Rikers Island Yoga

 

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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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Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers Island

Discipline Working with the Inner Chaos

Today was my last class with the women on the fifth floor of Rosie (RSMC).

Our last class began with a dharma talk about mindfulness. What did everyone think the word meant?

‘Respect’ said someone from the back of the room. ‘Paying attention.’ said another student. ‘Being open to change.’

I asked them to add the word breathing to their definition of mindful. As we practiced I invited them to pay attention to their breathing, using their own definitions of what it meant to be mindful. We started class with meditation and a body scan. This theme of staying in touch with the body and breathing was with us every movement. I noticed today that every seemed focused inward, which was really lovely. While it’s great to see that people are engaged when I’m teaching, the real transformation is for these women to be able to give themselves a chance to breathe and get in touch with their own feelings off the yoga mat. I’m hopeful that this may have been a way to do that.

We practiced a therapeutic class with gentle yoga in between the postures. I have one student who practices sitting at the table. With her feedback we we able to put together table therapeutic practice (bolster and blocks included). It was fantastic because I’ve watched her grow from watching the class, to moving her arms and eventually sitting at a table right next to us. For the past three weeks I’ve incorporated table poses (I’ve been careful not to call them modifications-empowerment v. limitations). The best part is that she was able to use the bolster. The students at Riker’s don’t have opportunities to truly be comfortable. Getting a chance to rest on a bolster or hug something soft is a great release.

We spent almost two hours together and though I was sad, I’m confident that a few women feel empowered to breathe a little better.

In the end that’s really what it’s all about.

Next Tuesday begins a new adventure in building 16.

I am grateful.

Namaste y’all.

If you are interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga click here

 

 

Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

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In 30 years, the number of women in jail has increased by over 800% [Source: Institute on Women & Criminal Justice]. Most of these women are imprisoned as a result of drug-related charges; however other leading causes of incarceration are immigration status issues.

M. comes to class each week. She doesn’t speak a lot of English but is one of the first students to sit on her mat. I make sure that during class I make eye contact with her and nod so she understands she’s moving safely. Part of me feels stupid for not speaking Spanish and by next week I will know at least how to say inhale deep and exhale slow.  Though we speak mostly in smiles, gestures and nods, I can see her body relax during guided meditation.

I’m frustrated with myself. It’s easy to take life for granted. It’s just one more thing that these women teach me.

Here’s some startling information about women in prison:

The vast majority of women in prison—85 percent to 90 percent—have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. And racial disparities strike here too: Girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders than white girls, who have a better chance of being treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems. This disparity is particularly devastating for gender nonconforming girls, who are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.

In addition to intimate partner violence, other risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse and mental illness. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of women prisoners suffer from substance addiction. While it would be much more cost effectiveto treat these women than imprison them or pay for foster placement for their children, they are refused such rehabilitative measures—measures that could facilitate their integration back into society as productive members.

-Center for American Progress

This week instead of the noise, I couldn’t help but notice the beds.  I use the term bed loosely. The mattresses are about 3 inches thin and sit atop metal cots which sag even when empty. While I’ve seen them before, on this particular Tuesday they were glaring. Maybe it was because I was on the third floor with the sentenced women. I guess in my head I rationalize that many of the women on the fifth floor will be going home. Because they are consider detainees, the energy feels more transient.
I don’t know. Maybe I was stuck on the beds because I’m more familiar with my surroundings. Whatever it was it created an opening, a desperate moment of clarity…
As the CO announced class I took in utter lack of privacy of prison dorm life.  I averted my eyes and felt flushed with shame. There wasn’t anything happening- but the dorm is their space. Some women were sleeping and others were talking. And a CO is there the whole time watching all of it. I’m not waxing political with commentary (yet)- but a stark reality is clear. This is their life- at least in this moment.
On the third floor 12 students came to their mats. I am glad but try to hold back because I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. But maybe it won’t. In the common/dining/yoga area the person watching TV turned it off and went back inside the dorm. It pleasantly surprises me but also gives me pause. These women have to adapt at the drop of a hat. I can never forget that. I’m the visitor. It doesn’t matter (to me anyway) that I choose to be there. These women must be able handle whatever comes their way, even if it’s a yoga teacher with some mats.

