I had to practically beg the CO on post at building 7 to let me in. He kept asking if I was sure I was in the right place. Seriously. He asked four times if I was sure that I was there to teach yoga. He said yoga like it was the craziest thing he’s ever heard.
I went to Rikers today instead of my normal Tuesday. My regular class in the max area was thrilled. No one got the message that I would be coming today. I got a hug followed by a we missed you- we thought something happened. One confessed that she thought I’d forgotten about them. I assured her- no way. But I really appreciated her honesty and told her so. The building was quiet and we had a beautiful practice. It was so quiet I could hear students breathing. A gift in this environment.
Started a new class in a sentenced women’s dorm and had a large group excited to come to yoga. This excitement extended to the CO who turned off the TV and kept the dorm fairly quiet for our whole practice- another first. One moment to be filed under hilarious- one woman left class calling it fake ass Pilates. Can’t win em all! We had a great time. At the end of class one student said ‘Please come back. People say they will come back and don’t.” Before I could say anything someone said- nah she’s here all the time. Trust is process. It takes time. It takes patience. I hung around after and two students wanted an easy routine they could do in the mornings. After writing one we practiced it together. Not all will practice on the outside but some will. And by learning to breathe a little more deeply they are opening up opportunities to honor themselves.
It’s cold outside but there was a flicker of warmth inside. I’m grateful and honored that they let me in.
It’s only in the last ten to fifteen years that there have been serious studies about the effects of yoga and meditation, let alone how yoga and meditation may affect the prison population. But two doctors at Oxford did a preliminary study about yoga in prison and found some interesting results.
‘We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention,’ said Dr Amy Bilderbeck and Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.’
This week I bumped into two students who are no longer in my class due to reassignment. While I’m happiest hearing that students are going home, it’s good to see people smile and chat when the see the ‘yoga lady’. Wendy and Monica (not their real names) said that they were bummed that they didn’t have yoga. Wendy said, ‘I have to show you something though.’ She then gracefully moved through a Sun Salutation. For the non yoga set the movements in a sun salutation are below.
‘I’ve been practicing and even showing other girls stuff. I’m so proud of myself.”
So was I and told her so. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard that people keep practicing even when there isn’t class. Another student told me uses the time she is locked down during shift change to do her mini-workout and yoga. She’s a fan of balancing poses and meditation. The meditations we do are something that she thinks about when she’s not in class.
Dr Bilderbeck, who practises yoga herself, cautioned: ‘We’re not saying that organising a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates. We’re not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.’
I think that teaching yoga in prisons and jails in important. There are two women who are now practicing being mindful on their own. They have a stronger sense of pride and self. I don’t know if this is going to help them when they leave. But I do know it can’t hurt.
This is yoga. For real.
If you would like to learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and the work we do click here.
I discovered this week that the max section had been moved (thankfully) to a different block. And while it’s still a sh*thole, it’s like the Four Seasons compared to the previous block. When class ended I saw someone with her hand raised- it was Mona (not her real name). She wanted to join class but came back late from work detail and wasn’t sure if it was okay to sit down once class had begun.
Mona didn’t participate but watched the first class I taught in max with curious eyes, peeking over the top of a book. We spoke briefly. After telling me that she liked the class she asked, ‘What’s your dharma?’ I laughed still unsure what it was. She needed a meditation at night when she got stuck in her head. She had an ethereal personality combined with a level of frankness that I appreciate. The following week I brought with me a few more meditations but she was gone.
You don’t ask a lot of questions when you don’t see someone- because it’s not your business. If people share that’s fine, but prying isn’t okay. I wondered where she went and if she was alright. When teaching in a short-term prison facility, you get used to students leaving without notice. Closure is a luxury.
‘How’s your dharma?’ she said.
‘A work in progress. How’s yours?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been locked down, so…’ her voice trailed off. There was a problem with another woman which resulted in a stint in solitary.
In the prison system when an inmate poses a threat to themselves, COs or other inmates they are placed in a solitary housing unit or solitary confinement. Confinement times can be for a day, a month, a week or a year. The US has more people in isolation than in any other country in the Western world. Solitary confinement started out as an experiment in the 1800s. And while confining violent offenders is a necessary evil to protect inmates and corrections officers alike many prison administrators are saying that it’s overused.
When corrections officials talk about solitary confinement, they describe it as the prison within the prison, and for good reason. For 23 hours a day, inmates are kept inside a cell that is approximately 80 square feet, smaller than a typical horse stable. Cells are furnished with a bed, sink and toilet, but rarely much else. Food is delivered through a slot in the door, and each day inmates are allowed just one hour of exercise, in a cage.
