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.
“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:
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.
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.
Through my love for you, I want to express my love for the whole cosmos, the whole of humanity, and all beings. By living with you, I want to learn to love everyone and all species. If I succeed in loving you, I will be able to love everyone and all species on Earth… This is the real message of love.
On some days I am overwhelmed by the excitement of a group of students. But this week I was humbled by the power of a simple act. It’s what yoga is all about, but it’s easy to get caught up in the shapes, like the joy in tree or the power of warrior I.
This week wasn’t about poses, it was about breathing and self-love.
Susan (not her real name) raised her hands up in the air to say hello. Touching isn’t permitted so this is how she can give a hug. Susan lives in a dorm by herself after spending time in solitary. Last week, when I came to do yoga she was doing some work and wasn’t available. Yoga had to be postponed for another week due to a scheduling conflict but the officer who came to get her said that it would be no problem if we spent a few minutes together meditating.
I was grateful.
Sitting on bolsters we began by breathing. Though we only had a few minutes I slow down the pace of dropping into meditation. We bring awareness first to the inhale noticing how it moves through the nostrils. We explore how the air fills the lungs. I talk about the lift of the chest. Susan gently drops into breathing. I extend the pauses in between each cue. I can see that she is smoothing out the edges to her breath.
There is an easiness about her spirit yet at the same time I sense fragility.
The light coming into the dining area casts a glow that makes it feel like a school cafeteria. Susan in her t-shirt and sweatpants looks like a teenager though I have no idea of her age. I see her chest soften more with each inhale and exhale. A lovely smile floats across her face during the meditation. I can see that she is in place that makes her feel peaceful. The transition back from meditation is just as soft as it was entering. When she opens her eyes she breathes deeply and smiles.
“I felt like I was flying.”
This is what it’s about. I could go on and on about the power of meditation (And in other posts, of course I will). But on this day Susan’s comment says it all. We spent five minutes together and she was able to teach herself to fly.
That is worth repeating. In five minutes she was able to teach herself how to fly.
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No yoga. No peace. Know yoga. Know peace.
It’s only in the last ten to fifteen years that there have been serious studies about the effects of yoga and meditation, let alone how yoga and meditation may affect the prison population. But two doctors at Oxford did a preliminary study about yoga in prison and found some interesting results.
‘We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention,’ said Dr Amy Bilderbeck and Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.’
This week I bumped into two students who are no longer in my class due to reassignment. While I’m happiest hearing that students are going home, it’s good to see people smile and chat when the see the ‘yoga lady’. Wendy and Monica (not their real names) said that they were bummed that they didn’t have yoga. Wendy said, ‘I have to show you something though.’ She then gracefully moved through a Sun Salutation. For the non yoga set the movements in a sun salutation are below.
‘I’ve been practicing and even showing other girls stuff. I’m so proud of myself.”
So was I and told her so. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard that people keep practicing even when there isn’t class. Another student told me uses the time she is locked down during shift change to do her mini-workout and yoga. She’s a fan of balancing poses and meditation. The meditations we do are something that she thinks about when she’s not in class.
Dr Bilderbeck, who practises yoga herself, cautioned: ‘We’re not saying that organising a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates. We’re not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.’
I think that teaching yoga in prisons and jails in important. There are two women who are now practicing being mindful on their own. They have a stronger sense of pride and self. I don’t know if this is going to help them when they leave. But I do know it can’t hurt.
This is yoga. For real.
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In 30 years, the number of women in jail has increased by over 800% [Source: Institute on Women & Criminal Justice]. Most of these women are imprisoned as a result of drug-related charges; however other leading causes of incarceration are immigration status issues.
M. comes to class each week. She doesn’t speak a lot of English but is one of the first students to sit on her mat. I make sure that during class I make eye contact with her and nod so she understands she’s moving safely. Part of me feels stupid for not speaking Spanish and by next week I will know at least how to say inhale deep and exhale slow. Though we speak mostly in smiles, gestures and nods, I can see her body relax during guided meditation.
I’m frustrated with myself. It’s easy to take life for granted. It’s just one more thing that these women teach me.
Here’s some startling information about women in prison:
The vast majority of women in prison—85 percent to 90 percent—have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. And racial disparities strike here too: Girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as offenders than white girls, who have a better chance of being treated as victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems. This disparity is particularly devastating for gender nonconforming girls, who are up to three times more likely to experience harsh disciplinary treatment by school administrators than their heterosexual counterparts.
In addition to intimate partner violence, other risk factors contributing to women’s criminal behavior include substance abuse and mental illness. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of women prisoners suffer from substance addiction. While it would be much more cost effectiveto treat these women than imprison them or pay for foster placement for their children, they are refused such rehabilitative measures—measures that could facilitate their integration back into society as productive members.
-Center for American Progress
During class more people started to watch. J, who is in her sixties said she was too out of shape to do it. But J’s friend told her to stop making excuses and try, since she ‘d never done yoga, how could she know what she could do and couldn’t do. It was a fair point, I thought. Without fail at the end of class there is a greater sense of serenity on every woman’s face. I think back to M. on the third floor. She may not understand every word I say. But she is learning how to move in her body.
