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.

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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.

Rikers Island Yoga

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I had to practically beg the CO on post at building 7 to let me in. He kept asking if I was sure I was in the right place. Seriously. He asked four times if I was sure that I was there to teach yoga. He said yoga like it was the craziest thing he’s ever heard.

I’m guessing the joke was teaching yoga in building 7 seems like a bad idea. After all, they are the ‘trouble makers’. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard comments like this. In my head I was full of non-yoga scathing snark that would make him cry. On the outside I smile and say ‘Yoga is for everyone. I bet you would love it.’
Over time I’m hoping my outside voice matches my inside one. Baby steps, yo. Baby steps. 
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I walked into Rosie’s (RMSC) I heard people saying it was a crazy day. With that kind of talk, tension is the watchword.
Tension found.
On the fourth floor I didn’t have to wait long for people and had 12 students ready for yoga. Paris (not her real name) said, ‘We need yoga today. There was a search early this morning. Everyone is a little tense.’
Movement combined with a guided meditation is a great way to get students to woosah. We moved through a gentle warm-up and built to doing modified sun salutations over and over. Forward folds let go of anxiety.
And then…. 
Another search team came into the dorm. Word was that the warden was also on the floor. The search was specific and everyone was moved to where we were practicing. The whispering was deafening. Class though remained fairly relaxed and we had our guided meditation despite the commotion. One woman said she couldn’t focus but I told her to stay with my voice instead of listening to what was being said behind her. I watched her shoulders soften.
After closing class- most of them jumped up to get the scoop. As I made my way out a captain said that everyone loves the yoga and she’s glad that they have it.
This is a pretty big deal. Lots of officers mention how women like the yoga and while I get smiles and nods from captains this is the first time one has said something positive about it.
Maybe it was because the warden was on the premises. Maybe it was because the search was happening. But the yogi in me believes she said something because it works.
I bumped into four other teachers who all said they had some powerful moments in their classes.
Like I said, the yogi in me believes this works.
Until next week.
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.