. I used to be rather orthodox in my views before I studied theology. I used to think that God’s will was expressed through every word of the Pope.” She laughs heartily, “I’ve come a long way.” While in the convent, and continuing after she left, Elaine received her Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Providence College. “One of the things that liberated my thinking was this study, where I saw there are all these schools of opinion . . . so I knew that now we’re overemphasizing the divinity of Christ, you know, too much. I found it liberating in a way. You know, it doesn’t reduce my faith. It’s more credible instead, and Jesus is more real. He doesn’t have to be this little Son of God walking around, and the more I read, the more liberated I am.
As she told one of her students, “There’s no ‘should’ in yoga. You needn’t ask ‘where you should feel it.” The body is a mystery, a labyrinth.” Different bodies and experiences result in different reactions and results.
She switches her legs, now stretching the left leg while folding her right inwards. “I loved everything – I loved the prayer, I loved learning about Scripture, I loved many things about the convent. So I don’t regret those years.” Although it has been a long time since her years in the convent, Elaine feels that the experience was worthwhile. “It was really kind of wonderful years. Since my studies at Providence College, they were, as I say, heady years. There’s kind of a nostalgia for those years, in a way. I was getting liberated, you know.” She extends her hand out in front of her, palm upturned. “I was in this convent, but my work as campus minister exposed me to these students and this protest against the Vietnam War.”
“I remember the bishop came one Sunday. There was a special holiday or feast, and there was a reception afterwards and they served wine. I went back to the convent and my aunt who was the Superior in the convent where I was. So I told her that I had had this wine and she said that I needed permission to have a little glass of wine.” Her voice filled with frustration, shoulders raised to her ears. “And at the time the nuns were talking about whether they would wear gray or blue. Or whether their hair could show . . . it jarred me. This juxtaposition of life and death issues and this picky little stuff about needing permission to drink a little glass of wine.”
Relaxing her shoulders, she continues. “All these new winds of change. There was a song, from Bob Dylan.” Lifting her chest, she takes a deep breath, and sings in a clear high melody “The times they are a’ changing. Come brothers, come sisters, da-da-da-da.” So the times were ‘a changing, but here’s the Pope who said “No” to the consensus.” A commission set up by Vatican II to evaluate birth control came back with a decision to allow the practice for Catholic parishioners. Pope Paul the 6th went against the commission’s consensus, single-handedly. “I called that the moment of demythologization, for me. I had a myth that the Pope’s words were the word of God. And when this happened, you know, everything came tumbling down, as far as I could see.”
She lifts her outstretched leg slightly, shifting in order to adjust the continuing stretch. She leans down slightly to feel the muscles lengthen, then brings her torso back, lifting her shoulders away from her ears.
In her theological studies while in the convent, Elaine had come across a philosophical idea that described the “Third Way,” a way in which two people could have a close relationship without its necessarily being sexual. She was transferred to Waterville to become Campus minister at Colby College. There she met Francis and developed a close friendship with him, thinking it was this Third Way. This relationship, in addition to all the things happening in the Church, made her think about her life at the time. “And then this Third Way, this relationship with Francis, that’s when I started to realize it was more than the Third Way. I really had a strong attraction to him. And then I used to feel that I was among . . . little girls. And I was a woman in love.”
Elaine pauses to unfold her right leg. Bringing both legs straight out in front of her, she smoothes out the wrinkles in her purple leggings. Her hands run down her legs, her wide gold wedding band glinting in the sun. Raising her head, her eyes steady, she pulls her back straight and breathes a long breath.
“But the initial break, it was awkward, you know? I remember I came home, my mother was frightened. What do you do with a 35 year-old? I mean, she knew I had been sheltered because I had been in a strict order. . . . There are some poignant things. When my aunt entered the convent, my grandmother was dying, and her daughter, this aunt, now my Superior, had entered the convent, and was living in the convent in the same town, but she couldn’t come and visit her mother. All they could do was drive the car and park it outside my grandmother’s home. So my aunt looked up to the window and they brought Grammy to the window, so she could see her daughter – when she was dying. But my grandmother, my aunt
. . . ” Elaine wipes the tears from her cheeks. It was really something. So you see there’s a lot of feeling here. Like my mother gave me a sweater that she knit, and I couldn’t keep it.” The order that she belonged to is a cloistered order, which means that nuns are separated from their family and material possessions for extended periods of time. “You know, not to have been able to go for 15 and a half years,” her voice wavering, “or 15 years or whatever. But you know, I had some wounds that . . . got healed later on. I mean, that was a good one.” Recovered, she laughs and wipes her face dry. “That was a good one.”
Reflecting on the meaning of yoga, Elaine explains how it means ‘union.’ “When the monkey mind stops going crazy, there’s this union of the self. That’s what yoga does. It’s pulling yourself together so that your mind and your body and your – you’re just living in the present moment. The postures are a way of preparing the body for meditation. The whole thing is shot through with unity.”
About the convent, “I was called in and I was called out. And it’s true. I know it’s true. I never regretted one second. My whole life has fallen into place. . . . I have strong intuitions about things. Entering the convent was that kind of decision, leaving the convent, marrying Francis, leaving my job at Thornton Academy, going into yoga, choosing the Dances of Universal Peace. Just strong, gut intuitions about things. . . . So my views have changed, but not my path.
