Rikers Yoga – Holding Space


3EastA of Rosie (RMSC)

My class on the third floor was small. One student had recently had surgery, one was struggling emotionally and two other students had never done yoga before. In situations like this I like to talk about what students hope to get from yoga. One woman stated that she’s pretty sure that prison was a way for her to stop running from herself and her drug problem. She had just started going to church again and has a few back to back days clean. She was in class for a moment last week but confessed that she was still struggling with sobriety and couldn’t concentrate.  She was fit and hoping that doing some yoga could help her feel better. Walking around the yard during rec (recreation time) was helping but it wasn’t  enough.

‘You have no idea what it’s like in here. There’s no privacy. I feel like an animal. When I first got here I was out of it, ya know so I didn’t really know what was going on. But now I do. And this is hell.’

Everyone was nodding in agreement with what she was saying. She said she just wanted some quiet.

It made sense to start class with creating some private space. We sat up on blocks and gently bowed our heads with our eyes open but  kept our gaze soft and without focus. I offered the class a chance to just sit in this space. With the eyes down on the mat, it gives a sense of privacy. Next, I extended the invitation to close the eyes if it felt safe. We sat this way with my voice guiding  them through inhales and exhales. It was a noisy day on the third floor. In the middle of this a group of women were placed in the dorm. You could feel the shift of energy as everyone stopped to take the new people in. It’s at moments like this, I have to stay focused on holding the space.

If you aren’t a teacher or work with support groups you may be asking, what is holding space? In a setting where I am the person responsible to creating a place to learn or breathe, it’s critical that I make sure the space is ‘safe’. In my previous retail life this meant making sure that folks could respectfully share or disagree with me and each other. It also meant that the room was safe- what was said in there, stayed in there. As the leader, it was my job to make sure that happened. In prison, it’s a challenge.

I am not in control of the surroundings. Class takes place in a room that is filled with other people. I sensed that a few of the women were teasing another who is focused on her sobriety. Instead of getting caught up in things that can’t be controlled I have my class focus on what they can do. They can learn how to breathe. They can learn how to cultivate a bit more peace inside them instead of looking for it outside.

The more I teach, the more I see the real challenges that these women face. It’s my role to help them open up ways to feel empowered. At the end of class I hung around. I got this advice from Kim who teaches prenatal at Rikers. I’ve shortened the class so I can chat, talk and answer some questions that students may not feel ready to share in front of everyone. This has been the most powerful part of class.

I did get told something I could share:

‘I wanted to thank you for giving me a chance to spend some time back with my grandmother during meditation. She used to have coffee in the morning at a house in the woods and look at nature. I imagined that today.’

– Student, RMSC

May all beings everywhere be peaceful and free.

Namaste y’all.


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