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.
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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.

5 Tips to Teach Yoga from a Mindful and Trauma Sensitive Perspective

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Creating a safe space for students should be the number one priority of any yoga teacher. As a teacher who is moving into the world of yoga therapy, I understand that the idea of what’s ‘safe’ varies. Getting properly trained in trauma sensitive yoga has been an invaluable tool when it comes to teaching in a wide variety of non-tradtional settings. The more I’ve learned, the more I have been encouraged to share my experiences and tips for creating a meaningful class.

1. Do your homework

I’m constantly reading about new approaches to teaching in this ever evolving field. In addition, I spend time talking to my former teachers who are experts in yoga therapy, trauma-senstive yoga and doctors. There isn’t an end to the learning process. Spending time learning about where you are going to teach a new class can provide assurance that your first class will be provide the best experience possible for your students.

2. Be prepared and flexible

Having a clear plan is always the way to walk into a studio and this is certainly the case when teaching in non-traditional environments. But when class starts and how people are moving doesn’t fit the plan- I must adapt. The same holds true when I teach a trauma-senstive/therapeutic yoga class. A few weeks ago I had planned a class for a group of students at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility. When I walked into the dorm there was a lot of talk about a search that had been conducted overnight, as a result the group was very stressed. Rather than work through the more powerful flow I had mapped out, it made sense to cut that part of class short so I could teach a few poses that released stress. In addition, I took the class through a longer guided meditation. The more tools you have in your toolbox the easier it is to adapt on the fly.

3. Know your audience

When you are teaching in a space with people who have suffered trauma it’s vital to understand their backgrounds and potential triggers. When I am working with women who have suffered sexual abuse, I’m careful not to do poses that could be deemed sensual. Cat/cow provides a good example of this. It’s a fairly innocuous pose in a traditional yoga setting, it’s great for warming up the spine but with women who have had a history of abuse it’s potentially a huge trigger.

4. Listen. Listen more. Listen again.

Active listening skills are required in trauma sensitive teaching. It’s vital to be able to listen to verbal and non-verbal cues. Are students comfortable? Are you talking too much? Or not enough? In a traditional setting with experienced yogis, silence is golden and allows for exploration. But when working with women who have been abused or PTSD patients silence can be scary. Listen with your eyes, ears and EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

5. Know your limits and have a network

As yoga teachers it’s easy to get connected to your students especially when you work with folks who suffer from PTSD, have physical illnesses or are in challenging situations like prison or rehab. I stay true to what I know to do with the body as a yoga teacher. I stay honest with myself about my skills and training. I am a certified therapeutic yoga teacher who has done trainings to work with folks who have chronic illness, addictions, are in prison and who suffer from PTSD. I’m not a therapist, a physical therapist, nutritionist or doctor. But I have built and continue to build a strong network of these folks who understand the value of yoga. Having a rolodex of names allows me to refer a student to the right person when they ask something out of my depth.

One last critical component to teaching trauma sensitive yoga is self-care. Providing a space for healing is rewarding but can be draining physically and emotionally. Knowing how and when to recharge is a part of my routine. I make sure that there is one day of the week when I am not teaching- at all. That is my day to take my own classes and relax. My daily meditation practice is also a way that I stay  emotionally fit. As a Therapeutic yoga teacher I’ve also reaped the benefits of the TY practice. My bolsters, blankets and blocks are never far from me. Practicing what I preach has become a necessary part of my practice.

Yoga is now being widely recognized as a was to compliment many traditional treatment plans. The more that I’m educated, the larger impact I can have.

Namaste y’all.

Adventures in Teaching Yoga- A Small Class Was a Blast

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August has been a lil funny. With no real dog days I think that most folks in Dirty Jerz have been hanging outside- enjoying the weather. I’ve been doing longer rides on my bike and have enjoyed taking Dakota on leisurely walks when typically in August, I’m keeping her inside to stay cool. Class attendance at the studios where I teach has been hit and miss. But rather than worry about small class sizes, I took the opportunity to play with my teaching style and make deeper connections with my students.

Small classes can create a mini-workshop atmosphere. Without breaking the pace or flow of a class, I’m able to make specific adjustments allowing students to have real aha moments in their body or mind. Last week during small hot class I found that one student asked a few questions about a few poses. It was a great moment for her and the other student who had the same question. But because it was just us- the conversation didn’t take long and we were able to get back to the meditative aspect of the asana practice.

