Adventures in Teaching Yoga- Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

BKS

“True concentration is an unbroken thread of awareness.”
― B.K.S. IyengarLight on Life

 

The walk to the 800 bed dorm is now familiar and I begin to recognize guards, bus drivers and inmates who aren’t even in the dorms where I teach. Last week I was stopped by someone in the Beauty Shop (yes, there are some elements that do remind me of Orange is the New Black) but it was closed on this Tuesday morning. I chatted with Carmen and Ms. Gregory while waiting for Anneke and Maia.

We decided that the theme would be anxiety. This was great and I suspected that it would be a welcome discussion topic. As I rolled the yoga cart to the B side of the dorm, I was thrilled to see over 20 faces. Everyone was ready to go and prepared to write, asking for paper. My plan of writing before class is the way to go for now. I thought of my own morning and how I used to be more diligent about writing down some thoughts after meditating. (Note to self: practice what you are teaching, Oneika. And stop referring to yourself in the third person).

‘Anxiety is the topic for today,’ I stated. A collective round oh yeses was heard around the room. I knew this would be a perfect topic. We talked about the negative aspects of anxiety and I asked everyone how they knew when they were anxious. One student said the thought of living a clean and sober life made her anxious because she didn’t want to mess up again. This got a lot of nods from the group. A profound observation. I had already planned a class but thought I might switch things up after hearing that remark and seeing the nods of agreement.

Our writing  focused on the practical- what things could we do when we felt anxious? The answers were thorough. Lots of conversation today. I also like how students who may not speak up stay involved and follow the discussion.

At the top of our mats we held our bodies and breath, squeezing our faces and muscles tight. I had them hold the breath for quite a few seconds and then we let everything go. Smiles all around. Next, with arms everyone turned their palms so they faced each other. I asked them that imagine they were holding anxiety in their hands with a backbend we built some momentum and with an exhale we launched it forward to let it go. Folding forward into a deep bend we felt the back of the body open up.

As promised I delivered a longer meditation. Ms. Gregory mentioned after class that even women who were sitting and watching participated in the meditation. I’m already working on the meditation for next week.

This is yoga. And it’s liberating.

 

Namaste y’all.

 

 

Adventures in Yoga – Insomnia Strikes

sleepy neik

My favorite part of teaching and taking class is savasana.

This is because I tend to run on the anxious side of life.  This affects how I sleep. It got so rough at one point I went to the doctor and was handed a script, but taking sleeping pills was not how I wanted to live. It was also a sign that I needed a major life change. Two a half years and new career later, my sleep is a lot more solid. But my monkey mind still likes to explore the jungle of my brain. I credit yoga to my more peaceful slumber.

Turns out it not just in my head. A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School said that a regular yoga practice can help people who suffer from chronic insomnia. A similar study was conducted with 410 cancer patients. The results were similar. It seems that by doing yoga people can fall asleep easier, faster, wake up less often and have a more productive night’s sleep.

On the nights that I’m feeling a little antsy before bed, I’ve found that there two poses that help me chillax.

 

Reclining Goddess Pose

This is my favorite by far. Goddess releases tension along the inner thighs and hips. Sometimes if I’m looking for a deeper backbend I’ll roll a small blanket or towel and place it vertically so it aligns with my spine. The release is delicious. Delicious!! For a more special experience I’ll even add a few drops of essential oil to my temples so I can really let go. It doesn’t take long before The Sandman knocks.

To get into the pose recline on your back and bend your knees so your feet are parallel. extend the arms along the sides of your body and try to brush the backs of the heels with your middle finger. Let your knees fall to the side and keep the souls of the feet touching. Keep the arms extended and turn the palms facing up. Using a sleep mask is a great treat here. Want to ensure that you aren’t counting sheep very long? Try an essential oil blend. My favorite blend is by Aura Cacia.

 

Legs up the Wall

This is another great pose to do before bed. This is perfect for those nights when the you thought you’d never make it to bed time. You know the days, when you’ve been pulled in a thousand different directions and none of those directions had anything to do with the list of things you were supposed to get done. And when you finally get home to what you think is your sanctuary, you realize that you forgot to take something out for dinner- but the dog did leave something out for you- right in the middle of the carpet. On those nights the stress of it all might make sleep elusive, so try legs up the wall.

