Saturday, March 19, 2016

Kristi Coulter talks about Yoga Behind Bars, blogging, her new novel THE THIRD PARTY, yoga poses and so much more

Thanks to the amazing Jean Trounstine, I've been attending bookclubs run for previously incarcerated women who must attend a class as part of their parole or probation. It's been an extraordinary experience (forget everything you know about women's prisons. Every woman I spoke with hated Orange is the New Black and felt it was unrealistic.)  So I happened to meet the amazing Kristi Coulter who started up Yoga Behind Bars. I'm so jazzed to have Kristi here. Thank you a zillion times, Kristi!

I've spent most of last year researching women in prison, and the most profound experience I had was going to two book group classes for women who were on parole or probation. I loved these women--and I was shocked at how stunned they ere that someone would actually WANT to come to their group, because as far as I could see, the honor of listening to their stories was mine. You're involved with yoga in prison.. Yoga Behind Bars/ Please, tell us about it--how does the program work, what does it do for women--and what doesn't it?
Yoga Behind Bars is a nonprofit here in Seattle that offers free yoga and meditation classes to incarcerated people throughout the Washington state prison system; I'm on the board of directors. Prison is an insanely stressful, dehumanizing environment--we try to counter that impact by giving prisoners tools for dealing with stress and anxiety both while they're incarcerated and afterward, when they are back in their communities. Our students tell us they feel calmer, healthier, and happier from practicing yoga, and that leads to great downstream effects like more thoughtful conflict resolution and decision making.

We have a long-term vision of changing what incarceration means in America--making it something that actually helps people and sends them back out into the world ready to succeed, vs. just warehousing them for a time. We work with other organizations and the legislature toward that goal. But our core mission is to give prisoners tools right now. Some of the people we teach probably shouldn't be in prison at all. Some of them are there because of crimes stemming from untreated addiction or mental illness. And some of them did pretty bad things and absolutely are in the right place. We don't really draw a distinction. They all can benefit from mindfulness.

We reach 5,000 students a year via a small army of yoga teachers who volunteer their time. Even with their efforts, it's hard to keep up with demand--so in late 2015 we launched the nation's first 100-hour teacher training program for prisoners. Our first class of ten men--we started with men because 93% of our state's prison population is male--just graduated, and now they can offer yoga classes in their home facilities. These are all guys who are serving long-term or life sentences, and now they are in a position to be embedded teachers and role models in their prisons. That's huge. That's how cultural change starts to take root and spread.

What does our program do for women? Well, on a purely physical level it helps them (and men) feel better. Many of our students have chronic aches and pains or other physical issues that yoga helps to relieve. It also helps them to find some quiet. New teachers are often shocked by how LOUD prisons are. For a couple of hours a week our students can be in a quiet room where they work on cultivating internal calm and peace. And most importantly, it builds their self-esteem, which is a major issue for many incarcerated women. We're currently raising money to hold a 100-hour teacher training for women prisoners. Funds permitting, that should happen in the fall.

What doesn't our program do for women? One thing is that it doesn't help them sustain a yoga practice or yoga community post-release. Yoga classes are expensive, not to mention very white. Many of our students are of color, and when they look inside a commercial yoga studio they don't see anyone who looks like them and are dissuaded. (Just like I'm too shy to go to one of those black churches with the big gospel choir even though it would be supremely awesome.) And even if that weren't a barrier, affordability often is. We constantly kick around ideas--could we offer scholarships? could we at least give a free mat to every paroled student for home practice? There's much to be done by the broader yoga community to make it more accessible to people who aren't your standard head-standing middle-class white lady (like yours truly). One local studio launched a monthly class geared specifically toward people of color, and received such an onslaught of harassment, including death threats, that not only was the class cancelled, but the entire studio closed out of safety fears. Death threats! Over yoga! In one of the most liberal cities in America! I mean, sweet fancy Moses. So yeah, there is work to be done.
How did you get involved with Yoga Behind Bars?

I've been practicing yoga for 12 years and at one point considered becoming a teacher, because yoga has been transformative for me and I wanted to pass that along to other people. But there are a LOT of yoga teachers out there already, especially (or so it seems) on the West Coast. When I learned about YBB I thought aha, here is a different way to help. I became a donor, and then got to know the leadership team and helped them recruit and hire a new executive director. (I have conducted almost 700 job interviews in my corporate job, so I'm sort of an expert.)  And last year I joined the board of directors. From my day job I know a lot about building businesses from the ground up via strategic planning, team development, and other wonkish-sounding skills that are very useful for a fast-growing organization like YBB. So that's the role I serve. I can't teach a roomful of people to do Revolved Triangle, and I can't speak with deep authority about reforming our penal system, but I can read a 5-year plan and pinpoint the traps and blind spots that someone else might miss.

