Rikers Island Yoga

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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.

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Rikers Island Yoga- Creating Your Own Prison

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The sentenced women’s dorm is quiet due to lots of women heading home.

Class Friday morning was small and I was touched that students were asking about my hip. I had injured it and had to miss class. One student was chatting about how she had been feeling and was met with a little surprise by another student who seemed shocked at the level of confession. We all started talking about yoga and how it opens you up. I shared how yoga had opened me up.

‘Kathryn’ (not her real name) said that it sounded like my old life was my prison. I’d felt like that but it wasn’t anything I ever felt comfortable saying to my students- after all, creating you’re own ‘prison’ and real jail are two different things.

Or so I thought….

I confessed that I have always felt comfortable teaching classes at Rosie’s, that in fact I feel at home in jail. I didn’t get looks of shock- but knowing nods. I confront the self I used to be when I walk inside those doors. It was a defining moment. One that I haven’t been able to shake.
We create prisons for ourselves. These prisons can be built on a soulful level, draining and leaving us feeling unfulfilled, bitter and judgmental. We can spend our time pointing fingers at people’s lives and choices when we really should be putting up a mirror (with unflattering fluorescent light to really bring that shit home) to our own bs. These same prisons can keep us from stepping into our true calling because we are encased in fear and anxiety. We block our ability to give and receive unconditional love. But it doesn’t stop there.
When we create prisons- we add stress to our bodies.
Stress kills.
It puts unnecessary pressure on our endocrine system. It makes our heart work harder. It deprives us of sleep. Sleep is needed to repair and restore our body. It increases our blood pressure. Creating prisons can set us up to reaact to triggers and abuse drugs, alcohol, sex, food and money to fill a void. Scary stuff. But there are ways out.
I’ve heard so many students at Rikers say that they needed to come to jail to find yoga. It happens more than I can say. The students who say this give me hope. They sound as if they have found their path. Yoga put me on a path to healing. I had spent most of my life putting up bars and locking myself away from life.
‘Kathryn’ thank you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts before class. You’ve made me think.
Are you in a prison of your own making? Liberate yourself.
May all beings be happy and free.
Namaste y’all.

Rikers Yoga

These balloons are  heavy-handed metaphor for life at Rikers.
These balloons are heavy-handed metaphor for life at Rikers.

The past two weeks have been filled with so many powerful moments that I’m at a loss about what to share. I walk a fine line between respecting the sanctity of the space in which we practice with wanting to shine awareness about why it’s vital that the world know about the work that happens in side jails and prisons. I think long and hard in order to protect privacy and intimate moments. Last week I was grateful to have Adrianna with me. Adrianna is a teacher, but she’s more than that. She’s an open soul who is committed to the work that she does and it was evident in the way that she led students (and me) through a guided meditation. It was the first time that I meditated with the students and could feel myself let go despite the noise. Despite the yelling and the tension that our students told us was present. I was grateful for the opportunity to share this space with these women.

This week classes were smaller but definitely grounded. ‘Felicia’ was new to class and didn’t think that she would do yoga but was amped up to try. She wanted to know if she should change out of her greens, the uniforms sentenced women are required to wear. I let her know that she could change but didn’t have to. I led students through sun salutations in the trauma-sensitive style that we use. No commands- no demands. I demonstrate and say what I’m doing. This allows students to choose to move in a way that feels good for them. I set my intention for class in my breathing. I was inspired to do this by a Glen Baez a teacher at Jivamukti. I placed my intention for self-love and kindness with my inhales and exhales. This way as long as I was connected toy breathing I was connected to my intention. Felicia followed suit. She began to speak with me as I raised my arms up overhead and said, “And I I’m raising my arms up overhead and placing my hands on my heart. I am breathing in that I love myself and that I am kind.” She was thrilled. In the same instant she paused and went to change. Telling the class and me that she was hot and also tearing up. Feeling emotional during practice wasn’t something she expected. Felicia came back and finished her practice with grace. She joked and said that she doesn’t cry but it was cool that she felt something.

Truthout.org posted an article this week about what it means to volunteer in prison. It can’t be about ‘feeling good’ for the folks who go inside. It’s about serving and giving folks a chance to see and hold their own power. I bow deeply to Felicia and all of my students who are willing to see something beautiful inside. There is no greater honor. I wasn’t someone who believed a lot in grace until I found yoga. But there is energy, a force that unites us and if we are willing we can see it. And if we are open it will hold us.

Felicia, the light in my bows deeply to the light in you. Thank you.

Namaste y’all. Keep on. Keep on. Keep on.