I learn the most when things get dicey. On days when my balance is wobbly, schmobbly my body is telling me something. So I may bend my knee a bit, leaning in as if trying to hear it whisper a secret… It’s challenging because I want to stand tall and proud. But if I can’t hear what I’m standing tall and proud for the pose losing meaning. So I try to love the wobble. Namaste y’all.
The past two weeks have been filled with so many powerful moments that I’m at a loss about what to share. I walk a fine line between respecting the sanctity of the space in which we practice with wanting to shine awareness about why it’s vital that the world know about the work that happens in side jails and prisons. I think long and hard in order to protect privacy and intimate moments. Last week I was grateful to have Adrianna with me. Adrianna is a teacher, but she’s more than that. She’s an open soul who is committed to the work that she does and it was evident in the way that she led students (and me) through a guided meditation. It was the first time that I meditated with the students and could feel myself let go despite the noise. Despite the yelling and the tension that our students told us was present. I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space with these women.
This week classes were smaller but definitely grounded. ‘Felicia’ was new to class and didn’t think that she would do yoga but was amped up to try. She wanted to know if she should change out of her greens, the uniforms sentenced women are required to wear. I let her know that she could change but didn’t have to. I led students through sun salutations in the trauma-sensitive style that we use. No commands- no demands. I demonstrate and say what I’m doing. This allows students to choose to move in a way that feels good for them. I set my intention for class in my breathing. I was inspired to do this by a Glen Baez a teacher at Jivamukti. I placed my intention for self-love and kindness with my inhales and exhales. This way as long as I was connected toy breathing I was connected to my intention. Felicia followed suit. She began to speak with me as I raised my arms up overhead and said, “And I I’m raising my arms up overhead and placing my hands on my heart. I am breathing in that I love myself and that I am kind.” She was thrilled. In the same instant she paused and went to change. Telling the class and me that she was hot and also tearing up. Feeling emotional during practice wasn’t something she expected. Felicia came back and finished her practice with grace. She joked and said that she doesn’t cry but it was cool that she felt something.
Truthout.org posted an article this week about what it means to volunteer in prison. It can’t be about ‘feeling good’ for the folks who go inside. It’s about serving and giving folks a chance to see and hold their own power. I bow deeply to Felicia and all of my students who are willing to see something beautiful inside. There is no greater honor. I wasn’t someone who believed a lot in grace until I found yoga. But there is energy, a force that unites us and if we are willing we can see it. And if we are open it will hold us.
Felicia, the light in my bows deeply to the light in you. Thank you.
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself and that suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment, he needs help.”
– Thich Naht Hahn
Meditation is the medicine. Rosie’s was in need of a big woosah on a chilly, drizzly Friday morning.
A flashing blue light at Rikers says ‘hey an alarm is happening’. It also says ‘so wherever you are is where you are going to be until it’s over.’ Alarms happen when there is a fight of some sort of disruption. I happened to hear the beginning of this disruption as I was getting on the elevator. Two steps off the elevator, I saw the light I yelled for them to keep the doors open. Standing in a hallway by myself during an alarm just didn’t seem fun or smart. Back on the elevator two women said that there had been a lot of fighting lately. You have to take that with a grain of salt because I don’t have any way to verify that. I did think that something happened on the floor where I was headed to teach and hoped it would be resolved so I wouldn’t have to cancel class. Since we were on a moving elevator the CO sent us back to the floor we had all come from. Thankfully it was only 15 minutes, I’ve been in some that are as long as 45.
Teaching a few classes take two!
I felt electric energy in the dorm but saw a lot of women sprawled (as mush as one can sprawl) on their cots. Calling for yoga didn’t generate a lot of movement. So I waited and set up a mat in the dining room cum lounge cum yoga area. If I sit they will come.
