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.
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.
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.
If you would like to learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and the work we do click here.
I discovered this week that the max section had been moved (thankfully) to a different block. And while it’s still a sh*thole, it’s like the Four Seasons compared to the previous block. When class ended I saw someone with her hand raised- it was Mona (not her real name). She wanted to join class but came back late from work detail and wasn’t sure if it was okay to sit down once class had begun.
Mona didn’t participate but watched the first class I taught in max with curious eyes, peeking over the top of a book. We spoke briefly. After telling me that she liked the class she asked, ‘What’s your dharma?’ I laughed still unsure what it was. She needed a meditation at night when she got stuck in her head. She had an ethereal personality combined with a level of frankness that I appreciate. The following week I brought with me a few more meditations but she was gone.
You don’t ask a lot of questions when you don’t see someone- because it’s not your business. If people share that’s fine, but prying isn’t okay. I wondered where she went and if she was alright. When teaching in a short-term prison facility, you get used to students leaving without notice. Closure is a luxury.
‘How’s your dharma?’ she said.
‘A work in progress. How’s yours?’ I asked.
‘I’ve been locked down, so…’ her voice trailed off. There was a problem with another woman which resulted in a stint in solitary.
In the prison system when an inmate poses a threat to themselves, COs or other inmates they are placed in a solitary housing unit or solitary confinement. Confinement times can be for a day, a month, a week or a year. The US has more people in isolation than in any other country in the Western world. Solitary confinement started out as an experiment in the 1800s. And while confining violent offenders is a necessary evil to protect inmates and corrections officers alike many prison administrators are saying that it’s overused.
When corrections officials talk about solitary confinement, they describe it as the prison within the prison, and for good reason. For 23 hours a day, inmates are kept inside a cell that is approximately 80 square feet, smaller than a typical horse stable. Cells are furnished with a bed, sink and toilet, but rarely much else. Food is delivered through a slot in the door, and each day inmates are allowed just one hour of exercise, in a cage.
For most of the 20th century, a typical stay in solitary amounted to just a few days, or several weeks in more extreme cases. Today, it’s not unusual for inmates to spend years at a time in solitary. Supporters say the practice helps keep prisons safe, but according to the medical literature, solitary confinement can also take a heavy mental toll.
According to a recent report from the ACLU women prisoners are put in solitary for many non-violent offenses.
“Women are put in the hole for small things,” said Craig, who now works as a supervisor at a domestic violence safe house in Washington, D.C. “Sometimes there’s a fight or something, but it can be for something stupid, like stealing a tomato from the kitchen, or having two blankets instead of one.”
Mona was locked down for six weeks.
New York City officials unanimously agreed Tuesday to eliminate solitary confinement for inmates ages 21 and younger. The decision is groundbreaking: Jails across the U.S. impose solitary confinement on misbehaving inmates.
She was reading a copy of Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I had a copy of Sparks of Divinity, quotes and stories from BKS Iyengar as told by one of his first non-Indian female students. I gave it to her. We talked for a bit and I told her that she should jump in if class has started because she is always welcome. Mona thanked me and said, ‘This whole thing [incarceration] has been humbling. I’ve learned a lot about myself.’ As I got up to leave two students came over and asked if they could give me a hug. Mona said, ‘I think I’ll take one of those too.’
I know that these women are in this section for a variety of reasons and are considered to be high risk, but believe that if they can get opportunities to look inside beyond their case numbers, reputations with the COs, the system and their individual pasts they may see what I see- that they are capable, strong and empowered to make better choices. Meditation and yoga helps with impulse control. Meditation classes are starting to pop up in super-max prisons across the country. It’s not a miracle cure, but many people have ‘light bulb’ moments. Once the switch is turned on, change is possible.
For a great conversation about solitary confinement reform you can listen to the podcast below. If you haven’t seen Frontline’s Locked Up in America check it out. It’s very raw and gritty but well done.
To learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and its programs, click here.
Service is not an experience of strength or expertise; service is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Helpers and fixers feel causal. Servers may experience from time to time a sense of being used by larger unknown forces. Those who serve have traded a sense of mastery for an experience of mystery, and in doing so have transformed their work and their lives into practice.
-Rachel Naomi Remen
Teaching in the max detainee section has been a powerful experience. Building 16 is in bad shape. I’m not telling tales out of school here. Rikers is listed as one of the ten worst prisons in the country. The walls are different colors from peeling paint. The ‘sun’ roof is brown because it hasn’t been cleaned in years. The floors are also peeling and the doors to the cells are metal and offer a small square of light through a “window” at the top of the door. It’s hard to be heard, so in order to get a guard’s attention someone has to yell at the top of her lungs to call for a door to open.
