Rikers Island Yoga

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Patty* was new to the dorm. With another quiet morning, I thought class would be light. When I asked if anyone wanted to practice she quietly raised her hand. I could see her hanging back seeing if anyone else would join her, when no one did she came out by herself. ‘I’ve worked out before but never done yoga, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ There was a hard shell around her, one I’ve seen a lot. It‘s necessary to survive the experience. I gave her a mat, blocks and bolster and told her that I would do some poses and she could do what felt right for her. I got a nod and we were off. Again I spoke about the stress response. It’s important. These women live in a state of stress every moment of every day, sometimes even while asleep. When I talk about how yoga may help that as well as the spirit, a compassionate determination rises up. Patty’s gentle movement inspired 6 others and another 3 watched. Conversation picked up. During a lull Patty burst out and said, ‘I was really shy when I first started class. It’s like being 5 at the playground all over again. But I like this’ Carmen*, another student said, ‘I’m glad you did, it’s what made me come over.’ Another said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ Others nodded in agreement. By the time we arrived at meditation Patty had to leave for medical but she looked at me and asked my name again. She’d heard it earlier but decided she was interested in knowing it. I get that. She also gave me her real name and said she’d see me next week.

She felt good.

After class there was more chatting than usual. And even though Patty had left class she was the catalyst. It only takes one. I saw her on my way out and she had her armor back on but she caught my eye and threw me a small nod. There isn’t a day that this work isn’t powerful. You hold the space. It’s not about you. You take care of yourself and your soul because this work demands it and you deserve it. But once in awhile a class can really crack your heart open and make you grateful.

This is yoga and it can quietly change the world.
May all beings be free from suffering.

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Rikers Island Yoga

Even flowers growing in rock crevices
Even flowers grow in rock crevices- via flickr

 

Had a small but mighty class on the fourth floor. Inspired by a class I took the previous evening, I invited everyone to explore moving in slow motion as a way to examine the body and breath. We gently lifted a knee and placed in back down to the floor flowing side to side with Thai Chi like movements. It was playful, challenging and fun. By the end of class everyone was ready for a deep relaxation. Bolsters were placed under knees and blocks were strategically placed for maximum comfort. And then…
Savasana Interuptus.
A CO called for medical and they had to leave for treatment. ‘Michelle’ (not her real name) said, ‘This is the best part! Ugh.’ Her friend new to class asked if they could do it quickly before lining up. But people were already making their way to the door.
‘You can’t do it fast, that’s the point. It takes time to get inside. You’ll see next week.’
I knew they had to dash but as they were rolling up their mats Michelle said, ‘When I get back I’ll do some relaxation on my bed. It’s kinda quiet there.’
Michelle empowered herself. She was going to make time to breathe whether class was happening or not.
That’s yoga. We don’t always get the class we want, but if we’re open we can find what we need.
Awwwww yeah.
Namaste y’all.

Subway Yoga – Blackout: A virtual glimpse into the lives of strangers by Specular

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Public transit and I have rocky but passionate relationship. Though it’s anonymous, you become a member of a temporary community whether you like it or not.
You can make a million a year or live paycheck to paycheck but when you are stuck you are all stuck.
It appeals to my sense of fairness. You get to share collective groans or sneak a smile at someone when something hilarious happens. Occasionally, you witness a meaningful exchange that wouldn’t have taken place save for the fact that two random people are on a train. Last week, a guy in his mid-forties hopped on the train wearing a baseball cap. A older man in his seventies asked, ‘Is that a Brooklyn Dodgers cap?’ It sparked a lovely 5 minute exchange about baseball, college life and history. The older man ended the conversation by saying with a tinge of nostalgia, “Wow…Brooklyn Dodgers. When I saw that hat, I just had to say something.” And just like that the curtain closed. Everyone went back to reading, headphones and staring into space. But for five minutes we were all there with two people and a conversation.
Most of the time I wonder what’s happening with folks who ride the trains. I make up stories. I wonder what people think about me? I think about my ‘commuter community’ most when I tavel to and from Rikers. I try to guess how many people are getting off with me at 21st Queensbridge and taking the Q100 to Rikers. Are they volunteers? Are they visiting family? Do they know what its like to be in jail? 
Mei-ling Wong and the creative team at Specular have created an amazing experience that explores this very idea. The project is called Blackout and it’s on Kickstarter.
Check out a brief description from Kickstarter:

A Documentary Set In a Fictional Environment

Who are these strangers?

