Rikers Island Yoga (Teaching in Prison)

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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.

Moving on.

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.

Namaste y’all.

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.

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Monday Yoga- Every Passing Minute is Another Chance to Turn it All Around

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Psst. You don’t have to fear Monday. For many years I used to suffer from ‘Sunday Night Jitters.’ Sometimes it was well-deserved. I may have been blown off homework and was cramming to get it done. As an district manager, Mondays meant heading to the office for non-stop calls with my team, the corporate office and my boss. Though I loved, loved working in the world of books, at the end of Monday it sometimes felt like I had worked a whole week.

However I’ve learned that Mondays can be a day of inspiration. As soon as I’m up (these days before the sun) I sit and meditate. Most weeks, I welcome the new beginning. The Monday Campaigns, the folks who started Meatless Monday and Move It Monday had interesting stats on how our society views the first day of the work week.

 

Monday has a special significance in our culture as the beginning of the week, which influences our mood and health outcomes

The 7-day week and the meaning we associate with the days of the week is a social construct, and not based on biological or planetary cycles.  Yet a range of negative health outcomes, such as heart attacks and strokes, happen more frequently on Mondays as people transition back to the structured routine of the week.[i]

While 27% of people report that Monday is the day they experience the most stress, 58% of people see Monday positively, as an opportunity for a “fresh start” and a day to “get my act together.” [ii]  FGI Research (2014).  Online panel of 1,000 respondents.

 

And guess what? Monday happens all day, if inspiration doesn’t come bounding out of bed with you- so what!! Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.

Go for it. Embrace Monday.

Today I’m going to think about what it means to be more vulnerable and compassionate with myself. My evening meditation will focus on compassion. And before I hit the sack I’ll spend time in a therapeutic pose that opens my heart.

The best part? If my plans get sidetracked- I have Tuesday to try again.

Namaste y’all.

 

Saturday Yoga- Self Care

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Happiness is an inside job.

– William Arthur Ward

Teaching is a strenuous activity. There’s a tangible and intangible exchange of energy. With a group of teenagers I have to corral the energy and work on creating a sense of stillness and peace. Teaching a class at 6:45 on a Thursday evening with people who are ready for Friday is another story entirely, but it still requires an expenditure of energy to keep the room creative, productive and safe. In corporate classes I’m looking to maintain a sense of balance and energy and with my private clients it’s a combination of customized needs. Lastly with trauma sensitive classes it’s cultivating a sense of spirituality and creating a space for self-healing.

To do this work it requires a strong commitment to my own well-being. If I am not passionately dedicated to my own wellness, how can I be an authentic teacher? Defining what self-care means has evolved over the years. In a society that respects the notion of working oneself literally to death, thinking about self-care as an act of liberation rather than selfishness is a new concept. The World Health Organization has been redefining the definition since 2005. In a working meeting in 2013 they came up with:

 ‘Self-Care is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, and maintain health and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.’

-World Health Organization

 

And while I think this is a great definition I like what The UK Department of Health has to say.

 

‘Self care is a part of daily living. It is the care taken by individuals towards their own health and well-being, and includes the care extended to their children, family, friends and others in neighbourhoods and local communities. Self-Care includes the actions individuals and carers take for themselves, their children, their families and others to stay fit and maintain good physical and mental health; meet social and psychological needs; prevent illness or accidents; care for minor ailments and long-term conditions; and maintain health and wellbeing after acute illness or discharge from hospital.’

-UK Department of Health

Though it’s clear as a global community we are working toward a common definition one thing is clear, taking care of ourselves is an inside job. My self-care regime starts with the idea of awareness and listening. Doing therapeutic poses as preventive measure against stress is vital. Even the simple act of supported child’s pose and some gentle self-massage keeps me balanced. Also, I try to stay in the moment and notice when I am feeling edgy, tired or the beginnings of fatigue. Instead of waiting until it’s full-blown I make time to pause. As a teacher, I think it’s my responsibility to nuture my mind body and spirit.

But hey, I’m not perfect. Consistently seeing Brian, my chiropractor and getting massages has not been a priority. I need to change that.

When I am at my best- my students get me at my best.

