Rikers Island Yoga

Even flowers growing in rock crevices
Even flowers grow in rock crevices- via flickr

 

Had a small but mighty class on the fourth floor. Inspired by a class I took the previous evening, I invited everyone to explore moving in slow motion as a way to examine the body and breath. We gently lifted a knee and placed in back down to the floor flowing side to side with Thai Chi like movements. It was playful, challenging and fun. By the end of class everyone was ready for a deep relaxation. Bolsters were placed under knees and blocks were strategically placed for maximum comfort. And then…
Savasana Interuptus.
A CO called for medical and they had to leave for treatment. ‘Michelle’ (not her real name) said, ‘This is the best part! Ugh.’ Her friend new to class asked if they could do it quickly before lining up. But people were already making their way to the door.
‘You can’t do it fast, that’s the point. It takes time to get inside. You’ll see next week.’
I knew they had to dash but as they were rolling up their mats Michelle said, ‘When I get back I’ll do some relaxation on my bed. It’s kinda quiet there.’
Michelle empowered herself. She was going to make time to breathe whether class was happening or not.
That’s yoga. We don’t always get the class we want, but if we’re open we can find what we need.
Awwwww yeah.
Namaste y’all.

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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

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.

Rikers Island Yoga

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“Thoughts are things, so make ‘em good ones.” -unknown

A lot of women I encounter in jail have endured a life of being told that they are less than. Being told that they don’t matter. Being told that they are nothing more than a body to be used, abused and thrown away.

In trauma sensitive yoga we find ways to take negative self-talk and replace it with positive language. Sometimes to quiet the loud external voice it requires a fake it until you feel it approach.

For instance, in a study by researchers at Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, people who used positive affirmations for two weeks experienced higher self esteem than at the beginning of the study. Also, in a study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that women treated with cognitive behavioral techniques, which included use of positive affirmations, experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms and negative thinking. A study by researchers at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, had similar results, and came to a similar conclusion.
Yoga may assist in helping you feel. When you start breathing and moving there’s a chance to move up the emotional ladder from faking feeling good to actually feeling good. Affirmations and/or mantras partner well with yoga and the process of building self-esteem and mindfulness.

In the sentenced women’s dorm I used a silent affirmation meditation to open class. I had students pick one thing they loved about themselves that wasn’t physical and turn it into an ‘I am’ statement. I am brave. I am compassionate. I am smart. I am love.

If they wanted, they could come back to their phrase over and over. Every time we met in Mountain pose I invited them to silently repeat their I am statement with hands gently pressing their hearts. Before closing class an I offered the option one more time.

I heard a women whisper ‘ I am hopeful for a better life.’ It caught me off guard and I had to pause before saying ‘Namaste’ because of the huge lump in my throat. Her voice stayed with me all day, not just because it was moving but because it was honest and so very real.

I am hopeful for a better life.
I am hopeful for a better life,
I am hopeful for a better life-
I am hopeful for a better life.

Aren’t we all?

I am hopeful for a better life.
I am hopeful that one day all beings will be happy and free.
I am hopeful.
I am.

Namaste y’all.

Rikers Yoga

barbedwire

 

At Rikers there are lots of ‘squeaky wheels’. It  gets the grease and whatnot. But lately, there’s one student who has really been getting into yoga. She’s been taking classes with me for almost three months. Mina (not her real name) is quiet and seems pensive. During the first class her eyes would widen as her body would open. But even as her friends went home, and class got smaller she kept showing up. With each passing week she’s become stronger and started asking questions. Last week, class was three deep, after sun salutations, the crew looked a little bored. I asked them what they wanted to do.

There’s always a pause when you ask a student in jail what they want. It’s so unusual. And then….
Something hard, one said. Something fun, another said. All three were fit and demonstrated core strength and coordination so we took it to the wall for L pose and handstand practice.
Word. Go time. 
Mina was kicking up before I cued it. On her hands against the wall she was asking, ‘Like this?’ without struggle in her voice. All three were amazing and radiant. There is joy in going upside down. The other women in the dorm were proud of all of them clapping and cheering them on.
This week she was the only one who showed up to class. The call for rec had come just before I got there. With the first whiff of warm weather, I’d probably choose to be outside as well. Mina asked if we would still have class since she was the only one. A huge smile graced my face because a student who can do handstands and no other people = F.U.N. There is something shy and powerful about Mina, she smiles but is hesitant to look at you straight on. After holding her handstand she smiles broadly but it disappears just as quickly. After class she let me know that she was going home in two weeks so I’d only see her for one more time. She put her blocks on the cart and looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’m never coming back.”
I believe her.
Shout out to all the Minas.
Namaste y’all.

Liberation Prison Yoga – Indiegogo Campaign

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I know that many of you know that every Tuesday I teach yoga to women at Rikers Island. We breathe, move, laugh, get serious, get frustrated and most of all are real. I walk the corridors and get greeted with hellos from students who can’t wait to do more yoga. There are few things I’ve ever been so passionate about.

We are looking to raise a lot of money to expand this program, pay teachers and cover admin costs. As a member of the board for Liberation Prison Yoga​, I’m asking that you consider contributing so that we may continue to train the teachers whom I consider to be warriors of peace.

They are full of love and do this because it is their calling. Thank you.