They did. A former dancer with The Dance Theater of Harlem told me about her love of ballet. Another was interested in the arthritis in her shoulder which led to a conversation about joints and synovial fluid. This word was s hit. Everyone kept repeating it over and over moving their shoulders in time. ‘Its name sounds like what it does.’ I’d never thought about the poetry of the word but she was right. This same student was also pregnant and during meditation a peaceful smile washed over her face as she rubbed her belly. The room was silent and in a very different twist every student fell asleep. This never happens. The silence drew onlookers who watched their housemates bliss out. They looked at me and smiled. It’s a good thing.
‘That was a beautiful experience,’ one student said.
‘I heard your voice in the background but it was like is was getting lower and lower. Then I just fell asleep.’
It takes a lot of trust for a group of women in jail to sleep (snoring included) in front of you. A few were embarrassed but with assurance that it’s normal, natural and frankly good for them to let go- they were pleased and felt rested.
Meditation is the medicine, yo.
The same thing happened in my next class. Ten women zonked out. Someone did mention that this was the floor of the fight so the adrenaline drop off can be tiring. I take the responsibility of sleeping women seriously. I watch the door and silently shush people away who look like they want to play with people on their mats. But today everyone seemed to be looking out for the group. When I was leaving a group of women stopped me bummed because they have to work when I teach. They wanted something to do even if they can’t come to class. When I said next week I’d bring them a few practices to do together I didn’t get a pessimistic side eye or an okay covered in doubt- just a ‘cool, thanks’ with a smile and a ‘see you next week.’
Trust is the foundation of mindfulness. Trust the process, trust people. Trust yourself.
“Thoughts are things, so make ‘em good ones.” -unknown
A lot of women I encounter in jail have endured a life of being told that they are less than. Being told that they don’t matter. Being told that they are nothing more than a body to be used, abused and thrown away.
In trauma sensitive yoga we find ways to take negative self-talk and replace it with positive language. Sometimes to quiet the loud external voice it requires a fake it until you feel it approach.
For instance, in a study by researchers at Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, people who used positive affirmations for two weeks experienced higher self esteem than at the beginning of the study. Also, in a study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that women treated with cognitive behavioral techniques, which included use of positive affirmations, experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms and negative thinking. A study by researchers at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, had similar results, and came to a similar conclusion.
Yoga may assist in helping you feel. When you start breathing and moving there’s a chance to move up the emotional ladder from faking feeling good to actually feeling good. Affirmations and/or mantras partner well with yoga and the process of building self-esteem and mindfulness.
In the sentenced women’s dorm I used a silent affirmation meditation to open class. I had students pick one thing they loved about themselves that wasn’t physical and turn it into an ‘I am’ statement. I am brave. I am compassionate. I am smart. I am love.
If they wanted, they could come back to their phrase over and over. Every time we met in Mountain pose I invited them to silently repeat their I am statement with hands gently pressing their hearts. Before closing class an I offered the option one more time.
I heard a women whisper ‘ I am hopeful for a better life.’ It caught me off guard and I had to pause before saying ‘Namaste’ because of the huge lump in my throat. Her voice stayed with me all day, not just because it was moving but because it was honest and so very real.
I am hopeful for a better life.
I am hopeful for a better life,
I am hopeful for a better life-
I am hopeful for a better life.
Aren’t we all?
I am hopeful for a better life.
I am hopeful that one day all beings will be happy and free.
I am hopeful.
Meatless Monday was on hiatus primarily because I was over thinking it. Stymied and frustrated I wallowed in self-pity because I wasn’t creating recipes that I deemed ‘blog-worthy’. Then I called bullsh*t on myself.
The thing I loved about Meatless Monday was that it was supposed to be easy and fun, Part of living a mindful life in being in the moment and accepting what is. I stopped doing this when it came to posts. This week I decided throw myself into the fire and whip up whatever I had handy.
This was inspired by a book I love, Culinary Artistry its a cooking concept book that talks about flavors and the science behind what foods and spices marry well. I’m not a cook who loves to follow a recipe to the letter, so this appealed to me. The result is what is this week’s Meatless Monday recipe.
The farmers market had asparagus on the cheap. In my fridge I spied a head of cauliflower, capers, lemons and spring greens.
