From CEO To Prison Bodhisattva
Sitting comfortably at his desk, it is hard to imagine that CEO and Wharton grad
Mike Huggins was ever in prison, let alone struggling through dark nights of the soul. Then he starts to talk and you realize that he is passionate about subjects most business executives would never discuss - what it is like to be in prison; the inmates who befriended and helped him; the prisoners he is now helping; and finally, the spiritual questions that arise one is a yogi attempting to practice in an absurd, violent environment.
Huggins’ story from golden boy executive to incarceration and then founding the Transformation Yoga Project, can be found in his new book Going Om, A CEO’s Journey From A Prison Facility to Spiritual Tranquility. Sellout crowds have gathered to hear him speak. Yoga City NYC’s Cynthia Kling snagged him for a personal interview about his dark time, redemption, and how Anneke Lucas’s Liberation Prison Yoga gave him an idea for a new life.
Cynthia Kling: Tell me about that first night in jail.
Mike Huggins: It was surreal. I was mentally exhausted and physically tired from spending over 10 hours in various holding cells (only one bologna sandwich to eat all day) and was then dumped into the unit at 8:30 right before the 9 PM lockup. My cellmate was not happy about this, but I kept reminding myself that I would get through it. Guards woke everyone at 5:30 for a breakfast of stale black corn flakes. There was only a 15-minute window of time to get breakfast, so when the cell door was unlocked, I followed a mass of men like a gang of zombies to the chow line. No one talked or even made eye contact.
CK: When did you remember your yoga?
MH: Yoga was an essential part of my life before sentencing and was a constant companion during the sentencing, processing and transfer to the detention center. During the first couple of days, the practice was focused on breathing, centering, repeating my mantra (joy, surrender, true self) and a little walking meditation.
CK: Did you do an asana practice in your cell?
MH: My cellmate, kind of a tough guy, was a Muslim and didn’t appreciate yoga so I didn’t practice asana while in the cell with him, but did practice when I was alone. Not much room to maneuver but I was able to move through various warrior and sun salutation series.
Since there were no weights or equipment to work out with, the men would use anything they could to develop a crude fitness circuit - cell doors for chip-ups, railing for bicep work, towels for resistance training, and many, many pushups and sit ups.
I casually slipped into the circuit and practiced core yoga postures. Many of the men were curious about these ‘martial arts’ moves which ultimately lead to starting a full-fledged yoga practice in the cell block.
CK: Did your yoga grow during this period?
MH: There is a saying that inmates are the modern-day monks because they do not access modern conveniences and through living an austere life don’t have the distractions which hold us back from exploring what’s important in life. It’s true, Yes. I was able to deep dive into spirituality, philosophy and yoga in a way I never would have been able to before.
I was also able to witness first-hand the transformative power of yoga in the many men who embraced the yogic philosophy of mindfulness, non-reactiveness, self-care, non-judgement etc. These themes were put to practical use in a very challenging environment.
After I was transferred to the minimum-security prison, I was practicing and teaching yoga at least two times a day. I also developed several mediation programs using a modified yoga nidra guided meditation which provided me with confidence in relying on my own words and not on a script.
CK: What was the most difficult part?
MH: The paradox of yoga in prison is that the idea is to find freedom. Freedom even in prison. Freedom—literally and figuratively. Freedom means finding non-violent ways to deal with violent situations. Freedom means having the strength to live an authentic life in an environment which demeans the human spirit. Freedom means finding joy in the present moment in a joyless environment.
The idea of non-violence may be easy for us to understand but it’s much more complicated when you are living in a violent environment. The practice of yoga in prison should involve inquiry in ways to apply yoga’s moral principles, yamas and niyamas, to cultivating self-care, repairing fractured relationships, coping with shame and disappointment, and identifying approaches for living a meaningful life.
Yoga doesn’t provide the answer to this question, but does provide a pathway for individuals to decide how to apply non-violence in every-day situations. The concept of self-care takes on a deeper meaning when you are being attacked.
CK: What was the most important book you read while incarcerated?
MH: By far it was The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the right book at the right time. An inmate lent it to me after my first week of incarceration and for two weeks it was the only reading material I had. I came to embrace the four Noble Truths about suffering and our power to transcend it.
There are so many amazing and deep concepts presented in a very straight forward and accessible way. I visualized what he was saying and immediately looked for ways to apply it in my current situation.
CK: How did it all morph into your prison yoga project?