After class both students thanked me profusely and said it was a treat to be able to get one-on-one time with a teacher.

It was a treat for me too.

Namaste y’all.

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

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“Comedy is acting out optimism.”

-Robin Williams

 

By some magnificent shift of the planets I woke at 5:30 feeling refreshed. The first thing I heard in my head was the last line of the Langston Hughes poem, ‘A Dream Deferred’.

 

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

My dreams had been vivid (which isn’t unusual), on my mind was Michael Brown and the death of Robin Williams. The brain is incredible and exhausting. It didn’t help that the prior day was challenging. I’m in a learning curve with the next part of my career and I was struggling with a project. Although I had a wonderful time teaching last night by the time I hit the bed I was physically aching.

And yet…

My soul felt light as I got dressed for Riker’s. The scheduled topic this week was depression. Unfortunately, current events fit perfectly. I had a flow planned but as I biked to the PATH train I decided to change things up.

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Standing star pose would be our focus. Last week in class I mentioned the Ted Talk video with Amy Cuddy and faking it till you make it. This week we used that as a foundation and talked about Robin Williams, suicide and depression. Everyone took time before class to write down a few small things that she would do to feel better if the mood was starting to darken. The list was long and everyone has great suggestions ranging from talking to counselors and friends, reaching out to family, prayer, meditation and physical activity. I think having everyone write and share before class worked for me. We then applied those ideas when we practiced.

We started at the top of our mats in star pose, chests lifted. Our inhales tried to take us off the ground and our exhales made us bold and strong. Moving right to Warriors everyone’s body was expressive. In between postures we can back to star pose. One student succinctly stated, “Star pose is…cool.”

Indeed. To spice things up we even played around with eagle. At first everyone said, “No way..” However, taking the pose one step at a time everyone was in it. Not sure who was more excited but we all laughed. I know they get a kick out of this whacky Black chick who says rock on and awesome at the end of every other sentence. I’m grateful that they humor me and trust me enough to share.

On the floor we used bolsters and did a few therapeutic poses that inspire feelings of safety. Supported Child’s pose got lots of love. Hugging the bolster helped release a lot of tension and instill a sense of security. Our seated forward folds with the bolster stretched the legs without too much tension. But there was a collective exhale of joy when we did reclined goddess pose with the bolster.

‘I want to stay here all day’ someone said. So we spent our guided mediation reclined. And the space became still. There was no yelling. No buzzing door. I kept the focus on the idea that finding peace is our choice- even in chaos we can close our eyes and look inside to be still. To be still without holding still. This can be our choice and our decision. After class there were requests for a longer guided meditation. Next week, I will happily comply.

These women are important. These women matter. I think of them daily.

They are my inspiration. They are resilient and funny and honest and true.

Until next week y’all. Namaste.

(To learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and its programs- click here)

Ding Dong Goes the Inversion Practice

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I zipped downstairs to an early hot power vinyasa practice with friend Jessica Ashen. She’s a yogi and founder of Spiritual Pretzels Yoga. Jessica brings donation based yoga all over Jersey City. It’s awesome and so is she. Her classes are a mix of being playful and learning how to challenge your body in new ways. Jessica teaches from a place of love that is tangible. As a result, I leave her classes lighter in the heart. I love this because that’s something I used to only get from my hot practice.

Anyway, back to this morning.

It’s great taking classes with a teacher who knows that you teach. They tend to be gently relentless about form and adjustments. I’ve been getting a bit lazy when it comes to stacking my hips over ankles in Uttasana.

No slackin’ with the stackin’ in Jessica’s class. It was what I needed.

Roll  the weight forward onto the toes, roll the weight forward onto the toes, roll the weight forward onto the toes. 

Jessica made an interesting observation about me being in between my vinyasa practice and my hot practice. In hot classes the weight is back in the heels a lot.

Shifting the weight forward into my toes and engaging the low belly and feeling my heels lift,  my body yearned to go higher.

It was my brain that was talking me out of it.

Jessica mentioned Christina Sell and how I need to check out her approach to handstands. I found this video, which is fantastic. She points out that many seemingly unrelated poses connect to turning the body upside down. It’s worth the seven minutes. Check it out.

