Rikers Island Yoga

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Patty* was new to the dorm. With another quiet morning, I thought class would be light. When I asked if anyone wanted to practice she quietly raised her hand. I could see her hanging back seeing if anyone else would join her, when no one did she came out by herself. ‘I’ve worked out before but never done yoga, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ There was a hard shell around her, one I’ve seen a lot. It‘s necessary to survive the experience. I gave her a mat, blocks and bolster and told her that I would do some poses and she could do what felt right for her. I got a nod and we were off. Again I spoke about the stress response. It’s important. These women live in a state of stress every moment of every day, sometimes even while asleep. When I talk about how yoga may help that as well as the spirit, a compassionate determination rises up. Patty’s gentle movement inspired 6 others and another 3 watched. Conversation picked up. During a lull Patty burst out and said, ‘I was really shy when I first started class. It’s like being 5 at the playground all over again. But I like this’ Carmen*, another student said, ‘I’m glad you did, it’s what made me come over.’ Another said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ Others nodded in agreement. By the time we arrived at meditation Patty had to leave for medical but she looked at me and asked my name again. She’d heard it earlier but decided she was interested in knowing it. I get that. She also gave me her real name and said she’d see me next week.

She felt good.

After class there was more chatting than usual. And even though Patty had left class she was the catalyst. It only takes one. I saw her on my way out and she had her armor back on but she caught my eye and threw me a small nod. There isn’t a day that this work isn’t powerful. You hold the space. It’s not about you. You take care of yourself and your soul because this work demands it and you deserve it. But once in awhile a class can really crack your heart open and make you grateful.

This is yoga and it can quietly change the world.
May all beings be free from suffering.

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New Year Yoga – Don’t Change

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The end of last year was well, quite glorious. I had two weeks to do nothing but massage clients, teach yoga and take classes. Going to school full-time was the smartest thing I’ve done but still a commitment and shit ton of work. And while I am grateful for all of the good stuff happening, I was feeling a little overwhelmed and tired.

I wanted to spend my time off doing all the yoga. My friend Kathleen and I strolled to Jivamukti to take a class with Julie Kirkpatrick on Christmas Day. Class was like wrestling a cuddly grizzly bear. When you move pose after pose after pose after pose you have choices- try to hang on for dear life or surrender to the moment. In savasana I felt myself let go.

Listen, I know that as yoga teachers we talk about letting go (and sometimes we even mean it), but in that moment if the lights went out, and I mean forever- I would have been okay. That may seem like a heavy statement but it’s true. Savasana prepares us for the biggest unhooking of all.

In a Sunday class with Cassandra Rigney at Jivamukti she talked about watching Time of Death, a miniseries that follows terminally ill patients during their last weeks. Seems grim, I know. But Cassandra said it was a powerful testament to how in the end we forget all the bad shit that people have done and only see the good. Why not live like that now? Why not indeed I wondered as I walked home. Fresh off a Serial and Marking of Murderer binge Cassandra’s mention of ToD seemed like a good move. I was wrong.

I wasn’t just a good move. It was yoga. I was riveted watching these stories of life and death. Some of the families graciously let us watch their loved ones transition on camera. Some didn’t and that’s a beautiful and noble choice as well. It got me thinking.

This is yoga. This is life.

Yoga doesn’t only prepare me for living life in the now, it’s also practice for the ultimate letting go. What stuck me most was my reaction. You can’t help but reflect when you watch people die. But instead of thinking about what I would change I found myself thinking about what I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t change a lot.

I wouldn’t change the way I love the time I spend with my family.  Or seeing my brother’s face at Thanksgiving. Or cracking up with my parents and sister at Christmas dinner. I wouldn’t change the way I laugh at Dakota’s spring in her step when she smells the air during her morning walk. I wouldn’t change what I’m doing with my life. I want to do more of what I’m already doing now.

Forget about what you would change. What are you doing right? What’s working?

Do that.

So when I think about 2016 I’m not challenging myself to rock the shit out of the new year. I’m going to fucking be more present than ever in the now.

That’s working. Namaste y’all.

 

Rikers Yoga – Timing is Everything

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Adrianna Keener, a fantastic trauma-informed yoga teacher and I jogged across the street to catch the Q-100 bus. I was excited, not just because is an anatomy nerd like me but because it’s nice to go to Rikers with someone. Hey, we all get lonely. We saw a social worker who said we may not get on the island. There was a make-shift sign that said Rikers was on lockdown. No movement was allowed. This essentially means that people are on their beds all day. Since the sign was handwritten we decided, hey- we’re on the bus let’s go and see what happens. When the bus took the same mysterious turn it did a few weeks ago I knew something was up. Sure enough the driver said last stop (before the bridge to Rikers). We stood around for a few moments thinking what to do. You can’t walk over the bridge unless you’re looking to have a chat with DOC employees who carry assault rifles- so we thought the day was a bust. Employees could catch a shuttle. But, volunteers? Not sure. Fate intervened. Anneke Lucas, founder of LPY and apparently a woman who has perfect timing zipped up in her car. We hopped in and decided to see if we would be turned away. I was sure we would be, but when Anneke waltzed back with a parking pass I decided to keep my trap shut and surrender. We crossed the bridge without incident. Anneke was going to the men’s jail and Adrianna and I were headed to Rosie’s. We weren’t sure if we’d get to teach- but we had made it this far. The vibe at Rikers was sedated buy not heavy. But instead of yoga we led a meditation for 11 women on the 4th floor. Cheri Clampett’s meditation on meridians and chakras seemed like a good fit. Before the meditation Adrianna and I talked about meridians and how they relate to our body (geeks unite!!!). This set the stage for a powerful meditation. And while there were a few distractions everyone was grateful for the break in the day. One student talked about getting frustrated with noises and as a group we were able to talk about unhooking from the small stuff. Grateful for perfect timing. Namaste y’all. 

