Rikers Island Yoga

rikers old 1930

 

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.

Advertisements

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

IMG_0536

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 Island Yoga

 Hands-behind-bars-in-prison-or-jail-Shutterstock-800x430
“Thoughts are things, so make ‘em good ones.” -unknown

A lot of women I encounter in jail have endured a life of being told that they are less than. Being told that they don’t matter. Being told that they are nothing more than a body to be used, abused and thrown away.

In trauma sensitive yoga we find ways to take negative self-talk and replace it with positive language. Sometimes to quiet the loud external voice it requires a fake it until you feel it approach.

For instance, in a study by researchers at Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, people who used positive affirmations for two weeks experienced higher self esteem than at the beginning of the study. Also, in a study published in the Journal of American College Health, researchers found that women treated with cognitive behavioral techniques, which included use of positive affirmations, experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms and negative thinking. A study by researchers at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, had similar results, and came to a similar conclusion.
Yoga may assist in helping you feel. When you start breathing and moving there’s a chance to move up the emotional ladder from faking feeling good to actually feeling good. Affirmations and/or mantras partner well with yoga and the process of building self-esteem and mindfulness.

In the sentenced women’s dorm I used a silent affirmation meditation to open class. I had students pick one thing they loved about themselves that wasn’t physical and turn it into an ‘I am’ statement. I am brave. I am compassionate. I am smart. I am love.

If they wanted, they could come back to their phrase over and over. Every time we met in Mountain pose I invited them to silently repeat their I am statement with hands gently pressing their hearts. Before closing class an I offered the option one more time.

I heard a women whisper ‘ I am hopeful for a better life.’ It caught me off guard and I had to pause before saying ‘Namaste’ because of the huge lump in my throat. Her voice stayed with me all day, not just because it was moving but because it was honest and so very real.

I am hopeful for a better life.
I am hopeful for a better life,
I am hopeful for a better life-
I am hopeful for a better life.

Aren’t we all?

I am hopeful for a better life.
I am hopeful that one day all beings will be happy and free.
I am hopeful.
I am.

Namaste y’all.

Rikers Yoga

barbedwire

 

At Rikers there are lots of ‘squeaky wheels’. It  gets the grease and whatnot. But lately, there’s one student who has really been getting into yoga. She’s been taking classes with me for almost three months. Mina (not her real name) is quiet and seems pensive. During the first class her eyes would widen as her body would open. But even as her friends went home, and class got smaller she kept showing up. With each passing week she’s become stronger and started asking questions. Last week, class was three deep, after sun salutations, the crew looked a little bored. I asked them what they wanted to do.

There’s always a pause when you ask a student in jail what they want. It’s so unusual. And then….
Something hard, one said. Something fun, another said. All three were fit and demonstrated core strength and coordination so we took it to the wall for L pose and handstand practice.
Word. Go time. 
Mina was kicking up before I cued it. On her hands against the wall she was asking, ‘Like this?’ without struggle in her voice. All three were amazing and radiant. There is joy in going upside down. The other women in the dorm were proud of all of them clapping and cheering them on.
This week she was the only one who showed up to class. The call for rec had come just before I got there. With the first whiff of warm weather, I’d probably choose to be outside as well. Mina asked if we would still have class since she was the only one. A huge smile graced my face because a student who can do handstands and no other people = F.U.N. There is something shy and powerful about Mina, she smiles but is hesitant to look at you straight on. After holding her handstand she smiles broadly but it disappears just as quickly. After class she let me know that she was going home in two weeks so I’d only see her for one more time. She put her blocks on the cart and looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’m never coming back.”
I believe her.
Shout out to all the Minas.
Namaste y’all.

Rikers Yoga

Photo NYT
Photo NYT
Today at Rikers:

Building 7 was still except for Marissa(not her name) having a debate with the officer on post. It was clear Marissa wasn’t happy with how the conversation was going. There was anger brewing. Upon seeing me the officer said, “Why don’t you do some yoga. It will help you.”