For most of the 20th century, a typical stay in solitary amounted to just a few days, or several weeks in more extreme cases. Today, it’s not unusual for inmates to spend years at a time in solitary. Supporters say the practice helps keep prisons safe, but according to the medical literature, solitary confinement can also take a heavy mental toll.
According to a recent report from the ACLU women prisoners are put in solitary for many non-violent offenses.
“Women are put in the hole for small things,” said Craig, who now works as a supervisor at a domestic violence safe house in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes there’s a fight or something, but it can be for something stupid, like stealing a tomato from the kitchen, or having two blankets instead of one.”
Mona was locked down for six weeks.
New York City officials unanimously agreed Tuesday to eliminate solitary confinement for inmates ages 21 and younger. The decision is groundbreaking: Jails across the U.S. impose solitary confinement on misbehaving inmates.
She was reading a copy of Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I had a copy of Sparks of Divinity, quotes and stories from BKS Iyengar as told by one of his first non-Indian female students. I gave it to her. We talked for a bit and I told her that she should jump in if class has started because she is always welcome. Mona thanked me and said, ‘This whole thing [incarceration] has been humbling. I’ve learned a lot about myself.’ As I got up to leave two students came over and asked if they could give me a hug. Mona said, ‘I think I’ll take one of those too.’
I know that these women are in this section for a variety of reasons and are considered to be high risk, but believe that if they can get opportunities to look inside beyond their case numbers, reputations with the COs, the system and their individual pasts they may see what I see- that they are capable, strong and empowered to make better choices. Meditation and yoga helps with impulse control. Meditation classes are starting to pop up in super-max prisons across the country. It’s not a miracle cure, but many people have ‘light bulb’ moments. Once the switch is turned on, change is possible.
For a great conversation about solitary confinement reform you can listen to the podcast below. If you haven’t seen Frontline’s Locked Up in America check it out. It’s very raw and gritty but well done.
To learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and its programs, click here.
We are all prisoners, undergoing a life sentence, imprisoned by our own minds. We are all seeking parole, being hostages of our own anger, fear, desire… it is a thin line that separates us from these people, who stare at us from inside this cage. The same things that do not go beyond the threshold of our thoughts, have crossed, in their case, the threshold of action. But still, we are alike.– From Doing Time, Doing Vipassana
Well, they must have done something to be in prison…
I think it’s ridiculous that inmates get yoga.
Why do you come here?
These (and more) are the negative things people have said to me about teaching yoga at Rikers. I write about teaching in prison every other week to honor those I believe are the forgotten. Our society is built on the idea that only the ‘good’ deserve ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ people are expendable. It implies that were are the things that we do.
I do not think that we are.
We are more that the stuff we buy, the jobs we do, we are more than the people we choose to be with and the choices we make. Because someone made bad choices in the past does not mean that she shouldn’t have a chance at a preparing for a better future.
I’m not okay with throwing people away. I’m not okay with a woman being overwhelmed with gratitude because I looked her in the eye and said, ‘Good morning.’ When it comes to jail I believe that the system is broken. I’m not talking just Rikers. I mean lots the institution of detention. Punishment without programming and plan for re-entry (and the follow-up after re-entry) is a recipe for recidivism. And reform at Rikers is said to be underway. I have seen some changes. I’m cautiously optimistic.
Sorry, I don’t mean to preach. It gets under my skin.
I know. Yoga teacher heal thyself and all that. My passion is a gift and a curse.
As my mom says, “It’s Tuesday so it must mean Rikers.” So our story begins.
I could hear the rain pouring down and pulled myself out of bed. Soaked like a wet dog on the PATH train I hoped that the weather and my now clingy sweats weren’t an omen.
While the prison seemed to creak under the weight of the rain, classes were a different story. After spending time in Building 16 I taught my first class to the women in 3SA. The dorm holds sentenced women. Last week, I dropped by to see if they were really interested in having class. Apparently, a few of them stopped by a counselor’s office on Monday asking about yoga, just to make sure I wasn’t full of bs.
Eight women came to their mats. The energy was definitely more calm than the women in detainee areas. There wasn’t that frenetic, anxious energy. Women who are sentenced know how long they are there. We were able to sit and talk about what classes could look like. Lots of times pre-trial women are distracted, and with good reason. Some of them are new to this situation and most don’t know what is going on with their cases. They are learning how to survive in this environment and are scared.
Because it’s prison.
We sat with our mats making a large circle. One woman sitting at the table asked if she could watch. Instead, we invited her to come sit even if she didn’t want to move. “I just want to be a part of what’s happening here,” she said. Another woman stated that with the TV on in the background, it would be hard to concentrate. Nearby, people were intensely watching a movie. Honestly, compared to other floors it was so low that I didn’t even notice it. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what was on. I asked Rachel(not her real name) if she would be okay about thinking of the TV and all the noise around us as background and white noise. Someone else pointed out that it would help them learn to be still when it’s crazy. And still another said that we would get so focused on class that it wouldn’t matter.