The people in Blackout represent a snapshot of a single subway car in New York. Since this isNYC, our group includes an illustrious international cast of underground performers, artists, educators and scientists.

The project began with in-depth interviews with a group of 27 people for our virtual train. Their stories and observations interweave to create a beautiful documentary portrait of a crowd of strangers struggling to find their place in the city.

Today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. As the world’s cultures are displaced and newcomers flood urban centers, it is urgent that we not just educate ourselves, but empathize with the lives of strangers that surround us. Through immersive technology and raw documentary stories, Blackout shows how one stranded group of city commuters has more in common than they ever imagined.

What makes this project even more dope is the fact that it’s a virtual reality film. As a viewer you get to be on the train and explore 27 real stories. One of the stories is about a yoga teacher who teaches at Rikers Island (hint, hint). She talks about what it’s like have to protect yourself and your soul. I hear she’s cool.

 

All jokes aside, I love what Specular has done. They’ve found a way to take technology and humanize it. So often our experiences with technology take us out of the moment and into the land of self. Blackout does the opposite, it uses VR so people let go of ego and explore another person’s viewpoint. This is revolutionary. In a world that is being ripped apart, a group of creatives are finding ways to draw us closer together.

It gets me thinking….none of get out of this thing called life alive but we have a shot to make it a better trip.

Check out the campaign and get a peak at my thoughts.

Namaste y’all.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/specular/blackout-a-virtual-glimpse-into-the-lives-of-stran/widget/video.html

Rikers Yoga – Timing is Everything

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Adrianna Keener, a fantastic trauma-informed yoga teacher and I jogged across the street to catch the Q-100 bus. I was excited, not just because is an anatomy nerd like me but because it’s nice to go to Rikers with someone. Hey, we all get lonely. We saw a social worker who said we may not get on the island. There was a make-shift sign that said Rikers was on lockdown. No movement was allowed. This essentially means that people are on their beds all day. Since the sign was handwritten we decided, hey- we’re on the bus let’s go and see what happens. When the bus took the same mysterious turn it did a few weeks ago I knew something was up. Sure enough the driver said last stop (before the bridge to Rikers). We stood around for a few moments thinking what to do. You can’t walk over the bridge unless you’re looking to have a chat with DOC employees who carry assault rifles- so we thought the day was a bust. Employees could catch a shuttle. But, volunteers? Not sure. Fate intervened. Anneke Lucas, founder of LPY and apparently a woman who has perfect timing zipped up in her car. We hopped in and decided to see if we would be turned away. I was sure we would be, but when Anneke waltzed back with a parking pass I decided to keep my trap shut and surrender. We crossed the bridge without incident. Anneke was going to the men’s jail and Adrianna and I were headed to Rosie’s. We weren’t sure if we’d get to teach- but we had made it this far. The vibe at Rikers was sedated buy not heavy. But instead of yoga we led a meditation for 11 women on the 4th floor. Cheri Clampett’s meditation on meridians and chakras seemed like a good fit. Before the meditation Adrianna and I talked about meridians and how they relate to our body (geeks unite!!!). This set the stage for a powerful meditation. And while there were a few distractions everyone was grateful for the break in the day. One student talked about getting frustrated with noises and as a group we were able to talk about unhooking from the small stuff. Grateful for perfect timing. Namaste y’all. 