Initially, Marissa plunked herself down in a chair out of protest, but I could see her eyeing the bolsters.
I must digress, bolsters are my secret weapon. After sleeping on a cot with a 3 inch thick mattress one can’t help but sneak a peak at a juicy pillow. Back to the class… 
Raquel, my other regular from 7 was having a bad day and wasn’t interested in practicing. In this ‘house’ there are about 15 women, but the group that is there now is hard to motivate. This has not always been the case. It’s a challenge because these women are potentially a step away from solitary. They really need a chance to breathe. More and more I get stopped by women who want classes in their houses or dorms. It’s tough to rally a group when I know other students would be on their mats in a second. Rocks, hard place and all that jazz.
I gave another holler for yoga and decided to head back to teach another class on the fourth floor. Marissa looked at me and said, “If you want me to take the class I will. You don’t have to go.”
“It’s your choice. You don’t have to take this.”
I made this distinction on purpose. It wasn’t that I wanted Marissa to think she wasn’t doing me any favors. It’s important to give these women a chance to say yes of no to something. While I want to get every single body in Rikers to a class, I can’t mandate anything. (Well, I wouldn’t turn people away if it was required. Secretly, I may rejoice Officers and inmates taking classes together. One can dream).
Choice matters. Marissa made the decision to come to her mat. If she is bought in, she’s more likely to see benefits sooner rather than later.
She said, “I gotta get rid of some of this anger.”
We introduced ourselves and I asked her where in her body she felt the anger. It was in her head, neck and shoulders. I had her practice some gentle head and neck movements and then we did pranayama. As soon as we finished pranayama Marissa asked me about sit-ups. She’s been doing them but thought she was breathing wrong, ‘it’s like I’m fighting myself and now after doing this I think I’m breathing wrong or maybe not at all.’ It was a really astute observation. After we started moving Raquel came over smiling and grabbed a mat. Whatever she was going through wasn’t enough to keep her away from a chance to do yoga. We talked for awhile about weight gain- both had gained 40 pounds since arriving. With one knowing that her ‘journey’ (her words) will take her a prison that reportedly has a gym and lots of classes they excitedly talked about losing weight.
After class I asked Marissa how she was…”Better but I still need to settle this issue,” she said laughing.
As I headed out, Marissa came over and said, “What’s that thing with the hands and seeing the good in someone?”
“Namaste,” I replied. She looked over at the officer who she was now joking with and said Namaste to her.
She asked if I would be back next week, because she wanted to do more yoga.
It’s not even a question. Namaste y’all.
Liberation Prison Yoga is in the middle of an Indiegogo Campaign and we NEED your DONATIONS and SUPPORT. Click here to view the campaign and give. We will be able to expand our programs and train more teachers. We are getting flooded with requests to do programs but need money to grow.
Know yoga. Know peace.

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/liberation-prison-yoga/embedded/9637391

Liberation Prison Yoga – Indiegogo Campaign

Liberation-Prison-Yoga_Web-650x385

I know that many of you know that every Tuesday I teach yoga to women at Rikers Island. We breathe, move, laugh, get serious, get frustrated and most of all are real. I walk the corridors and get greeted with hellos from students who can’t wait to do more yoga. There are few things I’ve ever been so passionate about.

We are looking to raise a lot of money to expand this program, pay teachers and cover admin costs. As a member of the board for Liberation Prison Yoga​, I’m asking that you consider contributing so that we may continue to train the teachers whom I consider to be warriors of peace.

They are full of love and do this because it is their calling. Thank you.

 

From Indiegogo

Who we are

Liberation Prison Yoga  organizes volunteers to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to prisons, to provide health and healing on every level, impacting not only our students, but also their communities, and our society.

Why this campaign?

We just completed a successful yearlong pilot of our unique trauma conscious yoga empowerment program at the Rikers Island Jail Complex in New York.  We are ready to implement our program and expand.

Where we come from

Child Trafficking Victim Finds Peace Teaching Rikers Inmates Yoga was the start. Anneke Lucas experienced most atrocities known to humankind before she reached the age of 12. Seeking to free herself from her past, she found yoga, meditation, therapy and other healing modalities on a long and hard journey to recovery. However, true impact came only through humble healers who, instead of presenting as teachers or authority figures, made a connection through heartfelt empathy and understanding within safe boundaries.

 

 

Please check out the campaign and consider donating.

 

https://www.indiegogo.com/project/liberation-prison-yoga/embedded

Namaste y’all.