Warm Cauliflower and Asparagus Saladwith a lemon caper vinaigrette
Juice from one lemon
Capers (2 ounces with juice)
1/4 cup light tasting olive oil
1 TSP dijon mustard
1/2 shallot minced
2 cloves garlic minced
handful parsley chopped
one small onion sliced
Steam florets and asparagus for two minutes until just tender.
Quickly sauté veggies with garlic and sliced onions for three minutes with one tablespoon olive oil.
Plate veggies on spring mix and dress with vinaigrette.
At Rikers there are lots of ‘squeaky wheels’. It gets the grease and whatnot. But lately, there’s one student who has really been getting into yoga. She’s been taking classes with me for almost three months. Mina (not her real name) is quiet and seems pensive. During the first class her eyes would widen as her body would open. But even as her friends went home, and class got smaller she kept showing up. With each passing week she’s become stronger and started asking questions. Last week, class was three deep, after sun salutations, the crew looked a little bored. I asked them what they wanted to do.
There’s always a pause when you ask a student in jail what they want. It’s so unusual. And then….
Something hard, one said. Something fun, another said. All three were fit and demonstrated core strength and coordination so we took it to the wall for L pose and handstand practice.
Word. Go time.
Mina was kicking up before I cued it. On her hands against the wall she was asking, ‘Like this?’ without struggle in her voice. All three were amazing and radiant. There is joy in going upside down. The other women in the dorm were proud of all of them clapping and cheering them on.
This week she was the only one who showed up to class. The call for rec had come just before I got there. With the first whiff of warm weather, I’d probably choose to be outside as well. Mina asked if we would still have class since she was the only one. A huge smile graced my face because a student who can do handstands and no other people = F.U.N. There is something shy and powerful about Mina, she smiles but is hesitant to look at you straight on. After holding her handstand she smiles broadly but it disappears just as quickly. After class she let me know that she was going home in two weeks so I’d only see her for one more time. She put her blocks on the cart and looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’m never coming back.”
Building 7 was still except for Marissa(not her name) having a debate with the officer on post. It was clear Marissa wasn’t happy with how the conversation was going. There was anger brewing. Upon seeing me the officer said, “Why don’t you do some yoga. It will help you.”
Initially, Marissa plunked herself down in a chair out of protest, but I could see her eyeing the bolsters.
I must digress, bolsters are my secret weapon. After sleeping on a cot with a 3 inch thick mattress one can’t help but sneak a peak at a juicy pillow. Back to the class…
Raquel, my other regular from 7 was having a bad day and wasn’t interested in practicing. In this ‘house’ there are about 15 women, but the group that is there now is hard to motivate. This has not always been the case. It’s a challenge because these women are potentially a step away from solitary. They really need a chance to breathe. More and more I get stopped by women who want classes in their houses or dorms. It’s tough to rally a group when I know other students would be on their mats in a second. Rocks, hard place and all that jazz.
I gave another holler for yoga and decided to head back to teach another class on the fourth floor. Marissa looked at me and said, “If you want me to take the class I will. You don’t have to go.”
“It’s your choice. You don’t have to take this.”
I made this distinction on purpose. It wasn’t that I wanted Marissa to think she wasn’t doing me any favors. It’s important to give these women a chance to say yes of no to something. While I want to get every single body in Rikers to a class, I can’t mandate anything. (Well, I wouldn’t turn people away if it was required. Secretly, I may rejoice Officers and inmates taking classes together. One can dream).
Choice matters. Marissa made the decision to come to her mat. If she is bought in, she’s more likely to see benefits sooner rather than later.
She said, “I gotta get rid of some of this anger.”