Rikers Island Yoga

mural rikers

 

“Our notions about happiness entrap us. We forget that they are just ideas. Our idea of happiness can prevent us from actually being happy. We fail to see the opportunity for joy that is right in front of us when we are caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

 

 

On the 4th floor I was met with a ton of empty beds and lethargy. Lots of women had been released and others were at work. None of the regulars were around and it was a hard sell on some unfamiliar faces. I did see one student I knew and she said she was tired and didn’t feel like coming to the mat. Oddly though, no one seemed to want me to leave. I chatted for a little while- but hey I have yoga to peddle. I said my goodbyes and decided to go to the 5th floor.

A group of 15 settled on blocks and bolsters. I led practice off by stating that I would be teaching using the word ‘I’ because I was going to do what made sense for me. In turn, they should do what makes sense for them. It was jazzy.

For real.

When presented with the opportunity to choose (anything) we are both liberated and accountable. Our class started to draw onlookers. It might have been with some of the laughing, but I think it also had to do with people moving to their own rhythm. I risk sounding new agey typing this but the vibe surrounding a group of women making choices feels differently than a group of women being told what to do. It just does. By the time meditation rolled around I had a few spectators grab mats.

Typically, I do a guided meditation that uses visualization. But because the room felt solid and safe I opted for a traditional yoga nidra. The CO in the dorm kept things at a dull roar (for which I was grateful). It allowed for a deep state of meditation. Quite a few women hung back after class to chat with each and ask me a few questions. This is usually a good sign. One student told me that she used to go to a studio where I practice in the city. She said when she gets out she’s going to go back.

Maybe that’s what the day was about. Having a student make a choice to go back to her practice. From there, who knows. She’ll choose I guess.

Namaste y’all.

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 – Teen Meditation

Photo via Groundswell.org
One of the many hallways at Rikers Rose M. Singer Center for women Photo via Groundswell.org

 

 

“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.” 
― Pema Chödrön

 

After teaching in one of the sentenced women’s dorms I made my way to the dorm that held three teens who aren’t living with the rest of the teen population for various reasons. They were still in school so I waited until they got back. Things are always changing. ‘Tasha’ had been moved to another house (I think she’s back with the teen girls) and ‘Shakira’(not her real name) who was with the teen girls the week before was back in the ‘isolated’ (my word, not Rikers) section. Shakira lit up when she saw me. The CO in the bubble had let them know that I stopped by but I don’t think they realized that I’d be coming back. Shakira grabbed the only other girl in the dorm and told her to try yoga that it would be fun. ‘Andrea’ eyed me dubiously. I hoped that she would warm up as we began to practice but she didn’t and left class a few minutes in. Shakira unruffled asked if we could practice handstand. Andrea wandered back to see why we were on our hands and stayed for a few more minutes and then left again. Shakira asked about practicing crow and hurdler AND headstand. Who am I to get in the way such enthusiasm? As we were winding down practice I asked Shakira what was her favorite thing to do in yoga. She replied, ‘Meditation.’

‘A five-minute meditation?’ I suggested?

‘Can we do longer?’ she wanted to know.

I was all cool on the outside. ‘Um, sure we can sit and do a 15 minute guided med-,’

‘I don’t really need guided if that’s okay. I can focus on my breathing.’

‘Yeah okay- let’s do a 15 minute sit. ‘ But inside I’m like:

hermoine

My head had been pounding all morning so a seated meditation without support did not seem like a great idea. I let Shakira know I’d be moving my bolster to the wall for back support. She said, ‘We can do that? That’s cool because sometimes my back hurts sitting up.’

So we sat. I don’t drop into a deep meditation but it was hard not to chill out because the dorm is silent. I did think about Shakira’s desire and willingness to be still for 15 minutes. Not an easy task for an adult in this distracted world, even more challenging as a teenager. If you add the element of detention and stress of Rikers Island, it’s almost an impossible task. And yet, when I glance over at her just to see that she’s okay, her face is smooth and her breathing natural. This is no BS she’s in meditation.

