Bringing The Art of Living Course to the New Bilibid Prison could very well be the best thing that happened to its 107 inmates in May.
Prisoners are metaphorically and literally pushed to the edge of the walls. Hundreds are assigned to a cell so overcrowded that they sleep shoulder to shoulder on cardboards. Most of them have been there for nine to fourteen years. Many are there for life. A number even serve double life sentences. And then there is the death row. It is easy to imagine what kind of stresses they undergo every moment of their life within these walls.
The Art of Living courses are meant to relieve stresses, develop human values, stimulate a sense of belonging, encourage service and ignite a life of celebration. Part of the exercises are yoga movements done with eyes closed and with a kind of breathing that deeply detoxifies and oxygenates the body. The modules are meant to integrate the body, mind and the different human faculties, thus strengthening the individual. A technique unique to this course is called “Sudarshan Kriya” which some practitioners, who experienced its effects, call the “healing breath”.
In the course, values are taught, not through lectures but through assignments of being of service to another, even with a simple act or a few words of comfort. Each day they are given introspective questions to ponder on so that they become stable in their inner core.
"I can sleep better now. My body feels lighter. My breathing makes me feel good. I feel more relaxed. I feel more loving. I can now accept my life here, despite my sentence of double life. I am happier. I’m no longer taking my medications for diabetes because I feel well now. I wish to help out next time. How do I become a teacher?" This is some of the feedback from the graduates - expressions that are more than enough compensation for a volunteer.
They also reported that despite their very limited space in the cell, some do the exercises everyday, as they were urged. Someone said that the others laughed at him when he did yoga alone in the open, so he organized a group to practice with. Many of them assured that they would each enroll at least five friends for the next course.
One who is into serving cannot just walk away from a spiritually fulfilling project such as this. We asked the Officer in Charge if we can conduct another course with 500 participants. We suggested to hold it outdoors in the basketball court, with the confidence of finding a solution to the absence of a roof. “We can give you 6,000 plus 12,000 participants,” was the answer. Is this a lifetime mission then? Perhaps. It only means that we need more volunteers.
The New Bilibid property is more than a sprawling hundred-hectar property with rolling hills. One wonders about the end result if thousands of inmates take the practice of yoga, meditation, service, and studies of spiritual truth seriously.
Perhaps at night, just like in monasteries, stillness is what will pervade inside the structures of those wired walls? Or maybe the sound of prayerful chants? Perhaps.