During our introductions they told me they felt forgotten about. If their surroundings are any indication of that, it couldn’t be more true. The range of experience in my classes tends to be mixed but one thing is clear- people need to move and when they don’t they begin to shrivel up physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We talked about it as we practiced. I let the conversation flow in these classes because it’s important that students get a chance to share what they are feeling. But like with all of the other classes I teach here- everyone comes to their mat for the meditation.
There hasn’t been a class where one student hasn’t expressed joy and an exhalation of peace when I say it’s time for meditation. Anecdotally, this tells me that meditation on a broad scale could be effective for so many people in prison, and by people I mean inmates, COs, and employees. A few weeks ago after class someone who didn’t take class but was watching asked me about mantra to help her get through the nights. When the doors close she said it makes her feel crazy. And you could see it. So we talked about Tat Tvam Asi which is Sanskrit (roughly) for ‘Thou are That” or ‘You Are That”. I said I’d check in with her to see if that provided any relief. This week she’s no longer in that section.
And so it goes. This is the nature of the work with people who are awaiting trial, one week they are and gone the next. Maybe I’ll see her again. Maybe I won’t. But she left an impression on me. All of these women do.
Back on the third floor Anneke and I talked to the sentenced women who were used to getting yoga but due to scheduling issues and changes haven’t had any in awhile. A group of women who work out a lot and said that they would come to class. I’ll start seeing them next week. They also expressed a desire to do meditation.
It has me thinking.
I want to be a meditation servant. Providing ways for people to breathe and be okay with what happening in the present moment. I know, it sounds crazy. But maybe just crazy enough to be possible.
“Our duty is wakefulness, the fundamental condition of life itself. The unseen, the unheard, the untouchable is what weaves the fabric of our see-able universe together.”
― Robin Craig Clark, The Garden
Until next time. Namaste y’all.
Interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here
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.
Interested in finding out more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here
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.
“Comedy is acting out optimism.”
By some magnificent shift of the planets I woke at 5:30 feeling refreshed. The first thing I heard in my head was the last line of the Langston Hughes poem, ‘A Dream Deferred’.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
My dreams had been vivid (which isn’t unusual), on my mind was Michael Brown and the death of Robin Williams. The brain is incredible and exhausting. It didn’t help that the prior day was challenging. I’m in a learning curve with the next part of my career and I was struggling with a project. Although I had a wonderful time teaching last night by the time I hit the bed I was physically aching.
My soul felt light as I got dressed for Riker’s. The scheduled topic this week was depression. Unfortunately, current events fit perfectly. I had a flow planned but as I biked to the PATH train I decided to change things up.
Standing star pose would be our focus. Last week in class I mentioned the Ted Talk video with Amy Cuddy and faking it till you make it. This week we used that as a foundation and talked about Robin Williams, suicide and depression. Everyone took time before class to write down a few small things that she would do to feel better if the mood was starting to darken. The list was long and everyone has great suggestions ranging from talking to counselors and friends, reaching out to family, prayer, meditation and physical activity. I think having everyone write and share before class worked for me. We then applied those ideas when we practiced.
We started at the top of our mats in star pose, chests lifted. Our inhales tried to take us off the ground and our exhales made us bold and strong. Moving right to Warriors everyone’s body was expressive. In between postures we can back to star pose. One student succinctly stated, “Star pose is…cool.”
Indeed. To spice things up we even played around with eagle. At first everyone said, “No way..” However, taking the pose one step at a time everyone was in it. Not sure who was more excited but we all laughed. I know they get a kick out of this whacky Black chick who says rock on and awesome at the end of every other sentence. I’m grateful that they humor me and trust me enough to share.
On the floor we used bolsters and did a few therapeutic poses that inspire feelings of safety. Supported Child’s pose got lots of love. Hugging the bolster helped release a lot of tension and instill a sense of security. Our seated forward folds with the bolster stretched the legs without too much tension. But there was a collective exhale of joy when we did reclined goddess pose with the bolster.
‘I want to stay here all day’ someone said. So we spent our guided mediation reclined. And the space became still. There was no yelling. No buzzing door. I kept the focus on the idea that finding peace is our choice- even in chaos we can close our eyes and look inside to be still. To be still without holding still. This can be our choice and our decision. After class there were requests for a longer guided meditation. Next week, I will happily comply.
These women are important. These women matter. I think of them daily.
They are my inspiration. They are resilient and funny and honest and true.
Until next week y’all. Namaste.
(To learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and its programs- click here)