Getting into the pose is as easy as it sounds. Recline on your back and take your legs up the wall. You may have to schooch your butt forward a bit so your legs can press against the wall. And then…Just.Let.Go. Feel your back release into the mattress. Inhale in the idea of sleep. Exhale out any tension. Let your body melt. Allow for some gentle movement so you can get comfortable. Trust me, your troubles will seem like a faint memory.

 

We all deserve a great night’s sleep. Don’t let it slip out of your fingers.

Namaste y’all.

Adventures in Teaching Yoga- Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

Namaste1

“Comedy is acting out optimism.”

-Robin Williams

 

By some magnificent shift of the planets I woke at 5:30 feeling refreshed. The first thing I heard in my head was the last line of the Langston Hughes poem, ‘A Dream Deferred’.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

My dreams had been vivid (which isn’t unusual), on my mind was Michael Brown and the death of Robin Williams. The brain is incredible and exhausting. It didn’t help that the prior day was challenging. I’m in a learning curve with the next part of my career and I was struggling with a project. Although I had a wonderful time teaching last night by the time I hit the bed I was physically aching.

And yet…

My soul felt light as I got dressed for Riker’s. The scheduled topic this week was depression. Unfortunately, current events fit perfectly. I had a flow planned but as I biked to the PATH train I decided to change things up.

star pose

Standing star pose would be our focus. Last week in class I mentioned the Ted Talk video with Amy Cuddy and faking it till you make it. This week we used that as a foundation and talked about Robin Williams, suicide and depression. Everyone took time before class to write down a few small things that she would do to feel better if the mood was starting to darken. The list was long and everyone has great suggestions ranging from talking to counselors and friends, reaching out to family, prayer, meditation and physical activity. I think having everyone write and share before class worked for me. We then applied those ideas when we practiced.

We started at the top of our mats in star pose, chests lifted. Our inhales tried to take us off the ground and our exhales made us bold and strong. Moving right to Warriors everyone’s body was expressive. In between postures we can back to star pose. One student succinctly stated, “Star pose is…cool.”

Indeed. To spice things up we even played around with eagle. At first everyone said, “No way..” However, taking the pose one step at a time everyone was in it. Not sure who was more excited but we all laughed. I know they get a kick out of this whacky Black chick who says rock on and awesome at the end of every other sentence. I’m grateful that they humor me and trust me enough to share.

On the floor we used bolsters and did a few therapeutic poses that inspire feelings of safety. Supported Child’s pose got lots of love. Hugging the bolster helped release a lot of tension and instill a sense of security. Our seated forward folds with the bolster stretched the legs without too much tension. But there was a collective exhale of joy when we did reclined goddess pose with the bolster.

‘I want to stay here all day’ someone said. So we spent our guided mediation reclined. And the space became still. There was no yelling. No buzzing door. I kept the focus on the idea that finding peace is our choice- even in chaos we can close our eyes and look inside to be still. To be still without holding still. This can be our choice and our decision. After class there were requests for a longer guided meditation. Next week, I will happily comply.

These women are important. These women matter. I think of them daily.

They are my inspiration. They are resilient and funny and honest and true.

Until next week y’all. Namaste.

(To learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and its programs- click here)

Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

Rikers-Island-the-second-largest-prison-in-the-U.S.-Of-11000-inmates-4000-have-a-mental-illness

 

 

 

The typical Metro NYC summer has finally arrived. Swampy heat. It’s like wearing a wet sweatshirt.

I leave much earlier than I need to so I don’t have to be on the trains at full rush hour crush. That’s one of the things I appreciate about this second career. No crushing. Yes, there’s rushing and pressure but there is a sense of ownership about how I move in the world. I think this as I travel to Riker’s. I still get to move how I want, where I want and when I want. These luxuries are something I appreciate more than ever.

The Q100 is pretty empty as usual.

I’m already used to the routine of checking in.

