Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

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In 30 years, the number of women in jail has increased by over 800% [Source: Institute on Women & Criminal Justice]. Most of these women are imprisoned as a result of drug-related charges; however other leading causes of incarceration are immigration status issues.

M. comes to class each week. She doesn’t speak a lot of English but is one of the first students to sit on her mat. I make sure that during class I make eye contact with her and nod so she understands she’s moving safely. Part of me feels stupid for not speaking Spanish and by next week I will know at least how to say inhale deep and exhale slow.  Though we speak mostly in smiles, gestures and nods, I can see her body relax during guided meditation.

I’m frustrated with myself. It’s easy to take life for granted. It’s just one more thing that these women teach me.

Here’s some startling information about women in prison:

The vast majority of women in prison—85 percent to 90 percent—have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. And racial disparities strike here too: Girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders than white girls, who have a better chance of being treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems. This disparity is particularly devastating for gender nonconforming girls, who are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.

In addition to intimate partner violence, other risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse and mental illness. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of women prisoners suffer from substance addiction. While it would be much more cost effectiveto treat these women than imprison them or pay for foster placement for their children, they are refused such rehabilitative measures—measures that could facilitate their integration back into society as productive members.

-Center for American Progress

This week instead of the noise, I couldn’t help but notice the beds.  I use the term bed loosely. The mattresses are about 3 inches thin and sit atop metal cots which sag even when empty. While I’ve seen them before, on this particular Tuesday they were glaring. Maybe it was because I was on the third floor with the sentenced women. I guess in my head I rationalize that many of the women on the fifth floor will be going home. Because they are consider detainees, the energy feels more transient.
I don’t know. Maybe I was stuck on the beds because I’m more familiar with my surroundings. Whatever it was it created an opening, a desperate moment of clarity…
As the CO announced class I took in utter lack of privacy of prison dorm life.  I averted my eyes and felt flushed with shame. There wasn’t anything happening- but the dorm is their space. Some women were sleeping and others were talking. And a CO is there the whole time watching all of it. I’m not waxing political with commentary (yet)- but a stark reality is clear. This is their life- at least in this moment.
On the third floor 12 students came to their mats. I am glad but try to hold back because I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. But maybe it won’t. In the common/dining/yoga area the person watching TV turned it off and went back inside the dorm. It pleasantly surprises me but also gives me pause. These women have to adapt at the drop of a hat. I can never forget that. I’m the visitor. It doesn’t matter (to me anyway) that I choose to be there. These women must be able handle whatever comes their way, even if it’s a yoga teacher with some mats.

During class more people started to watch.  J, who is in her sixties said she was too out of shape to do it. But J’s friend told her to stop making excuses and try, since she ‘d never done yoga, how could she know what she could do and couldn’t do. It was a fair point, I thought.  Without fail at the end of class there is a greater sense of serenity on every woman’s face. I think back to M. on the third floor. She may not understand every word I say. But she is learning how to move in her body.

When I leave Riker’s I’m consistently struck with the need to do more.
More for the women there.
More for women in prisons everywhere.
I watched the documentary Crime After Crime about Deborah Peagler and her 27 year incarceration for death of her incredibly abusive boyfriend. The system was not set up to support her. In fact,  statistics show that because she was abused and called the authorities she is over 80%  more likely to end up in prison (Center for American Progress).
And then I think about the women who get out and their struggles to transition back to the world. It seems overwhelming and at times I have to fight against the voice that says what the hell is yoga going to do? What can I do? Without fail I come back to M.’s face sitting there on her mat, moving, breathing and maybe knowing that she is important. Her body is important. Her ability to inhale and exhale into a better life is possible.
So I’ll be back next Tuesday and the Tuesday after and the Tuesday after that. Two weeks ago Seane Corn, a yoga activist spoke at a yoga festival. She said that as yogis we can no longer be silent and passive. We have an obligation to take the love we have found on our mats and share it to bring change to the world.

On Friday I was standing on the corner of Sixth Ave and Canal. The weather was perfect. I had an early day and I got to wrap it up by tasting a custom blended tea for my upcoming workshop. Later, I took a class and capped off the night with some chores, a glass of wine and Netflix. Tired, I crawled into my bed more grateful than I have ever been for the comfort of my bed. And I think of M. and know that in the morning I need to wake up and do more.

It’s the beautiful burden of being free.

Namaste y’all.

Interested in finding out more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here

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