 

From Indiegogo

Who we are

Liberation Prison Yoga  organizes volunteers to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to prisons, to provide health and healing on every level, impacting not only our students, but also their communities, and our society.

Why this campaign?

We just completed a successful yearlong pilot of our unique trauma conscious yoga empowerment program at the Rikers Island Jail Complex in New York.  We are ready to implement our program and expand.

Where we come from

Child Trafficking Victim Finds Peace Teaching Rikers Inmates Yoga was the start. Anneke Lucas experienced most atrocities known to humankind before she reached the age of 12. Seeking to free herself from her past, she found yoga, meditation, therapy and other healing modalities on a long and hard journey to recovery. However, true impact came only through humble healers who, instead of presenting as teachers or authority figures, made a connection through heartfelt empathy and understanding within safe boundaries.

 

 

Please check out the campaign and consider donating.

 

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/liberation-prison-yoga/embedded

Namaste y’all.

 

Rikers Yoga

riker DOC

Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth… This is the real message of love.

― Thích Nhất HạnhTeachings on Love

On some days I am overwhelmed by the excitement of a group of students. But this week I was humbled by the power of a simple act. It’s what yoga is all about, but it’s easy to get caught up in the shapes, like the joy in tree or the power of warrior I.

This week wasn’t about poses, it was about breathing and self-love. 

Susan (not her real name) raised her hands up in the air to say hello. Touching isn’t permitted so this is how she can give a hug. Susan lives in a dorm by herself after spending time in solitary. Last week, when I came to do yoga she was doing some work and wasn’t available. Yoga had to be postponed for another week due to a scheduling conflict but the officer who came to get her said that it would be no problem if we spent a few minutes together meditating.

I was grateful.

Sitting on bolsters we began by breathing. Though we only had a few minutes I slow down the pace of dropping into meditation. We bring awareness first to the inhale noticing how it moves through the nostrils. We explore how the air fills the lungs. I talk about the lift of the chest. Susan gently drops into breathing. I extend the pauses in between each cue. I can see that she is smoothing out the edges to her breath.

There is an easiness about her spirit yet at the same time I sense fragility.

The light coming into the dining area casts a glow that makes it feel like a school cafeteria. Susan in her t-shirt and sweatpants looks like a teenager though I have no idea of her age. I see her chest soften more with each inhale and exhale. A lovely smile floats across her face during the meditation. I can see that she is in place that makes her feel peaceful. The transition back from meditation is just as soft as it was entering. When she opens her eyes she breathes deeply and smiles.

“I felt like I was flying.”

This is what it’s about. I could go on and on about the power of meditation (And in other posts, of course I will). But on this day Susan’s comment says it all. We spent five minutes together and she was able to teach herself to fly.

That is worth repeating. In five minutes she was able to teach herself how to fly.

Namaste y’all.

 

Liberation Prison Yoga has launched our indiegogo campaign!!! Click here to see the video and read more about our mission.

No yoga. No peace. Know yoga. Know peace. 

 

 

 

Rikers Yoga – Three Floors. Three Narratives.

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“There’s no secret to balance, you just have to ride the waves”
Three dorms. Three narratives
Today was all about finding a way to honor all my students and meet them where they are. I’ll start from the top.
On the third floor I met a new student. We chatted for about 15 minutes. She’s spent the better part of two years in the Bing (solitary). No longer in solitary she lives in a dorm by herself. She’s a reader who loves biographies and is excited to do yoga. We’ll start next week. I’m honored and grateful that she is comfortable practicing with me. We’ll start with 30 minutes and go from there. The details of whys and hows of how she got there is private and I think her story to share.
In Building 7 I was not met with shock and awe by the officer on duty. But I did walk in the the middle of commissary delivery.  Since the women there aren’t allowed to go to commissary, it’s delivered. I had a class plan ready but changed it when both students requested something more restorative. Usually they are all about moving fast and furious with a long guided meditation. Instead we did gentle yoga with therapeutic poses and seated meditation. Both said it was what they needed.
Last but not least on the rowdier 4 floor I had my new group of regulars who pounced when I arrived stating that they had been waiting. Pilates (not her real name) was the first to grab a mat, bolster and blocks. She proceeded to head to the TV. Our conversation went as follows.
Me: I’m beginning to think you’re testing me. You know our collective agreement. We practice as a group.
Pilates: (Innocently) But why can’t I do what I want?
Me: Because the mats are for a group class.
Pilates: Then I’m not doing it.
Me: That’s your choice
Pilates: Really, I’m not.
Me: Ok, but I’m starting to think you like yoga. You’ll be missing out.
Pilates: I’m too big to do the poses.
Me: You are the perfect size to do the poses.
Pilates: I’m going to sit and watch.
Me: That’s cool, but not ish talking allowed.
Pilates: Fine. I’ll practice and be quiet.
The group had settled in and I got the feeling this was not a new act they had seen from Pilates. We did a slow class but did standing poses. The entire group inlciuding Pilates was laughing and having a good time. We ended class with a long meditation. Pilates asked if I could turn off the TV. I complied. After meditation Pilates said, “I feel like I’m not in a bad mood.” Someone replied, “We’ll see.”
As I was leaving she said, “Namaste.”
I couldn’t hide my happy shit-eating grin.
It’s about balance. It’s about give and take. It’s about being kind and real at the same time. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.
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