 

I’m surprised at how many of the guards remember me and say, ‘Yoga, right?’ I smile and am told with sincerity to have fun.

 

Out back waiting for the bus I see the driver that I chatted up last week. I hop on the bus to head to RSMC (the dorm). Quickly, I realize that I’m on the wrong bus but secretly I’m pleased because Slick Rick is playing. It’s still incredible to me the enormity of this place. There are five bus routes.

 

After a bus change, I get to where I should be. I’m amazed at the intriciy of the system.  I check in at the dorms at 8:45.  Walking to the 800 section I see a few of the women from last week.  They excitedly let me know they will we back upstairs and don’t want to miss class. This makes me feel great and I quickly forget about the oppressive heat.

 

I see Carmen and get a big hug. I also meet Ms. Gregory. She is the counselor for the other side of the dorm.

 

Carmen takes me to her side of the dorm. Our talk before our practice is about anger. We physically demonstrate what anger looks like ad feels like in the body. I suggest that as they go through class to see if any particular pose brings up any feelings. We began class with stillness. I invited students to mentally scan any tight areas their body.

Moving to all fours as a group we did cat stretches and then back to a neutral spine. Slowly we sat on our heels for a toe stretch. On an inhale we found tabletop and on an exhale we moved to Camel Pose. We did this three times and it was a lovely way to gently stir the body. Coming to our feet we did lunges and tightened our firsts to feel the tension and then relaxed into a pose to feel the difference between the two. We moved quickly and did more heart opening postures to release tension.

Our guided meditation was filled with noise but by incorporating the background, I could feel students keep the intention on themselves rather than what was happening.

When it came to writing,  right away someone said she already wrote about anger and didn’t want to write about it again. I asked of there were other topics that she might was to explore and wanted suggestions and after getting a few she decided she just didn’t feel like writing. Another student said that after meditation she really felt like thinking rather than writing- so it seemed best to let the writing piece go. Next week I may do the writing before meditation and see what happens.

Class wrapped and everyone said that if they were there next week, they’d be back.

 

Second Class

On the other side the vibe is very different. When we talk about anger and what it looks like the conversation shifts to the physiological effects of anger. Answers were pinging around the room:

Stress!

High blood pressure!

Migraines!

Heart attacks!

Muscle spasms!

Answer after answer rang out. The discussion shifted to how yoga can help with managing anger and I talked about how by learning to breathe better we give ourselves a chance to pause. Sometimes the chance to pause can make all of the difference in what happens to us. ‘Might not do something stupid’ someone said. That was a great way to wrap and begin the practice. We held poses to feel our power and let our muscles tense and then relax.

I felt a strong sense of purpose with this group. I’m not sure if if was the time of day but we were able to have a long period of quiet for our guided meditation.  When class closed I could feel a greater sense of calm.

After recapping with Carmen I get on the elevator and there are about 6 six large guards. And like that I’m reminded why it’s important that I come here.

Because I get to leave.

Namaste y’all.

 

Adventures in Meditation – “Life Just Isn’t That Obvious”

salt

‘Live just isn’t that obvious.’

 

This text came from my friend Kathleen. When you’re friends with poets they drop one line bombs with a quickness and on the reg. She’s more subtle than me.

I would have to follow up the text with:

drops mic

 

 

Fortunately, subtlety isn’t lost on this bull in a china shop. You may think astrology is hooey, but I’m a Taurus through and freaking through.

Anyway…subtle…point…

 

She sent this in response my waxing philosophical about my love life.

I’m the worst when it comes to dating.

The. Worst. Say it with me, the worst.

Work life seemed easier. Get ‘er done. Even when the terrain is difficult like say, navigating a whole new career I can manage to strategize, plan and execute. But a date? Relationship? Smooth.

 

wink gif
I made bad decisions and compounded those stupid decisions withworse ones. Antics ensued. It was easier to make work my relationship rather working on my relationships. Yeah, I knew what I was doing. I just didn’t fix it.

Until meditation.