We introduced ourselves and I asked her where in her body she felt the anger. It was in her head, neck and shoulders. I had her practice some gentle head and neck movements and then we did pranayama. As soon as we finished pranayama Marissa asked me about sit-ups. She’s been doing them but thought she was breathing wrong, ‘it’s like I’m fighting myself and now after doing this I think I’m breathing wrong or maybe not at all.’ It was a really astute observation. After we started moving Raquel came over smiling and grabbed a mat. Whatever she was going through wasn’t enough to keep her away from a chance to do yoga. We talked for awhile about weight gain- both had gained 40 pounds since arriving. With one knowing that her ‘journey’ (her words) will take her a prison that reportedly has a gym and lots of classes they excitedly talked about losing weight.
After class I asked Marissa how she was…”Better but I still need to settle this issue,” she said laughing.
As I headed out, Marissa came over and said, “What’s that thing with the hands and seeing the good in someone?”
“Namaste,” I replied. She looked over at the officer who she was now joking with and said Namaste to her.
She asked if I would be back next week, because she wanted to do more yoga.
It’s not even a question. Namaste y’all.
Liberation Prison Yoga is in the middle of an Indiegogo Campaign and we NEED your DONATIONS and SUPPORT. Click here to view the campaign and give. We will be able to expand our programs and train more teachers. We are getting flooded with requests to do programs but need money to grow.
It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!
It’s going to be 60 today and I can’t tell you how much I want to do. I feel like a little kid. First I’ll take Dakota on a long walk. And then I’ll do a walking meditation after teaching. Then a wee bit of mania sets in.
And then I’ll take a class.AndthenI’lltakeabikerideandthenI’llstopatthefarmersmarketandthenandthenandthen….
I kid. Sort of. Every spring I do get a rush of energy to do, do, do. I wondered if Spring Fever is a ‘thing’. Turns out, there’s some science behind why we get so revved up when the weather warms.
In an article for the New York Times a doctor breaks things down.
”Spring fever is an ill-defined quantity,” said Dr. Michael Terman, the director of the Light Therapy Unit at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. ”By some definitions it means lassitude, by others it means energy spurts and irresponsibility.”
When spring arrives, I do get this urge to play. This is something I normally feel. We’re not talking swinging from chandeliers but I feel a more compelled to participate, accept dates and even make plans which is not in my nature. Another doctor writes in the same article that it may not all be in someone’s head.
But while this reaction was once thought to be psychological, Dr. Rosenthal said there is increasing evidence that it is actually physiological; the change in seasons prompts a readjustment in the body’s internal chemistry.
Exactly how the body is affected is still unclear, but one popular theory is that the increasing intensity and longevity of sunlight in spring is somehow measured by the brain, probably through the eyes. This information is then transmitted to the pineal gland in the base of the cerebrum, which responds by reducing its secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences mood and energy levels.
I did a little more digging and found this great clip on Scientific American which backs up the notion that Spring fever isn’t just the stuff of poetry.
I know that many of you know that every Tuesday I teach yoga to women at Rikers Island. We breathe, move, laugh, get serious, get frustrated and most of all are real. I walk the corridors and get greeted with hellos from students who can’t wait to do more yoga. There are few things I’ve ever been so passionate about.
We are looking to raise a lot of money to expand this program, pay teachers and cover admin costs. As a member of the board for Liberation Prison Yoga, I’m asking that you consider contributing so that we may continue to train the teachers whom I consider to be warriors of peace.
They are full of love and do this because it is their calling. Thank you.
Who we are
Liberation Prison Yoga organizes volunteers to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to prisons, to provide health and healing on every level, impacting not only our students, but also their communities, and our society.
Why this campaign?
We just completed a successful yearlong pilot of our unique trauma conscious yoga empowerment program at the Rikers Island Jail Complex in New York. We are ready to implement our program and expand.
Where we come from
Child Trafficking Victim Finds Peace Teaching Rikers Inmates Yoga was the start. Anneke Lucas experienced most atrocities known to humankind before she reached the age of 12. Seeking to free herself from her past, she found yoga, meditation, therapy and other healing modalities on a long and hard journey to recovery. However, true impact came only through humble healers who, instead of presenting as teachers or authority figures, made a connection through heartfelt empathy and understanding within safe boundaries.
Please check out the campaign and consider donating.