I haven’t had much to say about the death of Michael Jackson because, well, I just haven’t had much to say. Besides, we’ve all been hearing about it everywhere, so who needs more of it here? I felt sad for about 15 minutes shortly after I heard the news on Thursday, then I got over it ~ and then I became fascinated by the constant media coverage (which is what happens to me after celebrity deaths). I’ve also been avoiding all the Michael Jackson tributes, which isn’t that hard if you don’t watch TV or listen to commercial radio.

However, I gave in and watched the tribute by the inmates at the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a maximum security prison in the Phillipines, which has been making the rounds on countless blogs and Facebook for the past few days. I’m charmed by this tribute for many reasons, but mainly because it’s sincere and yogic.

The prisoners have a reason to honour Jackson, since they have him to thank for their rapid ascension to YouTube fame. It was their choreographed routine to Jackson’s “Thriller” which captured the imagination of the world in 2007 and made it to #5 on a Time Magazine “top viral videos” list. The prisoners went on to dance to “YMCA,” “Soulja Boy” and “Radio Gaga,” and the director of the prison, Byron F Garcia, loaded up all the videos to YouTube, where they received millions and millions of hits.

This is a pretty interesting anecdote, but the story behind the director and the prison he found himself directing is even more fascinating, and very inspiring. A few years ago, Garcia’s politician sister appointed him to direct and clean up the roughest prison – full of murders, rapists and drug dealers – in the Phillipines. He started off by implementing an exercise regime for the prisoners, and then one day, after watching them march (to a drum beat) across the courtyard, he was inspired to teach them a dance routine (to “Another Brick in the Wall” – how awesome is that?). He was also apparently inspired by a scene in The Shawshank Redemption. It seemed to go over fairly well, so he continued to choreograph and teach routines to various pop songs, and committed the prisoners’ exercise times to practice.

The world-wide YouTube attention gave the prisoners a sense of pride, but the dancing had an even greater affect on them. Garcia started to notice that the feeling of the prison improved, and the inmates, who had been volatile, addicted to drugs, and governed by gang politics, were suddenly friendly with each other.

The whole phenomenon is documented in several documentaries, including the sympathetic Jailhouse Rock, where the filmmakers go right into the prison and talk to the inmates. They also reveal the intense discipline that has been instilled in the prison, as well as the spiritual side – the prison is informed by Christian principles and there are almost evangelical church services, which are packed every week.

This is where I find the yoga in this story:

  • Garcia followed his intuition and initiated a unique, unheard-of idea. From what I understand, he didn’t plan on transforming the prison with choreographed dance routines – he just had a crazy idea for rehabilitation and followed it.
  • The healing power of dance and body movement. Us yogis know how powerful a physical discipline can be, and how the effects can ripple through all aspects of our lives. The dancing had a similar effect on  prisoners, who started to notice improved emotions and general feelings toward other people.
  • And most importantly, the infinite capacity that we all have to change. It’s never too late to change our minds or our hearts. Even Michael Jackson knew this: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways…”