 You've written fabulous essays and commentaries, all on your great blog, and you're now a novelist. Tell me what that feels like? (I ask because when I first wrote a novel, I threw up a lot. A whole lot.)  Can you talk about the novel, please?
Well, here's my story: I went straight from college to an MFA program at age 22, and won some nice prizes and published some pieces and was pretty darn sure I'd be famous by 30, or at least 30-*ish*. And then...what happened? A few things. One is that I did not yet have the stamina required to really do the work. Writing had always come easily to me, and I stood out in a few small ponds, and then post-MFA I landed in a big pond with other equally talented writers who actually worked really hard and I went "Wait, what's going on here?!" Plus I had bag-lady fears so wanted a "real job," which proved to be a distraction. And also I was just TIRED. I'd been writing like a maniac since high school and had never really done anything else. I would give my characters the most awkward, obviously fake jobs because I barely knew what a job was like myself. I mean, I was one step away from making them all recent MFA graduates who now temped in law offices.

So without ever officially quitting, I drifted. Got married, got some dogs, traveled, found my way into a number of fairly high-powered and interesting corporate jobs, etc. (I still have bag-lady fears, though.) And along the way, managed to develop a white-wine habit that eventually led me to realize that I was a--oh, what's the word I'm looking for?--a drunk. A high-functioning, urbane, nice drunk, but still. So I threw a bucket of cold water over myself. As part of getting sober I started my Off-Dry blog, and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people. And about six months into sobriety I had a craving to WRITE-write again, so one day I sat down and wrote three pages of a story. I would say it was as easy as getting back on a bike, except I recently rode a bike for the first time in a decade and it was kind of a disaster. (Bumpy dirt road, angry Mexican dog, etc.)  It was much easier than that.

That was almost three years ago, and I've been writing pretty steadily since then, and it's FUN now in a way that it wasn't in my striving 20s. Even when the day-to-day work is kind of a slog, which it often is, it's a GLORIOUS slog. So that is how it feels. Sloggy and glorious and woeful and joyful and just the right amount of scary. There's not a luckier girl in the world.

As for the novel itself: the working title is THE THIRD PARTY. It's a love-and-friendship triangle about a feminist historian and two very tall men: a former track star who has never left the state of Michigan and his misanthropic older brother, who makes hipster bourbon for a living. It's set in Ann Arbor and is a (mildly exasperated) love letter to college towns--the way they are urbane and provincial, arrogant and defensive all at once. It's about people trying to expand the boundaries of their lives and what happens when they do so thoughtlessly or too fast. There is a St. Bernard named Scobie in it, and a 50K race run on a single one-mile loop, and a made-up heroine of the Michigan women's suffrage movement. There is a dowager with a sword cane, and a little bit of sex. I was inspired by big-hearted, wryly funny books like The Art of Fielding and The Interestings and every Laurie Colwin novel ever. I'm trying to write a novel that could make someone feel the way I did when I discovered those books.

Seeing it all written out like this makes me think I sound crazy. That's normal, right? Please say yes even if you have to lie.  (Note: Answer is YES.)

While working on THE THIRD PARTY, I've also been writing and publishing essays about my transformation from chronically hungover jackass into sober and bright-eyed semi-jackass. I'm currently working on a proposal to turn those into a book, too. Perhaps I'll call it SEMI-JACKASS. (Then again, perhaps not...)

What kind of writer are you? Do you plan things out or just sit down and write and see what happens? Do you have rituals? (I love rituals..)
Oh god, I want to be a planner! It sounds so wonderful. But I can't do it. When I plan more than one chapter ahead, the words just sit there on the page like lumps of bad biscuit dough. I started THE THIRD PARTY with a last line, a couple of characters, and a song stuck in my head, and it's grown organically from there. I'm very scene-oriented, so often the process feels like I'm swinging from scene to scene on a jungle vine, trying to hang on. At one point I told a writer friend, "I seem to be writing this thing in concentric circles" and then waited for her to tell me that was totally normal. I'm still waiting.

I also love rituals, but I've almost made a fetish this time around of NOT having them, because I can easily get hung up on everything being just so. I carry an iPad mini and keyboard in my purse so I can yank it out anywhere and write a few lines--as someone with a full-time day job, I knew I had to learn to seize the moment and not be precious about it. I actually wrote a decent paragraph while sitting inside a drive-through car wash last week.

What's obsessing you now and why?
I think a lot lately about women and why our freedom so often seems to be in the hands of a small group of powerful men, whether they are senators or mullahs or just guys with guns. I'm also fascinated by the way that alcohol permeates every aspect of US culture--I ran a half-marathon last year that had a margarita tent!--and by how I see women confusing over-drinking with empowerment. (Which I TOTALLY did myself.) What else? Distance running, Tom Ford lipstick, a Cincinnati band called Wussy who are the best-kept musical secret in America. A wonderful new novel called Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte. And finding the perfect tan booties for spring--so if you see any...

What question didn't I ask that I should have?
"What's your favorite and least favorite yoga pose, Kristi?" Favorite: Uttanasana. What's not to like about just flopping forward? Least favorite: so many to choose from! Today I'll go with Parivrtta Utkatasana, or Twisted Chair Pose. I do not particularly enjoy cramming my stomach and most of my internal organs onto the side of one leg while also doing a squat. Maybe it's just me.

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