This post is for the introverts. As much as the big personalities make themselves seen in a place like Rikers, I also see those that are quiet.
In the summer the city gets hot but it feels even hotter at Rikers. Despite the heat students asked if they could work on the core. This made me smile for a variety of reasons. First, it’s awesome to see students feel empowered enough to ask for something. This takes courage. Second, it was HOT and I can’t believe they were looking to get even sweatier. But who am I to argue with passion? I had planned on talking about compassion for the self but instead we discussed our inner fire. How do we light it? Honor it? How does it inspire us?
Miriam practiced with a peaceful determination. She didn’t chat during class but smiled at certain points and it seemed that she was looking inward. In side plank her leg floated in the air and in half-moon she smiled to herself as she explored her possibilities by lifting her hand. This was yoga in action. Half-moon was a way for Miriam to embrace the moment rather than getting the pose right. Miriam had touched her core and lit her inner fire.
So much happens in the boisterous conversations at Rikers but it was really Miriam’s inward reflection that moved me. Sometimes I feel guilty to witness such beauty. But because o know it’s not mine I’m able to let it go and hope that Miriam knows what a powerful spirit she is. Shout out to those who are quiet. Sometimes it’s not the loudest voice that gets heard,but the most sonorous.
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…
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.
“Our notions about happiness entrap us. We forget that they are just ideas. Our idea of happiness can prevent us from actually being happy. We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh
On the 4th floor I was met with a ton of empty beds and lethargy. Lots of women had been released and others were at work. None of the regulars were around and it was a hard sell on some unfamiliar faces. I did see one student I knew and she said she was tired and didn’t feel like coming to the mat. Oddly though, no one seemed to want me to leave. I chatted for a little while- but hey I have yoga to peddle. I said my goodbyes and decided to go to the 5th floor.
A group of 15 settled on blocks and bolsters. I led practice off by stating that I would be teaching using the word ‘I’ because I was going to do what made sense for me. In turn, they should do what makes sense for them. It was jazzy.
When presented with the opportunity to choose (anything) we are both liberated and accountable. Our class started to draw onlookers. It might have been with some of the laughing, but I think it also had to do with people moving to their own rhythm. I risk sounding new agey typing this but the vibe surrounding a group of women making choices feels differently than a group of women being told what to do. It just does. By the time meditation rolled around I had a few spectators grab mats.
Typically, I do a guided meditation that uses visualization. But because the room felt solid and safe I opted for a traditional yoga nidra. The CO in the dorm kept things at a dull roar (for which I was grateful). It allowed for a deep state of meditation. Quite a few women hung back after class to chat with each and ask me a few questions. This is usually a good sign. One student told me that she used to go to a studio where I practice in the city. She said when she gets out she’s going to go back.
Maybe that’s what the day was about. Having a student make a choice to go back to her practice. From there, who knows. She’ll choose I guess.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
Building 7 was still except for Marissa(not her name) having a debate with the officer on post. It was clear Marissa wasn’t happy with how the conversation was going. There was anger brewing. Upon seeing me the officer said, “Why don’t you do some yoga. It will help you.”
Initially, Marissa plunked herself down in a chair out of protest, but I could see her eyeing the bolsters.
I must digress, bolsters are my secret weapon. After sleeping on a cot with a 3 inch thick mattress one can’t help but sneak a peak at a juicy pillow. Back to the class…
Raquel, my other regular from 7 was having a bad day and wasn’t interested in practicing. In this ‘house’ there are about 15 women, but the group that is there now is hard to motivate. This has not always been the case. It’s a challenge because these women are potentially a step away from solitary. They really need a chance to breathe. More and more I get stopped by women who want classes in their houses or dorms. It’s tough to rally a group when I know other students would be on their mats in a second. Rocks, hard place and all that jazz.
I gave another holler for yoga and decided to head back to teach another class on the fourth floor. Marissa looked at me and said, “If you want me to take the class I will. You don’t have to go.”
“It’s your choice. You don’t have to take this.”
I made this distinction on purpose. It wasn’t that I wanted Marissa to think she wasn’t doing me any favors. It’s important to give these women a chance to say yes of no to something. While I want to get every single body in Rikers to a class, I can’t mandate anything. (Well, I wouldn’t turn people away if it was required. Secretly, I may rejoice Officers and inmates taking classes together. One can dream).
Choice matters. Marissa made the decision to come to her mat. If she is bought in, she’s more likely to see benefits sooner rather than later.
She said, “I gotta get rid of some of this anger.”
We introduced ourselves and I asked her where in her body she felt the anger. It was in her head, neck and shoulders. I had her practice some gentle head and neck movements and then we did pranayama. As soon as we finished pranayama Marissa asked me about sit-ups. She’s been doing them but thought she was breathing wrong, ‘it’s like I’m fighting myself and now after doing this I think I’m breathing wrong or maybe not at all.’ It was a really astute observation. After we started moving Raquel came over smiling and grabbed a mat. Whatever she was going through wasn’t enough to keep her away from a chance to do yoga. We talked for awhile about weight gain- both had gained 40 pounds since arriving. With one knowing that her ‘journey’ (her words) will take her a prison that reportedly has a gym and lots of classes they excitedly talked about losing weight.
After class I asked Marissa how she was…”Better but I still need to settle this issue,” she said laughing.
As I headed out, Marissa came over and said, “What’s that thing with the hands and seeing the good in someone?”
“Namaste,” I replied. She looked over at the officer who she was now joking with and said Namaste to her.
She asked if I would be back next week, because she wanted to do more yoga.
It’s not even a question. Namaste y’all.
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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.
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.