“I mean, God is my, I mean really, God is everything for me because it’s the only reality that’s always there.”
“I feel like – what do you call – not a pathfinder. A trailblazer,” Elaine says while sitting on the couch next to Francis. Her legs are tucked underneath her long, pleated, broomstick skirt, in the lotus pose. Silver dangling earrings move in time with the motions of her head as she speaks. “And it’s not just me, but all of us who are married priests and nuns.” Elaine and Francis married in 1972 after receiving dispensation from the Catholic Church to leave their formal ministries. After Vatican II, what is called the Exodus began. Clergy members were leaving their ministries for many reasons: disagreements with the Church, unhappiness with their ministries, and marriage. “Nuns and priests still leave now, but not in the numbers that they did then.”
“Not as many to leave as there were,” Francis interjects with a chuckle. He crosses his legs and settles into the cushions. Leaning into the back of the couch, he moves his arm to rest behind Elaine.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Elaine continues. The way that we got called out and here we are, among the laity. It’s going to have some kind of effect.” Many clergy who left still practice some sort of ministry, either in their parish or community. But officially, most are not recognized, paid or supported by the Catholic Church. “We’re like the transitional troops in a way. I really believe that married priests will be allowed to function in the Catholic Church in the future.” Elaine and Francis are still practicing Catholics, and Elaine is lector and cantor in their local parish.
It’s been 28 years since Elaine left her ministry; 26 for Francis. Elaine looks over and smiles at him, referring to his years as a social worker after leaving the ministry. “And they always used to say that he’s a good listener. That’s his work – and some people call him Father McGillicuddy.
“Yeah, they still call me that. Yeah, sure,” he says with a chuckle, crinkles around his eyes.
“We were married later in life,” Elaine continues, “so we were more mature, and we’ve been blessed with – you know, chemically. We get along so well. You know what I mean. It’s a gift.
And so it’s like we’re models. I don’t hesitate to admit that now, it’s a gift that we’ve received and from the beginning of our marriage, we wanted to be a sign of God’s love to other people. It’s in the Ephesians that ‘husbands love your wives as Christ loves the Church.’ I mean, it’s right there in the Christian theology that marriage is a symbol of the relationship of God and the human family. Because we’re spousal and the relationship of God and humanity is spousal.”
In between running the yoga studio, doing the Dances of Universal Peace, and their involvement in peace movements, Elaine and Francis are certainly active. However, neither of the two considers they are “activists.” As a couple, they were an integral part of the War Tax Resistance movement in the ‘80’s. But since the studio became a reality, they haven’t had that much time to devote to the cause. They also belong to a peace group, Pax Christi, Peace of Christ, and a large group of married priests and their wives, CORPUS.
“In a way we’re quietly active – quiet activists because it’s more like subverting,” Elaine says slowly, thinking out her words. “You know, like subverting the values of this culture that emphasizes material things and Rush Rush Rush. You know, teaching yoga you find your satisfaction within yourself, so you don’t need as many material things.
“I’m so aware that there are different corners and you can make a turn in the path, or there’s a little side road,” Elaine says, her hands making paths in the air in front of her. “And there’s probably something there in the future that I have no idea about, because that’s what happened to me for yoga. So you never know. I have a feeling of anticipation that I don’t know. And the not knowing is the best part of it. Because I figure that it’s an evolution.
“If I’m called, I’m called,” she says emphatically, “and I know that there’s so much joy in following what you’re called to do. You know, as Jesus said: ‘Whoever will lose his life will find it.’ And I’ve experienced how when you feel called to something you hate, you go kicking and screaming, there’s so much grace with what you’re called to do, it will pull you through anyway. But I think yoga is my path.
“Like the jail ministry is. I’m so happy about the jail ministry because now I can take what I love most and help people who are in jail,” she continues, switching her legs underneath her skirt in order to stretch both legs evenly. “Before it felt almost narcissistic, you know, it was hard for me to admit that this path of yoga is really my calling, ‘cause it doesn’t look as holy as running a place for the homeless. But now I’m seeing how what has developed in these gifts and these things that I’ve learned, I can use it for the community. Teaching yoga is a way of working for peace in the world, because if we don’t start with being at peace with ourselves, then we – how can we get along as nations if we can’t get along among ourselves? And with other people?”
Their Volkswagen with “St. Peter was a Married Priest, Too” sticker slapped on its bumper pulls into the parking lot of the Cumberland County Jail. Walking into the entrance flanked by cement pillars, they juggle arm loads of sticky mats and bags filled with belts. Just the day before, they offered a class on the Dances and yoga to a group of giggling high school students, following upon a request by a history teacher friend of theirs.
Every other week, Elaine and Francis are here offering yoga to any inmate who wants it. Alternating between Cumberland County jail and Windham Correctional Facility every week, Elaine considers this their jail ministry. After being checked over by a guard with a metal detector, they head deep inside, through many corridors separated by loudly locking steel doors. The walls are painted a pale, dusty green, and the air smells like chlorine and disinfectant. In one long corridor, windows blocked by thick gray bars peek out to a snow-covered garden surrounded by 15 foot brick walls. Inside pod C2B, three male inmates are intrigued enough by the idea of yoga that they follow Elaine and Francis into the small classroom, and take off their orange slip-on shoes and socks.
