Prison in the Heart of Paradise

Teaching Yoga at Kerobokan

by Becca Stine


I feel my breath and heart grow heavy as I notice the guards strategically seat themselves in the corner of the raised platform, their eyes locked to their watches. They chain-smoke clove cigarettes. I inhale the sweet smell of their smoke. It momentarily conceals the sewage stench that fills the space. They despise my presence, caustically exhaling insults in a language they don’t expect me to understand. Bule bohong,…“stupid white girl”...I feel like I shouldn’t be there at all until I notice the concentration and readiness in my yoga students’ eyes. 

“These guards are assholes,” my instructor whispers into my ear. Below the two guards stands a group of Indonesian men, clouded by their cigarette smokescreen. They observe as if stunned, strategically placed ten feet away for a clear view of every subtle change in posture. Silenced, I calm my breath and step onto my mat.

Six men stand before me in two rows, and as they position themselves for the mountain pose, the man closest to me tenses his brow and asks, “Have you seen the new school yearbook yet?” He’s referring to the yearbook for the Green School, the school in Bali I attended at the time. Incidentally, his young daughter goes there too. 

A self-portrait painted in Kerobokan prison by Mayuran Sukumaran, a member of the Bali Nine.

A self-portrait painted in Kerobokan prison by Mayuran Sukumaran, a member of the Bali Nine.

He smiles softly as he speaks of his young daughter. She’s a starling. That’s what they call Pre-K students, “starlings,” after the beautiful and endangered bird of Bali, a small white-feathered creature with a cobalt blue coloring around its eyes. I remember standing back at school, on the afternoon when we released four rehabilitated starlings into the wild. All the little starlings, the children, were so overjoyed to see their counterparts fly off—an excitement they couldn’t even begin to relate to their own ultimate release into the world, still years away.     

Standing in mountain pose at the front of our mats, I notice his brow furrow once more, as he fears his little starling has missed picture day. He wants to know when it is.

“Umm, I graduated last year. I don’t know. I’m sorry.” A weak, helpless smile finds his face as he bows his head in Tadasana. 

 “Inhale, up dog,” I say, arching my back as I notice a young, skinny man walking through the gray space to the women’s block, which stands just beyond the raised platform. An older lady hands him his little girl. He isn’t allowed in the building, and the older woman doesn’t meet him for the exchange. She doesn’t even bother to push a toe past the front gate to step into the common area. I arch my back further and notice that the baby is handed to him. At first glance it’s as if she’s pasing through the bars. He gently lifts her from the woman’s arms, and together they make their way towards the raised platform. 

“Exhale, down dog.” 

My eyes move to the back of the room as I gaze through my legs, losing the man and his child for a moment. I’m surprised by the obedience of my students, curiously respectful and docile for men in such a harsh prison system, some of whom may very well be on death row. They continue to follow my instruction. How remarkable it is that men trapped in two-person cells with eight other men, in a reality where drugs are the only escape, could bring themselves to listen so perfectly to a young, white, free and oblivious girl. 

“Inhale, jump to the front of your mat.” 

We each simultaneously find the front of the room, and I again gaze forward. I find the man and his child sitting on the corner of the raised platform, now just two feet away. They are beautiful, and she is unmistakably his daughter. Her deep blue eyes and olive skin match his exactly. He watches her intensely, ensuring she remains within arm’s reach while he takes puffs of his cigarette. 

“Inhale, rise to standing and reach your arms overhead.” 

Bits of cracked skin peek through the holes in their shorts and tank tops—the same ones they wore the day they walked into the prison. There is no uniform. It would cost too much. A prison meant for 370 prisoners, now filled with over 1200, does not have a budget for such details.

All eyes turn back on me as we conclude our first sun salutation. My eyes fall into the deep blue of the quiet olive child. She couldn’t yet be more than two, and may grow many years before she learns of life beyond Kerobokan Prison. Had she attended the Green School, she would be a starling too. She would have watched the birds’ release, experiencing an unconscious anticipation, fluttery with excitement for her own time of flight. Her blue almost mimics that around the eyes of a starling, and I envision her release from Kerobokan—her silent father, glued to the prison floor, watching her flight, as I had once watched the starlings fly from the Green School.

The constant knot swirling deep within my stomach pulls my attention from the place where I stand—a prison in the heart of paradise. We’re in a green common space bounded by four large cement buildings with red iron roofs. They almost look like homes. It could be any other village square in Bali. But it’s not.

The mundanity of the scene worsens the sickness I feel, as I scan the square with my eyes and fail to find the tall barbed wire walls and the guard tower that had welcomed my entrance. Amidst such an “average” setting, it’s hard not to feel like I’m the abnormal element. I fill with a surreal sense of discomfort, distracted by an irrational fear that, like the inmates, I too will be trapped and silenced.

I could be anywhere else in southern Bali. The harsh reality of the prison is somewhat easy to forget—for a second. It is the people who catch my attention first: all so skinny, like ghostly rag dolls. I can see every detail of their bones, from the stripes of their protruding ribs, to the sharp knob of their shoulder bones. Bits of cracked skin peek through the holes in their shorts and tank tops—the same ones they wore the day they walked into the prison. There is no uniform. It would cost too much. A prison meant for 370 prisoners, now filled with over 1200, does not have a budget for such details. 

