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 Yoga- Solitary Confinement

solitary phone

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.

npr.org

 

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.

 

 

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

passing minute

 

 

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.

Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers Island

Discipline Working with the Inner Chaos

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.

Namaste y’all.

If you are interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga click here

 

 

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

Yoga keeps him young

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- Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

Namaste1

“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.

star pose

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)

Adventures in Yoga – Therapeutic Yoga

Photo credit- shakti nj
Photo credit- shakti nj

 

Recovering from major surgery was more intense than I thought. My ego set unrealistic expectations. No matter, my body was having none of it. During the first week, it was tough to do more than take short walks. By week two, I was doing restorative poses.

Fortunately, yours truly has daily meditation practice. Sitting each morning allowed me to get out of my own way.

Week three was life changing. I spent six days doing a Therapeutic Yoga teacher training hosted by Integral Yoga with Cheri Clampett and Arturo Peal. Showing up each day studying, practicing and teaching TY in a safe and sacred environment was just what this yogi needed.
Karen Mandell is a great teacher who said, “Soft is the new hard.” While I love the powerful practice I’ve cultivated, there’s need to embrace the notion of slowing it down. Therapeutic yoga does just that.
You may be asking what exactly is ‘therapeutic yoga’? Here’s a brief definition from the website Therapeutic Yoga.

Therapeutic Yoga blends restorative yoga (supported postures), gentle yoga, breathwork, hands-on healing, and guided meditation techniques combined in such a way that it is an excellent choice for those who need something gentle yet effective for bringing the body into balance and reducing stress. Therapeutic Yoga is a deeply meditative experience – it provides the opportunity to step away from the busy-ness of the outside world and access the deeper wisdom that resides within us.

 

This training has shifted my thoughts about how I practice and how I teach. Cheri and Arturo are gifted educators and yogis who allowed us to explore what it means to create a space to heal. Whether it’s healing from a physical trauma or emotional trauma, therapeutic yoga is a way to yoke or unite our bodies and mind through a gentle yet powerful practice. Still recovering from abdominal surgery, I was my own perfect test case. There were some poses that I couldn’t do. And for the very first time, I allowed myself to celebrate that.

That’s what healing is about. Giving permission to be still. Celebrating getting well.

If I can care for myself with such love and support- just think of how much I’ll be able to give to others. I’ve added a few therapeutic poses at the beginning and end of the vinyasa alases that teach. It’s been a welcome addition. Working hard and challenging the body can be fun and invigorating. Just as important though,  is to honor the idea of being whole and nurturing the self.

Teaching this style of yoga is my calling. I wasn’t looking for it. And it’s made me realize that more school is on the horizon. More change I hadn’t planned.

But I think that’s when the best things happen.

Namaste y’all.