After moving two wood tables aside, Francis lays out sticky mats and then Elaine talks the men through a handstand. They place their hands on the floor, fingers pointing three inches away from the wall. Kicking one leg up, then the other, they try to balance on their hands.
“Move away from me at the shoulders,” Elaine guides. “Reach higher with the feet, go higher with the feet.”
She nudges one man’s legs towards the wall. Middle-aged, his face reddens as he repeats her instructions, disbelief and effort in his voice, “Higher with the feet.” His hands press into the mat, knuckles whitening around his gold wedding band.
“Yeah,” she says. “Right there. Okay. There you go. Straighten your arms as much as you can and when you’re ready, just come down. I just want to show you that yoga is not wimpy, okay? It’s relaxation, but it’s not just for wimps.”
Francis chuckles and the men do too. They find that their orange cotton pant suits are quite loose enough to accommodate their lunges, but they lean against the wall for support and reach their arms away from their bodies for warrior pose, imitating Francis. A mass of other inmates crowds around the glass door, looking in and commenting on the progress inside, voices muffled by the thickness of the glass.
One young man comes out of warrior pose, brings his feet together and laughingly says in a thick Maine accent, “Wow. This is torture.”
Looking over, Elaine replies, “But you know what? You’re gonna feel great after.”
“I already feel it!” he says with a smile.
For the next pose, Elaine grabs a stack of four or five books and sits on them, her shins on the floor, feet tucking the books underneath her. She says that if they have wastebaskets in their room, they could try this sitting pose. “When you’re in your cell you could try that. You know, I was in the convent years ago, and we used to use the word ‘cell’ for our rooms. I’m used to saying, “’Take this to your cell.’ so convents and monasteries are a lot like jail, in a way,” her shoulders shrug. Francis glances up from his seated position on the floor smiling broadly. Elaine continues to adjust the books. “It’s a disciplined life, you know.”
She gets extra books for the man with the wedding ring, seeing that he’s having trouble getting comfortable. He says, jokingly, “Why are we always working on the old guy?”
Everyone laughs, and Elaine responds, “You know, Francis started yoga when he was in his late fifties!”
The man smiles and adjusts the books Elaine has given him. “Oh, great. Thank you, Francis,” he says with a little laugh in his deep voice.
“And I started around age 43,” Elaine says, “so you can start at any age.”
Next, Elaine demonstrates how to fold the hands behind the back, as if in backwards prayer. “Palms touch,” she guide, “the wrists are tight!” While the others struggle and try to make their wrists bend in an unfamiliar way, one man succeeds, his hands bunching the back of his orange shirt. Elaine moves to him, “There! So now all you need is someone to pull your shirt down as your hands go up.” She tugs at the bottom of the shirt, shifting it so his hands fold more
completely. After this, she tells them to let go and “hug themselves” to stretch out their shoulders.
Elaine then has the men lie on the floor, their legs up the wall. Standing in between two of them, leaning against the wall, she asks, “Have you been doing yoga since I saw you?”
“Trying to,” he says as he adjusts his legs.
“Good. So do you have any questions about anything – because I won’t see you for two weeks now? We go to the other jail every other week.”
“I know I have questions.” He sighs reflectively, but I can’t think of anything to ask.”
“Well,” she replies. “You know you can write to me and ask me.” After thinking, she says, she’ll mail them pictures of poses for them to follow.
A short 40 minutes later, after back twists on the floor and variations of warrior pose, it’s almost time to leave. The men outside the door are still there and watch as Elaine sets up for savasana. She snaps off one of the fluorescent lights and has the men rest their calves up on the beige plastic chairs in the room. She tenderly places a belt over each one’s eyes to block out the light, folding the belts twice so they overlap.
Seated herself, she pulls her feet in towards her body, closes her eyes and talks them through corpse pose. “And the hardest thing to let go is your thoughts. You let go of the three B’s: you let go of the body, you let go of the breath. Even the breath, you let it go. Let it be natural breathing. And you let go of the brain – that’s the hardest one to let go. I use an image that helps me. It’s being like a baby in the arms of its father or mother. So that’s what you want to do. You want to be like God’s child. Be God’s child in the arms of God. Just let yourself go.”
Moments of silence pass. Talking and television from outside the classroom are barely audible as the men in the classroom relax. The skin on their faces loosens; wrinkles around their eyes soften.
It’s now time to leave. Guards are rolling supper carts down the corridor towards the pod.
The rattling of the wheels and the sound of keys jangling against the guards’ hips echo through the hallways. The men watching the class from outside the glass door come inside. They extend their hands to the man with the wedding ring, to help him get up. Rolling over, he grabs their hands and says, “Oh, man. You’ve gotta try this.”
Bill Gillis took these five photos of Portland Yoga Studio’s teachers doing yoga by the sea.
He called them – “Francis with his harem.”