We did handstand practice again the wall and it felt great. Jessica showed me an exercise that Christina Sell uses called Ding Dong.  As you kick up you alternate tapping feet on the wall. I sort of powered through that and felt good.  Inside my active mind, I thought back to my earlier fold and rolling the weight forward so one day can lift into handstand.

One day I can do it, I thought.

And then…we moved onto practicing Pincha Mayurasana against the wall. It was horrible.   hard.

Oh hello Ego, I didn’t see you sneak into class behind me. Seriously? It’s early, I thought you’d be upstairs asleep with Dakota, or getting coffee down the block waiting to pounce on me later riding my bike to class.

Form matters. It was tough activating my triceps, pushing down and engaging my abs. Sure she could have had me just kick up and play, but there is something to be said for doing it right.

Ugh. Hard work.

“Perfect we have something to work on next time!”, she said.

Groan is what I did.

“Be excited! It’s a new adventure!”

Damn if she wasn’t right. It is a new adventure. Something else I get to explore.

I left with a lighter heart, ready to open the door to the unexpected.

Better still, I reconnected with the foundation of yoga, uniting body and breath.

Yoga keeps reminding me that I can go home again (and again) and that more importantly, I must.

Yoga sweet yoga.

Namaste y’all.

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Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Being Wrong Feels So Right

Yoga Costa Rica

I was wr- wr- wr- wrong about something.

Clearly this yoga ish works because despite the false starts, in the past the word wrong was the ‘he who shall not be named’ of my vocabulary.

Back up, back up!
In the not so distant past, it (this notion of wrong) wasn’t even a thought.
There was what I knew to be true. That’s it.
I know- what a maroon.
Enough of my silly past- the point of the story is far more interesting than my arrival at said point..
How or why one starts yoga doesn’t matter to me.
Let that marinate.
Let me explain, of course I care why someone decides to come their mat. The catalyst matters to the extent that I shape a class or a program for private clients.
As a teacher and yogi it’s my job show them a path that helps connect body, breath and individual goals.
I think I wanted students to arrive at their mats with grand plans of a seeking higher awareness. This was a secret I kept to myself until I realized yesterday that it’s unfair to impose such expectations on anyone. What the hell Neik? You know better… I came back to my mat for good because someone broke my heart. No grand shit there. Pretty cliche actually.
This is a little icky to admit, but isn’t that the point of yoga- to share what makes me feel awkward and dorky so I can embrace it?
This acknowledgment is my connection to the world I suppose. This is how I breathe.
Learning to breathe is a funny thing. If you have been living life with stifled, ragged breathing learning how to exhale can be revolutionary. It can change your way of thinking.
It can also make you face some shit. That’s the dirty, happy secret about body and breath. Once you learn how to do it, all sorts of truths can rise to the surface, some good, some not so much.
No such thing as a little bit of freedom- you are free or you are not.
Not everyone wants to sit with that on their mat.
That’s cool.
Really it is.
If a student discovers that they are a fellow traveler, a seeker if you will- she/he will ask questions and it will be apparent.
Some people just want to relax.
Some people want to learn how to touch their toes.
Some people want to learn how to sit up straighter.
It’s all good.
It’s not my job to judge. It’s my job to teach, love and grow.
Most days I feel like two steps forward, two steps back.
Today, I can flip that.
Ha! It’s a good moment. I’m going to enjoy it.
This is yoga and it loves me even when I am dead wrong. Word.
Namaste y’all.
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Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Who Are My Students?

You know what? There’s something that isn’t discussed that I didn’t really hear until after I started teaching. 

It’s been my biggest lesson so far. I’m sorry that I haven’t talked about it earlier.

As a new teacher you teach people who are new to yoga.

Yeah, and you say?

Check it.

I practiced yoga off and on for more than a decade before I did YTT. In the year and a half before I was brave enough to do it, I was practicing several days a week. Then I spent YTT with women who had advanced practices. I started practice at least once a day. Progress in my practice was exponential. I don’t just mean on my mat either. My approach the the entire world was underlined with a broader sense of compassion.

To say that I was livin’ the dream is a gross understatement.

Cool right? I know. I had managed to cultivate a pretty bad ass existence.