Being still allows for thoughts to come and go. Something happens when we look inward. The sense of vastness at times overwhelms me. On some days it’s all I can do not to run away from the infinite potential discoveries. The is so much inside. On others, I find the answers without knowing it. In the abyss is a whisper of hope or encouragement disguised as an inhale or exhale. The is powerhttp://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/yogaxl.jpg in my mantra as I sit- I realize more and more that I know so little.

It allows me to be present even when I’m not meditating. This is great. And shitty. No more pushing things down and not dealing with them.

Recently, I had a great date with someone who didn’t fit what I’d imagined. I began my usual routine of trying to blow them off and a strange thing occurred.

I made a different choice. In fact, I made a choice wrapped in honesty despite my fear.

I called ___ and said, “I owe you an apology. I was being an idiot. I like you and instead of saying that I’m a little concerned that we’re different but I’d like to see I was just trying to push you away. If it’s not too late, I’d really like to start again and have you see that I’m not totally crazy, though clearly I have some issues.”

I was expecting rejection. Second chances are a gift.

And you know what? I got one.

While it did turn out that our lives were in different places- if I hadn’t been paying attention in the moment, I wouldn’t have decided to take a leap.

This is what meditation has done for me. I’m more awake than I’ve ever been. Like I said earlier, this is both fantastic and crappy. But, it is life.

Playing sliding doors for a moment…If I had played out old stories nothing would have changed.

Things don’t have to work out the way you want, but if you are brave enough to be here, now- it seems that things work out the way they should.

And embracing that is what yoga is all about.

It’s a good day.

Namaste y’all.

 

Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers (Liberation Prison Yoga)

rikers bridge

 

 

 

BACKSTORY

I used to live my life selfishly. The intent behind the selfishness wasn’t malicious, but selfish nonetheless.

My yoga practice has been a gift. It’s my responsibility to give it away. The past several months have been a journey of discovery and brought the realization that in addition to teaching I need to pursue yoga therapy. I believe that learning how to breathe better can help even in the most the most challenging of circumstances.

A few months ago I got in touch with the Prison Yoga Project. After a meeting and getting cleared by the department of health and hygiene- I got my volunteer ID.

 

I’m on the Q100 Rikers island bus. I wonder if kids who grow up in the area look at the bus with an air of mystery. Do they think that if you get on it your headed to jail? As teenagers would they joke about it? And as adults would the illuminated Q100 sign of a bus conjure memories? That’s the kind of thing I would think. My imagination was a bit on the over active side. It’s still early and though I’ve had caffeine, I’m feeling pretty chill. As the bus rolls down the street I have a moment.

I can’t believe this is my life. I get to teach yoga for a living.

I’m headed to meet Anneke Lucas, founder of Liberation Prison Yoga. I’ll be teaching students here at the Rose M. Singer dorm twice monthly.
Here’s a bit more about Anneke and LPY:
Liberation Prison Yoga grew out of the need for an organized way to support yoga instructors interested in serving in prisons and jails in New York. Anneke Lucas started creating programs in different facilities in 2011, bringing along many teachers, social workers and psychologists, training them to use a trauma-sensitive approach while sharing their preferred yoga style. Anneke developed yoga programs according to the different needs in different settings, including discussion and free-flow writing in certain classes, and runs groups with sex-trafficked women at Riker’s Island.
On the bus, people get on and get off. After 21 St. we drive on a road that takes you to Shuttle Island. Somewhere in this still active imagination I think I expected to hear yelling or see a dark cloud hanging over the complex. I know it sounds dramatic. But it’s comes to mind when you say Rikers Island. The drive over the long bridge feels almost tranquil but I’ll be leaving on my own so clearly it’s not the same feeling a woman must have when she is on a bus there for the first time. I wonder how scary it must seem. It’s one thing to be going to jail- it must be another thing entirely to know that jail is surrounded by water on all sides.
After the crossing the bridge the reality is clear. This is prison. It’s not scary, but a heaviness looms in the air. I’m overcome with the urge to go the bathroom. There’s a fairly scary looking bathroom to the left of the entrance. After, I make my way to the guard station and I’m waved through. And I pause for a second like I’m sure most fools like me do- my eyes say, ‘Wait. That’s it? I just get waved in. Don’t you want to know anything else?’ The guard looks at me with a bored face and after our 2 second non-verbal exchange I walk to catch a bus to the dorms.
Today I met the students. Some were excited to show me their warriors. Others were thrilled that they would be coming to class. The women were friendly, kind and chatty. A lot of these women are awaiting trial and couldn’t make bail and that’s why they are there. Without too much to do- many seize the opportunity to participate in the programs that are offered. Liberation Prison Yoga incorporates writing, yoga and mediation.
I’m the one who is grateful.
I can’t imagine being confined awaiting trial and being told when to eat, when to shower and when to sleep. It would seem that in circumstances like that one thing that must be so important is the ability to breathe and to feel okay in your body because let’s face it- a system pretty much is telling you what to do with most other parts of your life.
I’m not there to judge. I’m there to teach, guide and hopefully create a space of self-healing. Anneke told me that faces will change a lot and that’s okay. I guess the more people I can talk to and teach, the better.
We are human beings, whether we are walking down the street or in the 800 bed dorm of the Rose M Singer branch of the Department of Corrections. And as Ram Dass says we are all just walking each other home.
I’ll definitely be posting more about my experiences with Liberation Prison Yoga.
If you are a teacher and are interested in volunteering your time- reach out by clicking here.
Namaste y’all.