During class more people started to watch.  J, who is in her sixties said she was too out of shape to do it. But J’s friend told her to stop making excuses and try, since she ‘d never done yoga, how could she know what she could do and couldn’t do. It was a fair point, I thought.  Without fail at the end of class there is a greater sense of serenity on every woman’s face. I think back to M. on the third floor. She may not understand every word I say. But she is learning how to move in her body.

When I leave Riker’s I’m consistently struck with the need to do more.
More for the women there.
More for women in prisons everywhere.
I watched the documentary Crime After Crime about Deborah Peagler and her 27 year incarceration for death of her incredibly abusive boyfriend. The system was not set up to support her. In fact,  statistics show that because she was abused and called the authorities she is over 80%  more likely to end up in prison (Center for American Progress).
And then I think about the women who get out and their struggles to transition back to the world. It seems overwhelming and at times I have to fight against the voice that says what the hell is yoga going to do? What can I do? Without fail I come back to M.’s face sitting there on her mat, moving, breathing and maybe knowing that she is important. Her body is important. Her ability to inhale and exhale into a better life is possible.
So I’ll be back next Tuesday and the Tuesday after and the Tuesday after that. Two weeks ago Seane Corn, a yoga activist spoke at a yoga festival. She said that as yogis we can no longer be silent and passive. We have an obligation to take the love we have found on our mats and share it to bring change to the world.

On Friday I was standing on the corner of Sixth Ave and Canal. The weather was perfect. I had an early day and I got to wrap it up by tasting a custom blended tea for my upcoming workshop. Later, I took a class and capped off the night with some chores, a glass of wine and Netflix. Tired, I crawled into my bed more grateful than I have ever been for the comfort of my bed. And I think of M. and know that in the morning I need to wake up and do more.

It’s the beautiful burden of being free.

Namaste y’all.

Interested in finding out more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here

Adventures in Teaching Yoga- Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga

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8:20 am (On the Q100 to Riker’s)

I was hesitant to write a post last week. It’s not because anything dramatic happened, just the opposite in fact. It was hot last and despite the air conditioning being out on the B side of the dorm- 15 women still showed up to do yoga. Honestly, it felt a little more like my hot yoga classes. However, I went with it. Because it was warm I actually had us move a little more. My thinking was, we’re going to sweat anyway- we may as well make it good. As luck would have it, when we got to meditation the air came back on. All in all it was a great class.

8:35 (On the Riker’s Route Bus)

Over the wekeend I spoke with Anneke. She wanted to know if I would be interested in discussing the possibility of teaching a class to the sentenced women a few floors down. The vibe would be decidedly less friendly. Of course I said- sure, why not?

So…after I teach the B side I’ll head downstairs and see what happens. I’m a little unsure about how this is going to go. Because my initial experience was so incredible I’m thinking that challenge is on the horizon.

Leap.

Oddly on the bus…Kirk Franklin’s ‘Smile’ is playing loudly.

Good Plan.

After Class…

I’m back on the bus. Smiling.

Let me take you through it- because I’m still not sure what happened myself…

With a cart packed with mats and blocks I enter the elevator and press 3. Both Carmen, the dorm counselor of the A side and Anneke offered to take me down to the third floor- but I said I’d rather go on my own. The set-up for sentenced women is different than those who are pre-sentenced. And frankly, there’s no real incentive for them to have to take class- they’re already convicted. There aren’t counselors either- no buffer. Just me and my yoga mats.

It wasn’t pride that refused the escort- I feel like these women may have snickered- the yoga teacher feels like she needs a chaperone?

 

Anyway, I get buzzed in and instantly I’m slammed by the noise. It’s loud. So ear piercingly, soul shatteringly loud.

Last night I had a dream that I was in prison- an anxiety dream no doubt. I was in a cage across from a guy in an orange jumpsuit hurling sexual slurs- there were blue earplugs on a chain just out of reach. 

