Rikers Island Yoga

 

prison-exterior

Service is not an experience of strength or expertise; service is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Helpers and fixers feel causal. Servers may experience from time to time a sense of being used by larger unknown forces. Those who serve have traded a sense of mastery for an experience of mystery, and in doing so have transformed their work and their lives into practice.

-Rachel Naomi Remen

 

Teaching in the max detainee section has been a powerful experience. Building 16 is in bad shape. I’m not telling tales out of school here. Rikers is listed as one of the ten worst prisons in the country. The walls are different colors from peeling paint. The ‘sun’ roof is brown because it hasn’t been cleaned in years. The floors are also peeling and the doors to the cells are metal and offer a small square of light through a “window” at the top of the door. It’s hard to be heard, so in order to get a guard’s attention someone has to yell at the top of her lungs to call for a door to open.

During our introductions they told me they felt forgotten about. If their surroundings are any indication of that, it couldn’t be more true. The range of experience in my classes tends to be mixed but one thing is clear- people need to move and when they don’t they begin to shrivel up physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We talked about it as we practiced. I let the conversation flow in these classes because it’s important that students get a chance to share what they are feeling. But like with all of the other classes I teach here- everyone comes to their mat for the meditation.

There hasn’t been a class where one student hasn’t expressed joy and an exhalation of peace when I say it’s time for meditation. Anecdotally, this tells me that meditation on a broad scale could be effective for so many people in prison, and by people I mean inmates, COs, and employees. A few weeks ago after class someone who didn’t take class but was watching asked me about mantra to help her get through the nights. When the doors close she said it makes her feel crazy. And you could see it. So we talked about Tat Tvam Asi which is Sanskrit (roughly) for ‘Thou are That” or ‘You Are That”. I said I’d check in with her to see if that provided any relief. This week she’s no longer in that section.

And so it goes. This is the nature of the work with people who are awaiting trial, one week they are and gone the next. Maybe I’ll see her again. Maybe I won’t. But she left an impression on me. All of these women do.

Back on the third floor Anneke and I talked to the sentenced women who were used to getting yoga but due to scheduling issues and changes haven’t had any in awhile. A group of women who work out a lot and said that they would come to class. I’ll start seeing them next week. They also expressed a desire to do meditation.

It has me thinking.

I want to be a meditation servant. Providing ways for people to breathe and be okay with what happening in the present moment. I know, it sounds crazy. But maybe just crazy enough to be possible.

 

“Our duty is wakefulness, the fundamental condition of life itself. The unseen, the unheard, the untouchable is what weaves the fabric of our see-able universe together.”
― Robin Craig ClarkThe Garden

 

Until next time. Namaste y’all.

 

Interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here

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2 thoughts on “Rikers Island Yoga

  1. This is such strong karma yoga, Oneika. And with your service you are bringing women who are really hurting to the “unseen, the unheard, the untouchable” that will help them toward healing. Deep bow to you, Oneika – and to them.

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