On Friday I was standing on the corner of Sixth Ave and Canal. The weather was perfect. I had an early day and I got to wrap it up by tasting a custom blended tea for my upcoming workshop. Later, I took a class and capped off the night with some chores, a glass of wine and Netflix. Tired, I crawled into my bed more grateful than I have ever been for the comfort of my bed. And I think of M. and know that in the morning I need to wake up and do more.
It’s the beautiful burden of being free.
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I really like Tuesdays. However, this week I was cautiously optimistic about what would take place in 3 South A, the sentenced women’s dorm. Last week had a shaky start but seemed to end on a high note. I was hoping that I’d see some new faces in class.
I felt fantastic despite the rain and made my way to the 5th floor of the 800 Bed Annex. I was chatting with Ms. Gregory for a few minutes and headed to the dorm with the cart packed with mats and blocks. I saw heads peeking around the corner and someone said, ‘It’s her, she’s here.’ When I got buzzed in people were waiting. This was definitely a change Normally, I come in and announce that yoga was happening. To have students waiting is a great sign.
We didn’t write this week, but we did have a great discussion about meditation being a way to calm the mind. Everyone listed ways that meditation makes them feel better. This list was a way to come back to a sense of peace and stillness when future bouts of anxiety surfaced. After our conversation I talked about pranayama. We did a few rounds of Kapalabhati and everyone commented on the change they felt in their body.
I’m noticing the level of focus increase over a short period of time. When I first started teaching we were doing some of the basics but didn’t have a full flow class. Each week the classes get longer and I’m adding a bit more. There are still lots of women who watch and do poses from their seats, but each week the floor is getting full of mats (I even see the COs sneak a look inside the class to see what’s going on). During meditation, everyone is quiet. After class a young woman asked me if there were poses that she could do that would help her relax when she had a headache. Right after someone else asked if there were poses to do for cramps. I’m encouraged that there’s a connection being made between yoga being a way to feel better and not just as a physical activity. I made a mental note to incorporate the therapeutic benefit of poses in classes from now on.
After I packed up- I took a gulp and headed downstairs to 3 South A. I wasn’t nervous, but I was bracing myself for the noise. It makes me want to cry thinking about it. If I had to live with that much noise all of the time, I’d lose my mind. Honestly.
I made my way in and announced that it was yoga time for those who were interested. Eight women came over. Someone turned off the TV. I tried to be cool and not dance around like a clown. But I was dancing on the inside.
Yes. Yes, I was dancing like this on the inside. But back to class.
I asked everyone’s names and if they had ever done yoga before and many had. We had solid class and worked fairly hard. Meditation was very long and got a bit noisy with a spirited game of spades going on but I could feel the stillness of the group, and that’s what mattered. And after class someone asked about poses that help with back issues and cramps.
I think it’s clear that there’s a desire to use yoga for self-care and that’s great. Next week should be interesting.
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.
Oddly on the bus…Kirk Franklin’s ‘Smile’ is playing loudly.
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.
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.
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?’
‘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.
Please read more about Anneke Lucas and Liberation Prison Yoga.
The walk to the 800 bed dorm is now familiar and I begin to recognize guards, bus drivers and inmates who aren’t even in the dorms where I teach. Last week I was stopped by someone in the Beauty Shop (yes, there are some elements that do remind me of Orange is the New Black) but it was closed on this Tuesday morning. I chatted with Carmen and Ms. Gregory while waiting for Anneke and Maia.
We decided that the theme would be anxiety. This was great and I suspected that it would be a welcome discussion topic. As I rolled the yoga cart to the B side of the dorm, I was thrilled to see over 20 faces. Everyone was ready to go and prepared to write, asking for paper. My plan of writing before class is the way to go for now. I thought of my own morning and how I used to be more diligent about writing down some thoughts after meditating. (Note to self: practice what you are teaching, Oneika. And stop referring to yourself in the third person).
‘Anxiety is the topic for today,’ I stated. A collective round oh yeses was heard around the room. I knew this would be a perfect topic. We talked about the negative aspects of anxiety and I asked everyone how they knew when they were anxious. One student said the thought of living a clean and sober life made her anxious because she didn’t want to mess up again. This got a lot of nods from the group. A profound observation. I had already planned a class but thought I might switch things up after hearing that remark and seeing the nods of agreement.
Our writing focused on the practical- what things could we do when we felt anxious? The answers were thorough. Lots of conversation today. I also like how students who may not speak up stay involved and follow the discussion.
At the top of our mats we held our bodies and breath, squeezing our faces and muscles tight. I had them hold the breath for quite a few seconds and then we let everything go. Smiles all around. Next, with arms everyone turned their palms so they faced each other. I asked them that imagine they were holding anxiety in their hands with a backbend we built some momentum and with an exhale we launched it forward to let it go. Folding forward into a deep bend we felt the back of the body open up.
As promised I delivered a longer meditation. Ms. Gregory mentioned after class that even women who were sitting and watching participated in the meditation. I’m already working on the meditation for next week.
This is yoga. And it’s liberating.