My dream comes back as I wheel my cart into the dining area. People are screaming conversations at each other. It’s not hostile, just loud. The TV blares and the buzzing of the door seems louder than upstairs, though I’m sure it isn’t.

Okay smarty pants I tell myself- whatcha gonna do with this chaos?

I smile, say hi- introduce myself and ask the women sitting if they want to do yoga. One says no and looks at me like I’m an idiot. Another looks at me and turns away and two women who are having what I’m pretty sure is the loudest conversation ever don’t acknowledge me.

Splendid.

But now- I’m committed. Damn- I’ma do this, I think. Rejection?! I laugh at rejection.

So I leave the cart and walk to the dorm and say hey to the officer and introduce myself and say that I’m here to teach yoga weekly. He announces it for me- which is helpful. No one stirs but I ask again if anyone wants to do yoga. I get two takers and a third who wants to but can’t because this is the time she gets to visit her daughter.

Sitting on mats and blocks we get started. It’s still loud.

So loud.

On TV Maury talks to mother who has slept with her daughter’s baby daddy and who is also pregnant with said baby daddy’s baby.

But this is life in this dorm so I can adapt or go home. We warm up and I tell them about sun salutations. Wondering how I’m going to grab the attention of the two women talking loudly I opt for distraction. I figure if they get distracted they may unknowingly lower their voices even a half decibel.

I demo a sun salutation and jump back high, smooth and light. I float forward (with bent knees) and hover over my shoulders before landing.

‘Our practice on our mats- asana prepares us for meditation. Each week we’ll spend time together and build a practice that you’ll be able to do on your own. You guys want to have some fun?’

They’re ready.

‘Did you just see that shit she did?’ said one of the women at the table.

Silence. They begin to watch class. Phew.

The class and I do modified sun salutes over and over. They’re hooked and I’m thrilled.

(Did I see someone turn down the TV?)

In tree pose one of the women who was talking loudly says she wants to join. She sets up a mat and blocks. In the background someone else is saying that if more people don’t come to join class ‘she wont be back.’ It was still noisy but we had fun and moved our bodies.

I offered to do a guided meditation and they said yes before I could finish asking. While class was short- I did long meditation- making the noise a part of it in order to release it. This may have been more for me than them. By this time a few more women had come in to observe and when I opened my eyes for a moment during meditation I could see the woman who looked at me like I was a fool when I first entered had her eyes closed.

No one was talking and someone had closed the door to the dorm to cut down on the noise.

We close class. They say they feel good.

 

I tell them I’ll see them next week.

Other women tell me they might try next time. Another says it looked pretty cool.

Back upstairs someone asks why I didn’t turn down the TV or quiet the room.

I wouldn’t walk into someone’s home and turn the channel. Whether they like it or not this is their home- I’m an unknown and uninvited visitor. However, for an hour every week I need up carve out a corner and hope that people will respect it.

Think things are on the right track.

I can’t wait for next week.

On the PATH train I’m covered in stillness. Even with the doors open and trains pulling in and leaving, announcements pouring out of speakers- it’s still more quiet than the dorm.

Every week I become more present to the things I take for granted. Silence. Stillness. Peace of Mind.

The sentenced women’s dorm is going to be a glorious challenge and I already know it’s going to change me in ways I can’t imagine.

 

I’m so grateful.

 

Namaste y’all.

 

Please read more about  Anneke Lucas and Liberation Prison Yoga.

 

 

Cheerleader Yoga – You Can Do It

kino So check it.

I have an unhealthy obsession with trying to hop forward to handstand. It’s down the road, but I like to think one day I could get there.

In a workshop we partnered off trying to stack the hips over the shoulders. With a yoga buddy standing in front of you they served as a wall and could gently guide the hips back down with a gentle nudge. That’s assuming you could get the hips to lift that high.

The whole act of hopping forward scared the crap out of me though I was in no danger of getting my hips that high.

None. Nada. Zip. Zero.

But I’m a determined chick. I found Kino MacGregor’s video on floating forward. I was still too chicken to do it without the wall.  However, that aside, I followed Kino’s direction. And I practiced and practiced.