Adventures in Yoga – Forgive Yourself

What-does-the-Bible-say-about-Forgiveness

When I was in the third or fourth grade I discovered flavored lip gloss. Fantastic! It came in different colors, flavors and tasted faintly sweet. What’s not to love?

One day, in CVS I saw some root beer lip gloss that I had to have. We learn desire and suffering so early. I had to have it. My mother said no. So my grubby paws and racing heart palmed the lip gloss. I know, I know, I know…..

 

 

In the parking lot walking next to my mother, I pulled out the lip gloss. (I said I was desperate for root beer lips, not necessarily  the sharpest tool in the shed). Needless to say my mother went f@cking apeshit  because it became clear too her that she had given birth to a budding criminal. I was marched back inside the store and required to report my crime to the manager. She was none too pleased and if memory serves (which is tricky) I got in pretty big trouble. But like all good moms- she forgave me. I went on to do even bigger and more stupid things and she forgave me these trespasses as well.

 

It always seemed harder to forgive myself. I would let the shame or guilt coat my skin. Rather than let things go and start fresh I became a series of bad things I’d done.

 

I guess we’ve all done things that make us less than proud of ourselves. Yoga has helped me let go of my past while staying accountable so I live my best life in the now. In some cases I’ve been lucky enough to be forgiven for some of my past transgressions. I’m forever grateful for the people in my life who have loved me unconditionally.

 

In other cases I haven’t been so lucky and I’ve had to lose people because I burned a bridge. Living a life through the breath helps me feel okay with the idea of things being what they are even when they are good and bad. Because even feelings or things that are bad can end up being good. I’ve also realized that a big part of this whole process of becoming enlightened is learning to forgive yourself.

 

I am more that the bad shit I’ve done.

I am more than what I do for a living.

I am not the stuff I have.

I am not the stuff I don’t have.

 

Last week in class I lost myself. I became too connected with my breathing and missed a cue from the teacher- in a effort to catch up I rushed through my flow- completely reacting to the idea of catching up rather that truly remembering why we do the asanas- to connect to the now.

 

Eddie my teacher, gently said- ‘if you ever miss a cue, don’t worry- come back to downward dog. It’s okay no need to rush- forgive yourself.’

 

There’s no perfection.

 

I felt a flash of shame. Not because of what he said, but because I still struggle with the idea of saying to myself, ‘you’re forgiven. Let it go.’

 

And then something happened- I let it go. I actually let the shame of it all go on an exhale into a forward fold.

 

Not surprisingly, the rest of class was like opening of a flower- I wasn’t stressed- I didn’t hyper focus on technique- I went with my flow. I gave myself the ultimate gift.

 

I’m forgiven.

 

Namaste y’all.