Riker’s Island – Three Tuesdays, One Lesson


Writing posts about Riker’s for the past three weeks has been tough…

I claimed writer’s block. But in the black recesses of my mind I knew it wasn’t. Until today, the past two Tuesdays at Riker’s seemed bleak. At first I wanted to pass it off on the weather. When the sky is gloomy and you’re headed to an island where more than half of the ‘residents’ can’t leave- it’s hard to find a bright spot.

Two Tuesdays Ago…

As a teacher I know that struggle means change is happening but in the moment it can feel shitty. Progress be damned. Two weeks ago one of my students wasn’t feeling great mentally and stopped coming to class and was in the infirmary. The politics that plague any dorm situation are amplified by incarceration and it seemed that some drama was occupying some of my students time.  Class felt disjointed and distracted. The respectful silence that had taken over the area where yoga and meditation happened had all but disappeared and newer faces meant really reevaluating what made sense with the program and the class. I was wrestling with topics- I didn’t want to repeat themes for women who had been through the program. Talking and writing about the themes was essential to the practice. At the same time I didn’t want women who had been coming faithfully to classes stop coming because they were bored or felt ‘been there, done that.’

It wasn’t just the class that felt off-kilter, the entire place felt edgy. With new leadership and uncertain of where things stand- tensions were high. It’s important to be alert in this environment. It’s the reality of the situation. It can’t change how you connect with with students, but it’s jail. I keep my eyes open. But my spidey senses were extra tingly.  There’s a meeting in a few weeks with the LPY teachers and I’m looking forward to hearing their experiences.

Last Tuesday

Anneke asked if I would be open to working in a different section of the building. And while I’m sad to give up the class on the fifth floor the timing seems right since a lot of the students have left. I’ll be able to get closure and say my goodbyes and transition to a new class. Class this week was much better for the students but there was still a lot of background noise. New guards who don’t seem to notice the yoga or meditation had bigger issues to discuss through the windows rather than using the phones. I get it. It’s tough all over. I smile at them. Though I haven’t been here long, it’s crazy how quickly you settle in.

With both classes I spent time on pranayama and slow gentle movements in the neck and shoulders. I can feel the release that women get when they do this. The mantra for meditation was focusing in the peace inside. With hands over eyes I seal our practice by saying, “This stillness that is in me is mine. I’ve created it and it something that I can call up whenever I need it.”

This Tuesday

On Monday I was in need of a class at my local studio.  Julie Fitzpatrick, who has quickly made her way into my yoga heart was talking about serene intelligence. As she talked about our ability to stay connected to our source (however we define that), I felt tears well up in my eyes. Instantly, I heard the song Woman in Chains by Tears for Fears pop in my head. Was I letting outside situations draw me away from my center? Was I feeling guilty about my own freedom?

No, it wasn’t guilt. I wasn’t feeling bad for being free knowing that so many of the women I teach aren’t. I was feeling untethered. For all the right reasons my life is busy and I drifted. But on my mat I was able to reconnect. It’s why I practice and what I hope to share with the women at Rosie. I decided after class that no matter how crappy the vibe was- I’d choose to react in a way that was compassionate.

At the entrance to Rosie (RSMC) the guard says, “Good morning, smiley.” There is no contempt in his voice. As I swap my ID for my visitor pass I’m jokingly told not to cause any trouble and have a good class. When I let the women on the fifth floor know that I was leaving a few were bummed, but quickly perked up when they realized that I was just leaving and not the yoga. Classes were good and in that moment a little peaceful.

Everything is temporary. Things are good. Things are bad. Things are whatever they are. But none of it is forever. I will try to remember this more often. It’s hard to do. Hard to do in my own life, I want to hold on tight to the good stuff and release the awful stuff quickfast like a hot potato.

The same was true with the classes I teach at Rosie. It’s okay to be okay with how things are. It doesn’t change how much compassion I have, but it releases my students (and me) from being attached.

As I continue to learn more about the system and how it works  hobbles along one thing is clear.

We all all bound by something and until we are all free, none of us are.

May all beings everywhere be happy and free.

Namaste y’all.


2 thoughts on “Riker’s Island – Three Tuesdays, One Lesson

  1. I really LOVE the work you’re doing Oneika, and I’m going to pitch a profile on you and your Rikers ladies to one of the National pubs in the coming weeks. Salon.com, XOJane, Cosmo.com and many others would be interested in this. Even Essence or Ebony.com are pubs I’m looking to break into in 2015.

    1. Thanks Kellie! As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about the work. The prison system is broken- but it’s what we’ve got. I’m also realizing that the power of meditation to relieve stress is a life saver for people on the inside and the outside. I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you keep up with this work.

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