Though I was sure I was getting closer, I wasn’t sure how far I had to go.

Until today.

My friend Jessica teaches an early morning hot vinyasa class that gets the juices flowing. After class, we were talking about hopping forward. I was demonstrated my lack of progress.

But then, a new element was added.  I got some encouragement. Bam. I was up. My feet were planted, but I was in handstand. Excited, I sprung up!!

Someone said, “You just needed a few cheerleaders!”

Ain’t that the truth.

We could all use a few cheerleaders along the way.

Yoga is community. Yoga is support. Yoga is cheerleaders telling you that you CAN do it.

I’m so grateful. Cheerleader yoga.

Namaste y’all.

Tantric TV Yoga

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I used to do a lot of binge watching.

Just shove a whole season down my throat because somehow it tasted better.

But lately, my television experience is a lot more tantric.

Like many, many other people I been watching Orange is the New Black.

A joy lies inside the waiting to watch the next episode. Netflix makes it hard because they release the whole season at once, however, I have shown a shockingly huge amount of discipline.

Yeah I know, it’s a prison show full of stereotypes- but the writing isn’t all bad.

We can spend time judging my tastes later, more interesting things await.

So since I’m really taking my time with every episode every word sinks in.

Jengi Kohan, the creator must know that I love a good turn of phrase and quippy dialogue that feels real.

It’s. Absolutely Satisfying.

(And Natasha Lyonne is fcuking awesome, but again I digress)

Episode 10 deals with bad teens and the Scared Straight program. In one scene the main character talks to a young banger girl in a wheelchair.

It starts at minute 2:44 but the whole five minutes is great. (the language is rough, so the kids need to walk away)

“It’s coming face-to-face with who you really are.” 

I know I’ve mentioned that yoga is my therapy, my church, my medicine and my safe place.

But really, it just brought me face-to-face with myself.

It happens every time I practice, but I feel myself most when I’m in the hot room.

I don’t know what it is about the heat or the ritual I have about setting up my mat, but if I’m running from something I can be sure that it’s going to be waiting for me when I sit my ass down and fold my legs to open my hips. Baddha Konasana will never be the same.

One of these moments happened today.

I got to class. I changed. I chatted. I kept looking at the entrance to the hot room sideways, like it was about to come for me. (And I hadn’t even watched Episode 10 yet! )

I stopped bullshitting and went to face the heat.

Feelings started to well up and I felt my eyes leak (I’m so happy the room is dark).

But I realized that I wasn’t upset about anything.

I. Was. Okay.

The past 12 months were more stressful than I can describe, and I didn’t talk about it as much as I should have to my family and friends.

Now, on the other side I realized that it was my mat and practice that had been my confidantes.

The hot room is where I came when it felt confusing, dark and on some days without any hope.

And now that the storm is over, I can exhale. It sounds stupid but I wanted to cry did cry and thanked the room for being there.

You can run but you can’t hide in 105°.

Staying in the moment helped me stay in the moment off the mat.

Being present can get you through a world of stress.

These next 12 months may prove to be the most challenging of my life.

But with a mat, a hot room, myself and the truth, I’ll be better than okay.

It isn’t prison, but hot yoga made me her bitch. And her truth has set me free.

Namaste y’all. 

half bind hot-yoga

Flatiron Yoga

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I’m sitting outside in the NYC sun. The Flatiron district is bustling with tourists and New Yorkers soaking up the last drops of summer along with cold coffee drinks.

An inversion workshop is happening in an hour. I’m not sure why I’m feeling my nerves go all a flutter. It’s a beginner workshop and after consulting not one but three other teachers about it- I’m sure it will be a blast.

Maybe it’s my horoscope- I know there may be some snickering, but whenever I read it, I’m able to make some connection to my life- which is the point I guess.

Anyway it says that life is changing and I should go with it. Not really- but that’s the gist or at least what I’m taking from it. New shapes and all that. How will I see the world differently when I’m on my head?

Can you imagine the gaping mouths when the Flatiron was going up?

How much changed because of it?

Off to fly and see new things.

Namaste y’all.

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