As I step from my mat at the end of my sequence and sit in observation on the side, the man closest to me draws his attention away from the other teacher, finds a seat on his mat and begins talking at me. He tells me about his night terrors: waking up on the hard floor of his cell, shaking and drenched in sweat. He confesses to selling drugs in the prison, not because he needs the money, but because others need the escape. He curses at the rats, who he swears sometimes feel equal to their human cellmates. The words spill from his mouth, most of them so slurred I cannot decipher their meaning—he goes on and on, “and when I wake up I remember it is real … a real nightmare.” He doesn’t seem to care who is listening. I just happen to be there and to be someone—even just for a few minutes, before I launch into my next yogic sequence. I wonder whether he’s high on the heavy drugs he claims to sell, or simply lacking the will to enunciate. He finally stops and ascends into a headstand, exhibiting his perfect potbelly; I worry his stick-like arms are going to snap in half. He must be about 6’3. His worn body wavers in the air above his neck, while the others rise with the sidewall. 

Paintings made i  nKerobokan prison by Mayuran Sukumaran. Above, “Doghead” and even further above, “Drip.”

Paintings made inKerobokan prison by Mayuran Sukumaran. Above, “Doghead” and even further above, “Drip.”

Together we sink, twisted, into eagle pose, as the screech of rusty wheels snaps my gaze away from the mat. The rusty wheels belong to a small wagon. People begin to fill the gray space, some holding bowls or buckets, many stopping to inspect our lesson on their way. As I look past the Italian, Indian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern men, shaking steadily in eagle pose, I see a few groups of Indonesian boys. They mingle for a minute before congregating around the small wagon, but the older Indonesian men have already crowded them out. From a few feet away, as the men and young boys walk back toward their cells with buckets of rice, I can make out the rocks and sticks that no one had bothered to filter from the grains. 

“This is lunch and dinner every day,” my instructor tells me as the man by the wagon continues to scoop large cups of rice into the prisoners’ buckets and bowls. 

Most people refuse the mush. It resembles some kind of fowl, gray sickness more than it does Indonesian food. I can’t smell it, but I imagine its unappealing stench. As the security guard begins to wheel the food away from the scene, my students remain unbothered. Some have a few extra dollars that will allow them the luxury of packaged ramen noodles and a beer from the small shop at the prison’s end. 

“Inhale, updog.” 

I gaze up from my mat and find the olive child once more, her eyes in mine as she imitates my movement. Her father is still observing wordlessly. My heart lightens as I notice a small smile spread across her delicate expression. 

“Exhale, downdog.” 

I smile, but my stomach grows heavier and I trip on my breath. I step from my mat to allow a fellow student to lead her sequence. My instructor walks over to me, noticing that I had been eyeing the girl. She finally tells the story of the father and his child.     

The girl was born in the prison only months after her parents were arrested for murder. The couple was young, about my age, and had been traveling in Bali on vacation. The man sitting just two feet away from me had brutally murdered his girlfriend’s mother less than two years earlier. He left her dismembered body in a small carry-on suitcase by a waiting taxi in a hotel parking lot. 

I’m overwhelmed with a sudden urge to vomit, as if someone has suddenly yanked the ends of the knot that has been growing within me. This man standing before me, so gently holding new life, had only recently ended the life of another. How had I ended up here?

The endangered starling lives for seven to eight years. A starling was born, lived and died while Mayu sat rehabilitating himself in Kerobokan Prison. By the end of his ninth year, Mayu had become somewhat endangered—the prison had made him that way.

Only one year before I walked into Kerobokan, a man named Mayuran Sukumaran, a member of the notorious Bali Nine (a group of Australian men who were sent to Kerobokan for trafficking heroin onto the island) walked out through the doors of the prison. Like the men standing before me, Mayu had lived within the walls of the prison for nine years before he was finally led back out through the entrance, rehabilitated, but not to be freed. He had spent those nine years fighting the unforgiving system of the prison, establishing both an art and yoga program there for the prisoners—Mayu was the reason I stood shaking at the front of my mat that day. 

But unlike the manner in which I was released from Kerobokan that afternoon, Mayu was not met with a fresh meal and beautiful beach. He was instead transported to a small island to face a firing squad. 

The endangered starling lives for seven to eight years. A starling was born, lived and died while Mayu sat rehabilitating himself in Kerobokan Prison. By the end of his ninth year, Mayu had become somewhat endangered—the prison had made him that way, as he held his rehabilitation in his hands, the prison held his life in theirs.

As I finish rolling up the tethered yoga mat donated to the prison program, I gaze up to find the six men standing with their rolled mats tucked under their arms. 

“Who is teaching next week…there is a program running next Tuesday so we may have less students attend,” the Indian man informs my instructor. 

The others still stand there intentionally—still so diligent. I’m asked what year I’m in and when I will finally be certified, the small talk feeling like a desperate cry for normality. The chatter seems to pull the men up and out from their sticky and stagnant incarcerated worlds, to feel human again.

“Its time to go,” I hear my instructor behind me—our hour is up. The guards begin to move toward us and like sheep we are herded away. As I walk back through the gate, again handed my identification card, my stomach clenches once more as I think of the olive child and I realize I too am like the starling. Only today, I am released back into an unencumbered reality, while she remains in her cage.