May all beings everywhere be peaceful and free.

 

Namaste y’all.

Doing Nothing and Being Still Are Not The Same Thing

photo credit wikipedia.com

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“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

 

Over a year ago, my practice became spotty. I’d been adjusting to a new schedule and trying to force old routines into new. I should have taken a moment to be still. Answers rise to the surface when there’s quiet.

I did nothing. I missed a class here. Missed a class there. No bueno.

Skipping classes wasn’t the problem. One thing this yoga life has taught me is to embrace fluidity. There are times that I need to practice twice a day for weeks. Sometimes five days a week is plenty. When I’m connected to my spirit it’s all good, as the kids say. Yoga is my life when my life isn’t in the way. Yoga needs to be my life as life is happening.

‘Taking yoga off the mat’ is a popular mantra. For some, yoga is great physical exercise that gets them in shape. My practice gets my spirit in shape. Every day I learn something about myself or how I view the world. Small consistent awakenings help me make my world and the planet better.

During a Brikram practice, my mind used to race in between poses. The goal in a Bikram class is not to fidget and fix your clothes, wipe sweat, look at the woman in front of you (and say when I lose 5 pounds I’m going to come to class half naked like her) or think about how hot the room is. The goal is to be present. You’re to observe yourself in the mirror. Not for vanity’s sake (though it’s really hard not to judge yourself) but for the sake of focus and form.

Instead, I was thinking about what I needed to do after class. I was thinking about how maybe 105 degrees for a yoga class is crazy. I was thinking that I didn’t know that I could actually sweat from the back of my elbow. Suddenly I heard the instructor say, ‘Doing nothing is not the same thing as being still’.

She should have dropped the mic and walked out because as far as I was concerned she had schooled me. Class dismissed.

I was doing nothing and not being still. If I had just remembered that it’s okay to not be okay with your schedule, a solution would have come to me. A different studio has a schedule that works for me right now so I’ll be taking classes there (I know, big duh). It’s not my regular studio but it’s not forever. And then I remember I’m not just trying to make my body more flexible.

Ah– I see. I see. I see.

Namsate y’all!

Start Now- Beginner Meditation (Audio included)

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Meditation may seem intimidating if you’ve never done it before. Here are three tips to get you started:

1. Just try- don’t worry about being perfect, or getting it. The act of being still, even for a few minutes will benefit you.

2. Get comfortable. Sit in a chair or on the floor. You can also lay on your back, but don’t get in bed. Remember the point is to relax, not sleep!

3. Have no expectations.

 

Included is a recording that guides you through a brief session. The audio is nine minutes long from start to finish.

Give yourself a break and woosah!

This meditation is perfect:

  • First thing in the morning
  • When you need a midday break at work
  • When you are feeling stressed
  • After work
  • Before bed (but not in bed)

 

Namaste y’all.

 

*Do not listen to this while you are driving, walking, biking or using any other vehicle. 

 

Adventures in Yoga Teaching – Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

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I really like Tuesdays. However, this week I was cautiously optimistic about what would take place in 3 South A, the sentenced women’s dorm. Last week had a shaky start but seemed to end on a high note. I was hoping that I’d see some new faces in class.

I felt fantastic despite the rain and made my way to the 5th floor of the 800 Bed Annex. I was chatting with Ms. Gregory for a few minutes and headed to the dorm with the cart  packed with mats and blocks. I saw heads peeking around the corner and someone said, ‘It’s her, she’s here.’ When I got buzzed in people were waiting. This was definitely a change Normally, I come in and announce that yoga was happening. To have students waiting is a great sign.

We didn’t write this week, but we did have a great discussion about meditation being a way to calm the mind. Everyone listed ways that meditation makes them feel better. This list was a way to come back to a sense of peace and stillness when future bouts of anxiety surfaced. After our conversation I talked about pranayama. We did a few rounds of Kapalabhati and everyone commented on the change they felt in their body.