Pema Chödrön talks about folks who really take meditation seriously because they have to. She says (and I’m paraphrasing here) those that haven’t had lots of serious trauma or addiction enjoy meditation and can treat it more like a trend. However, if you are a card carrying member of the shit hitting the fan club you get real serious real quick about meditation. Life can be pretty grisly where there aren’t any options left for a decent life. If meditation shows up an an answer, most take it. Because once you can look at your naked truth and not run, you can do just about anything. (Can I get an amen for Pema?) Sorry, I digress.

I thought my class with the teens would be about jumping around and laughing. And sometimes it is. But other times it’s about being quiet. This is what trauma informed teaching is about – listening and honoring the students. It’s not about my personality, my goals for a class or my wants and desires for students. It’s about my big ole mouth being shut , my hands and heart open, saying what can I give to you. How can I serve where you are in this moment.

I will not ignore people who are locked away. I will continue to speak up and out about the need to END mass incarceration. I will continue to plead for the need for more volunteers to visit people in prison as we work to end the system. I will continue to encourage people to volunteer and give assistance to those who are out of jail and need support, love and encouragement. I will not ignore those I can’t see. I will not be silent. This is my mantra and my meditation.

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.

Rikers Yoga- Alarms, Meditation and Mindfulness Oh My!

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“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself and that suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment, he needs help.”
– Thich Naht Hahn

Meditation is the medicine. Rosie’s was in need of a big woosah on a chilly, drizzly Friday morning.

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 A flashing blue light at Rikers says ‘hey an alarm is happening’. It also says ‘so wherever you are is where you are going to be until it’s over.’ Alarms happen when there is a fight of some sort of disruption. I happened to hear the beginning of this disruption as I was getting on the elevator. Two steps off the elevator, I saw the light I yelled for them to keep the doors open. Standing in a hallway by myself during an alarm just didn’t seem fun or smart. Back on the elevator two women said that there had been a lot of fighting lately. You have to take that with a grain of salt because I don’t have any way to verify that. I did think that something happened on the floor where I was headed to teach and hoped it would be resolved so I wouldn’t have to cancel class. Since we were on a moving elevator the CO sent us back to the floor we had all come from. Thankfully it was only 15 minutes, I’ve been in some that are as long as 45.

Teaching a few classes take two!
I felt electric energy in the dorm but saw a lot of women sprawled (as mush as one can sprawl) on their cots. Calling for yoga didn’t generate a lot of movement. So I waited and set up a mat in the dining room cum lounge cum yoga area. If I sit they will come.

They did. A former dancer with The Dance Theater of Harlem told me about her love of ballet. Another was interested in the arthritis in her shoulder which led to a conversation about joints and synovial fluid. This word was s hit. Everyone kept repeating it over and over moving their shoulders in time. ‘Its name sounds like what it does.’ I’d never thought about the poetry of the word but she was right. This same student was also pregnant and during meditation a peaceful smile washed over her face as she rubbed her belly. The room was silent and in a very different twist every student fell asleep. This never happens. The silence drew onlookers who watched their housemates bliss out. They looked at me and smiled. It’s a good thing.

‘That was a beautiful experience,’ one student said.

‘I heard your voice in the background but it was like is was getting lower and lower. Then I just fell asleep.’

It takes a lot of trust for a group of women in jail to sleep (snoring included) in front of you. A few were embarrassed but with assurance that it’s normal, natural and frankly good for them to let go- they were pleased and felt rested.

Meditation is the medicine, yo.

The same thing happened in my next class. Ten women zonked out. Someone did mention that this was the floor of the fight so the adrenaline drop off can be tiring. I take the responsibility of sleeping women seriously. I watch the door and silently shush people away who look like they want to play with people on their mats. But today everyone seemed to be looking out for the group. When I was leaving a group of women stopped me bummed because they have to work when I teach. They wanted something to do even if they can’t come to class. When I said next week I’d bring them a few practices to do together I didn’t get a pessimistic side eye or an okay covered in doubt- just a ‘cool, thanks’ with a smile and a ‘see you next week.’

Trust is the foundation of mindfulness. Trust the process, trust people. Trust yourself.

Namaste y’all.