Rikers Yoga – Teen Meditation

Photo via Groundswell.org
One of the many hallways at Rikers Rose M. Singer Center for women Photo via Groundswell.org

 

 

“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.” 
― Pema Chödrön

 

After teaching in one of the sentenced women’s dorms I made my way to the dorm that held three teens who aren’t living with the rest of the teen population for various reasons. They were still in school so I waited until they got back. Things are always changing. ‘Tasha’ had been moved to another house (I think she’s back with the teen girls) and ‘Shakira’(not her real name) who was with the teen girls the week before was back in the ‘isolated’ (my word, not Rikers) section. Shakira lit up when she saw me. The CO in the bubble had let them know that I stopped by but I don’t think they realized that I’d be coming back. Shakira grabbed the only other girl in the dorm and told her to try yoga that it would be fun. ‘Andrea’ eyed me dubiously. I hoped that she would warm up as we began to practice but she didn’t and left class a few minutes in. Shakira unruffled asked if we could practice handstand. Andrea wandered back to see why we were on our hands and stayed for a few more minutes and then left again. Shakira asked about practicing crow and hurdler AND headstand. Who am I to get in the way such enthusiasm? As we were winding down practice I asked Shakira what was her favorite thing to do in yoga. She replied, ‘Meditation.’

‘A five-minute meditation?’ I suggested?

‘Can we do longer?’ she wanted to know.

I was all cool on the outside. ‘Um, sure we can sit and do a 15 minute guided med-,’

‘I don’t really need guided if that’s okay. I can focus on my breathing.’

‘Yeah okay- let’s do a 15 minute sit. ‘ But inside I’m like:

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My head had been pounding all morning so a seated meditation without support did not seem like a great idea. I let Shakira know I’d be moving my bolster to the wall for back support. She said, ‘We can do that? That’s cool because sometimes my back hurts sitting up.’

So we sat. I don’t drop into a deep meditation but it was hard not to chill out because the dorm is silent. I did think about Shakira’s desire and willingness to be still for 15 minutes. Not an easy task for an adult in this distracted world, even more challenging as a teenager. If you add the element of detention and stress of Rikers Island, it’s almost an impossible task. And yet, when I glance over at her just to see that she’s okay, her face is smooth and her breathing natural. This is no BS she’s in meditation.

Pema Chödrön talks about folks who really take meditation seriously because they have to. She says (and I’m paraphrasing here) those that haven’t had lots of serious trauma or addiction enjoy meditation and can treat it more like a trend. However, if you are a card carrying member of the shit hitting the fan club you get real serious real quick about meditation. Life can be pretty grisly where there aren’t any options left for a decent life. If meditation shows up an an answer, most take it. Because once you can look at your naked truth and not run, you can do just about anything. (Can I get an amen for Pema?) Sorry, I digress.

I thought my class with the teens would be about jumping around and laughing. And sometimes it is. But other times it’s about being quiet. This is what trauma informed teaching is about – listening and honoring the students. It’s not about my personality, my goals for a class or my wants and desires for students. It’s about my big ole mouth being shut , my hands and heart open, saying what can I give to you. How can I serve where you are in this moment.

I will not ignore people who are locked away. I will continue to speak up and out about the need to END mass incarceration. I will continue to plead for the need for more volunteers to visit people in prison as we work to end the system. I will continue to encourage people to volunteer and give assistance to those who are out of jail and need support, love and encouragement. I will not ignore those I can’t see. I will not be silent. This is my mantra and my meditation.

Namaste y’all.

 

 

Yoga as a Radical Act

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Friday night I heard Michelle Alexander talk about mass incarceration. It was powerful and shook me to the core. What was soul shaking though was hearing Eddie Conway, former Black Panther and political prisoner- locked up for 44 years. When asked about what could people to help transform everything that is wrong with the system he replied ‘reach inside’. To go inside prisons and see the forgotten. Teach. Empower. Love.

Yoga is my radical act for revolution.

When people can breathe and see the essence of what is inside them, anything is possible. I believe that we have an obligation, a responsibility to make things better. Any small act can create a ripple that can turn into a wave of change.

Show a child that they matter.

Be kind to someone who thinks they aren’t worthy, especially when it’s yourself.

We can do better. We must