Rikers Yoga

These balloons are  heavy-handed metaphor for life at Rikers.
These balloons are heavy-handed metaphor for life at Rikers.

The past two weeks have been filled with so many powerful moments that I’m at a loss about what to share. I walk a fine line between respecting the sanctity of the space in which we practice with wanting to shine awareness about why it’s vital that the world know about the work that happens in side jails and prisons. I think long and hard in order to protect privacy and intimate moments. Last week I was grateful to have Adrianna with me. Adrianna is a teacher, but she’s more than that. She’s an open soul who is committed to the work that she does and it was evident in the way that she led students (and me) through a guided meditation. It was the first time that I meditated with the students and could feel myself let go despite the noise. Despite the yelling and the tension that our students told us was present. I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space with these women.

This week classes were smaller but definitely grounded. ‘Felicia’ was new to class and didn’t think that she would do yoga but was amped up to try. She wanted to know if she should change out of her greens, the uniforms sentenced women are required to wear. I let her know that she could change but didn’t have to. I led students through sun salutations in the trauma-sensitive style that we use. No commands- no demands. I demonstrate and say what I’m doing. This allows students to choose to move in a way that feels good for them. I set my intention for class in my breathing. I was inspired to do this by a Glen Baez a teacher at Jivamukti. I placed my intention for self-love and kindness with my inhales and exhales. This way as long as I was connected toy breathing I was connected to my intention. Felicia followed suit. She began to speak with me as I raised my arms up overhead and said, “And I I’m raising my arms up overhead and placing my hands on my heart. I am breathing in that I love myself and that I am kind.” She was thrilled. In the same instant she paused and went to change. Telling the class and me that she was hot and also tearing up. Feeling emotional during practice wasn’t something she expected. Felicia came back and finished her practice with grace. She joked and said that she doesn’t cry but it was cool that she felt something.

Truthout.org posted an article this week about what it means to volunteer in prison. It can’t be about ‘feeling good’ for the folks who go inside. It’s about serving and giving folks a chance to see and hold their own power. I bow deeply to Felicia and all of my students who are willing to see something beautiful inside. There is no greater honor. I wasn’t someone who believed a lot in grace until I found yoga. But there is energy, a force that unites us and if we are willing we can see it. And if we are open it will hold us.

Felicia, the light in my bows deeply to the light in you. Thank you.

Namaste y’all. Keep on. Keep on. Keep on.

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Rikers Yoga- Alarms, Meditation and Mindfulness Oh My!

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“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself and that suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment, he needs help.”
– Thich Naht Hahn

Meditation is the medicine. Rosie’s was in need of a big woosah on a chilly, drizzly Friday morning.

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 A flashing blue light at Rikers says ‘hey an alarm is happening’. It also says ‘so wherever you are is where you are going to be until it’s over.’ Alarms happen when there is a fight of some sort of disruption. I happened to hear the beginning of this disruption as I was getting on the elevator. Two steps off the elevator, I saw the light I yelled for them to keep the doors open. Standing in a hallway by myself during an alarm just didn’t seem fun or smart. Back on the elevator two women said that there had been a lot of fighting lately. You have to take that with a grain of salt because I don’t have any way to verify that. I did think that something happened on the floor where I was headed to teach and hoped it would be resolved so I wouldn’t have to cancel class. Since we were on a moving elevator the CO sent us back to the floor we had all come from. Thankfully it was only 15 minutes, I’ve been in some that are as long as 45.

Teaching a few classes take two!
I felt electric energy in the dorm but saw a lot of women sprawled (as mush as one can sprawl) on their cots. Calling for yoga didn’t generate a lot of movement. So I waited and set up a mat in the dining room cum lounge cum yoga area. If I sit they will come.

They did. A former dancer with The Dance Theater of Harlem told me about her love of ballet. Another was interested in the arthritis in her shoulder which led to a conversation about joints and synovial fluid. This word was s hit. Everyone kept repeating it over and over moving their shoulders in time. ‘Its name sounds like what it does.’ I’d never thought about the poetry of the word but she was right. This same student was also pregnant and during meditation a peaceful smile washed over her face as she rubbed her belly. The room was silent and in a very different twist every student fell asleep. This never happens. The silence drew onlookers who watched their housemates bliss out. They looked at me and smiled. It’s a good thing.

‘That was a beautiful experience,’ one student said.

‘I heard your voice in the background but it was like is was getting lower and lower. Then I just fell asleep.’

It takes a lot of trust for a group of women in jail to sleep (snoring included) in front of you. A few were embarrassed but with assurance that it’s normal, natural and frankly good for them to let go- they were pleased and felt rested.

Meditation is the medicine, yo.

The same thing happened in my next class. Ten women zonked out. Someone did mention that this was the floor of the fight so the adrenaline drop off can be tiring. I take the responsibility of sleeping women seriously. I watch the door and silently shush people away who look like they want to play with people on their mats. But today everyone seemed to be looking out for the group. When I was leaving a group of women stopped me bummed because they have to work when I teach. They wanted something to do even if they can’t come to class. When I said next week I’d bring them a few practices to do together I didn’t get a pessimistic side eye or an okay covered in doubt- just a ‘cool, thanks’ with a smile and a ‘see you next week.’

Trust is the foundation of mindfulness. Trust the process, trust people. Trust yourself.

Namaste y’all.