‘This is going to be awesome’, I thought.
We began class with an awareness practice. I watched as everyone started to breathe into the moment. I don’t mean this in some woo-woo way. The witness practice as we call in cancer therapy training allows someone to bring moment to moment awareness to internal and external actions. Much of my cancer and chronic illness training is useful in this environment.
Our focus: being more than the body. Every movement was about the breath and allowing things to be how they are supposed to be in the moment. Building on this sense of living in the present we glided into one restorative pose and then guided meditation. Lunch was wheeled in as we were wrapped up. We formally closed class wishing each other peace and peace for everyone.
I’m hopeful for what we will learn from each other.
So when I ask myself why I do this I answer, how can I not? I live in the world. We all have different ways that we serve other humans. This is mine.
People in prison need consistent programming and mind/body activities like yoga. From Us News Blog:
The focus of our prison system should be to improve society, not make it worse. As such, we should rededicate ourselves to reducing recidivism, and implementing the evidence-based policies that do so, such as increasing educational and vocational investment in prisoners.
And listen. I’m not a fool. I don’t waltz into Rikers chanting Om and teaching from a rose colored yoga mat. That’s not me. It’s also not my issue to deal with what people did.
I teach yoga and meditation so women find that place inside that lets them see who they are outside of all the stuff people say they are. Those powerful labels that can shape a life when we don’t pay attention. Powerful labels can shape a life when you’ve spent most of your life living in a situation that was ‘survival-centric’. Eventually those labels of what the external says is so becomes what is known.
I teach yoga and meditation so women get a moment to breathe into their spirit and say, I am a person. I am worthy of attention. I am worthy of love and being loved.
If you would like to learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga click here
If you haven’t seen Doing Time, Doing Vipassana you can check it out below.
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 Clark, The Garden
Until next time. Namaste y’all.
Interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here
3EastA of Rosie (RMSC)
My class on the third floor was small. One student had recently had surgery, one was struggling emotionally and two other students had never done yoga before. In situations like this I like to talk about what students hope to get from yoga. One woman stated that she’s pretty sure that prison was a way for her to stop running from herself and her drug problem. She had just started going to church again and has a few back to back days clean. She was in class for a moment last week but confessed that she was still struggling with sobriety and couldn’t concentrate. She was fit and hoping that doing some yoga could help her feel better. Walking around the yard during rec (recreation time) was helping but it wasn’t enough.
‘You have no idea what it’s like in here. There’s no privacy. I feel like an animal. When I first got here I was out of it, ya know so I didn’t really know what was going on. But now I do. And this is hell.’
Everyone was nodding in agreement with what she was saying. She said she just wanted some quiet.
It made sense to start class with creating some private space. We sat up on blocks and gently bowed our heads with our eyes open but kept our gaze soft and without focus. I offered the class a chance to just sit in this space. With the eyes down on the mat, it gives a sense of privacy. Next, I extended the invitation to close the eyes if it felt safe. We sat this way with my voice guiding them through inhales and exhales. It was a noisy day on the third floor. In the middle of this a group of women were placed in the dorm. You could feel the shift of energy as everyone stopped to take the new people in. It’s at moments like this, I have to stay focused on holding the space.
If you aren’t a teacher or work with support groups you may be asking, what is holding space? In a setting where I am the person responsible to creating a place to learn or breathe, it’s critical that I make sure the space is ‘safe’. In my previous retail life this meant making sure that folks could respectfully share or disagree with me and each other. It also meant that the room was safe- what was said in there, stayed in there. As the leader, it was my job to make sure that happened. In prison, it’s a challenge.
I am not in control of the surroundings. Class takes place in a room that is filled with other people. I sensed that a few of the women were teasing another who is focused on her sobriety. Instead of getting caught up in things that can’t be controlled I have my class focus on what they can do. They can learn how to breathe. They can learn how to cultivate a bit more peace inside them instead of looking for it outside.
The more I teach, the more I see the real challenges that these women face. It’s my role to help them open up ways to feel empowered. At the end of class I hung around. I got this advice from Kim who teaches prenatal at Rikers. I’ve shortened the class so I can chat, talk and answer some questions that students may not feel ready to share in front of everyone. This has been the most powerful part of class.
I did get told something I could share:
‘I wanted to thank you for giving me a chance to spend some time back with my grandmother during meditation. She used to have coffee in the morning at a house in the woods and look at nature. I imagined that today.’
– Student, RMSC
May all beings everywhere be peaceful and free.
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.
If you are interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga click here