Throughout the process our primary teacher told us that we’d be teaching new students and that would mean that we would have to focus on the basics. I heard her, but didn’t listen.

Isn’t always the damn case?

Most of the people I teach have new or newish practices.

It’s my job to help them find the best expression of a pose.

My job break down the connection of body and breath in a way that is accessible, challenging, peaceful and hopefully lots of fun.

Many people I see are just getting started or coming back to their mats after a hiatus. It can be intimidating and scary.

It’s critical that I remember that not everyone has a keen sense of body awareness.

Not everyone knows what the quadricep is or where it’s located.

When you say connect with your breath- you have to explain what that means.

It’s the reality of teaching new folks. And that’s cool. When I’m ready to headstand I will. Right now, I’m learning how to be a beginning teacher who has students who love learning about yoga.

The Answer Man is a fun little film about a curmudgeon self-help guru who learns to love the people he inspired. The woman he begins to date gives him (and me) sage advice:

  1. Don’t take advice from people you wouldn’t trade places with.
  2. Try not to say things that you can’t take back.
  3. Something is what it is, so it can’t be something else.

Number 3 is my mantra.

Modifications, encouragement, space to breathe and a soft place to fall is my job for my students.

I let them know that their best pose in a moment is the very best that there is.

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Not comparing today to yesterday. Not worrying about tomorrow.

I show them how to feel from the inside out and outside in. And it all takes place in the now.

I smile at the thought.

It’s a blessing that this is my new career.

As my own practice grows my students will grow and my style will evolve.

It’s what is. It’s pretty incredible. You can set the tone for someone deciding whether or not to continue with yoga.

It’s a big responsibility. One I do not take lightly.

I keep my sequences simple but interesting, I give lots of modifications. I celebrate. And I make adjustments to my class if it seems too challenging or if a class seems ready for something more.

Life. Is. Good.

This is yoga and it’s for everyone.

Namaste y’all.

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Pranayama Yo – Things Can Only Get Better

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I have this thought that keeps turning right round like a record. It’s a grand idea, maybe even crazy but I can’t help it, when I’m inspired- look out.

To paraphrase the genius Howard Jones while I do feel scared, I won’t stop and falter. Things can only get better.

To be fair, I get lots of ideas- no delusions of grandeur or anything…Though one time someone asked me if I thought I was the Queen of Sheba. It was said in anger- actually it was said like ‘Who do you think you are? The Queen of Sheba?’

I was being pretty bitchy too so… That doesn’t count, does it?

Sorry. Ideas. Inspiration. Whatnot.

It’s no secret that I think that yoga can save the world. As I really reflect on these early months of teaching, I’ve come to understand that our breath is how we not only live, but prosper.

As yogis we talk about breathing so often breezing over its power can get caught in so many other things.

I took a class last week with a friend  who is a fellow teacher and her husband.

Of course we talked a lot about yoga.

I love that the studio where I teach offers community classes.

I love that Yoga to the People has an outstanding hot class for 8 smackers.

We talked about how folks who really could use yoga to change and save their lives don’t usually have easy access to a studio. Even more often yoga as a concept isn’t on the radar.

This has to change.

And while I do imagine all the people living life in peace, I know that it’s down the road a bit.

If you have talked to me for more than five minutes you have already heard this story, but I will ask you to tune in one more time because it’s worth hearing daily. This September I was listening to the This American Life podcast. There are few things that I enjoy more than TAL. I was walking Dakota and stopped when I heard the story about the kids living in Chicago’s South Side. The affects of consistent violence in a community can affect kids cortisol levels up to a year later. Do the math. If these kids are under a constant barrage of violence these cortisol levels never drop.

So what the hell to do in the meantime?

I want to teach the world to breathe.

I may not be able to find a way fix the violence. But I can teach people how to breathe.
I can show someone how to choose a better breath, one that will help be the calm in the center of the storm.
Inhale more peace. Exhale what’s not serving you….
This is what it’s all about. Teaching people to fish and all that. As yogis we know yoga happens off the mat.
So no more turning it round. Time to figure out a plan. Time to get people on board. Time to walk the walk, or breathe the breath as it were.
And I won’t stop and falter.

This is yoga, changing lives one breath at a time. Things can only get better.

Namaste y’all.

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