I’m noticing the level of focus increase over a short period of time. When I first started teaching we were doing some of the basics but didn’t have a full flow class. Each week the classes get longer and I’m adding a bit more. There are still lots of women who watch and do poses from their seats, but each week the floor is getting full of mats (I even see the COs sneak a look inside the class to see what’s going on). During meditation, everyone is quiet. After class a young woman asked me if there were poses that she could do that would help her relax when she had a headache. Right after someone else asked if there were poses to do for cramps. I’m encouraged that there’s a connection being made between yoga being a way to feel better and not just as a physical activity. I made a mental note to incorporate the therapeutic benefit of poses in classes from now on.

After I packed up- I took a gulp and headed downstairs to 3 South A. I wasn’t nervous, but I was bracing myself for the noise. It makes me want to cry thinking about it. If I had to live with that much noise all of the time, I’d lose my mind. Honestly.

I made my way in and announced that it was yoga time for those who were interested. Eight women came over. Someone turned off the TV. I tried to be cool and not dance around like a clown. But I was dancing on the inside.

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Yes. Yes, I was dancing like this on the inside. But back to class.

I asked everyone’s names and if they had ever done yoga before and many had. We had solid class and worked fairly hard. Meditation was very long and got a bit noisy with a spirited game of spades going on but I could feel the stillness of the group, and that’s what mattered. And after class someone asked about poses that help with back issues and cramps.

I think it’s clear that there’s a desire to use yoga for self-care and that’s great. Next week should be interesting.

Namaste y’all.

Food Yoga – Meatless Monday! (Daal Tadka)

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Official Meatless Monday Blogger

Happy Meatless Monday!!

This week you may want to try lentils. My recipe this week is brought to you by the blog Zenfully Delicious. I love Indian food and Daal is an easy way to try something new. For those of you new to the idea of removing meat from your diet creating interesting meals is good plan to keep you on track. Finding ‘meat’ substitutes wash’t something that worked for me. Generally speaking, I found that having great meals that didn’t need meat was the best way to me to enjoy a meatless lifestyle. While Daal is considered to be an accompaniment to an Indian meal, I had it as a main dish with some salad.

The key to Daal is the tempering of the spices at the end. Tempering spices in Indian cooking is an essential step and depending on the dish is either done at the beginning of cooking or at the end. In the case of Daal it is done at the end.

With Daal you can spice this up as much as you want. I added Garam Masala, smoked Paprika and a few drops of mustard oil to my tempering mixture.

Today’s Special is a cute indie flick I saw on Netflix. The scene with the tempering of the spices is particularly funny.

Anyway, back to the recipe.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
1½ cups yellow split lentils or toor lentils
½ a medium onion, finely chopped
1 large or 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
4 cloves or 2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
Juice of half lemon

3-4 cups cups veggie stock (or water) (this depending on how soupy you’d like your daal. More liquid = more soup)

Tempering ingredients:
2 tablespoons canola oil
½ teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 clove or ½ teaspoon minced garlic
1 whole Serrano pepper
½ teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon coriander powder
¼ teaspoon chili powder

Directions

  1. In a large pot add 2 tablespoons olive oil ( you could also use butter or ghee but I’m keeping the dish vegan).
  2. Saute onions, tomatoes and garlic
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients except the cilantro
  4. Bring mixture to a boil and reduce heat.
  5. I deviated from the recipe here and added a little more spice. I like lots of flavor into the pot went more cumin, curry powder, red pepper flakes, freshly grated ginger and lime juice)
  6. Prepare tempering ingredients by measuring them out first.  Don’t mix them all together. I placed them on a flexible cutting board. The process happens quickly and it will burn if you try to gather the spices and temper at the same time.  Ask me how I know this.
  7. Simmer lentils for 20 minutes (or longer if you like them softer)
  8. Temper the spices and add to the daal as it is finished cooking.
  9. Stir in the tempered spices.
  10. Serve over rice immediately.

Tempering Spices

Heat canola oil in a pan on a stovetop till it shimmers (should be hot). Turn off the heat. To this hot oil, add the cumin seeds, garlic, Serrano pepper and dry spices. Everything should sizzle in the pan. (Watch out for splattering spices during this process.)

I added a dollop of cilantro chutney which can be found in most grocery stores. In my pantry I also had some chickpea chips. Perfect for a garnish!

Enjoy!!

Namaste y’all!!

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.