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.

 

 

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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 Yoga – Three Floors. Three Narratives.

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“There’s no secret to balance, you just have to ride the waves”
Three dorms. Three narratives
Today was all about finding a way to honor all my students and meet them where they are. I’ll start from the top.
On the third floor I met a new student. We chatted for about 15 minutes. She’s spent the better part of two years in the Bing (solitary). No longer in solitary she lives in a dorm by herself. She’s a reader who loves biographies and is excited to do yoga. We’ll start next week. I’m honored and grateful that she is comfortable practicing with me. We’ll start with 30 minutes and go from there. The details of whys and hows of how she got there is private and I think her story to share.
In Building 7 I was not met with shock and awe by the officer on duty. But I did walk in the the middle of commissary delivery.  Since the women there aren’t allowed to go to commissary, it’s delivered. I had a class plan ready but changed it when both students requested something more restorative. Usually they are all about moving fast and furious with a long guided meditation. Instead we did gentle yoga with therapeutic poses and seated meditation. Both said it was what they needed.
Last but not least on the rowdier 4 floor I had my new group of regulars who pounced when I arrived stating that they had been waiting. Pilates (not her real name) was the first to grab a mat, bolster and blocks. She proceeded to head to the TV. Our conversation went as follows.
Me: I’m beginning to think you’re testing me. You know our collective agreement. We practice as a group.
Pilates: (Innocently) But why can’t I do what I want?
Me: Because the mats are for a group class.
Pilates: Then I’m not doing it.
Me: That’s your choice
Pilates: Really, I’m not.
Me: Ok, but I’m starting to think you like yoga. You’ll be missing out.
Pilates: I’m too big to do the poses.
Me: You are the perfect size to do the poses.
Pilates: I’m going to sit and watch.
Me: That’s cool, but not ish talking allowed.
Pilates: Fine. I’ll practice and be quiet.
The group had settled in and I got the feeling this was not a new act they had seen from Pilates. We did a slow class but did standing poses. The entire group inlciuding Pilates was laughing and having a good time. We ended class with a long meditation. Pilates asked if I could turn off the TV. I complied. After meditation Pilates said, “I feel like I’m not in a bad mood.” Someone replied, “We’ll see.”
As I was leaving she said, “Namaste.”
I couldn’t hide my happy shit-eating grin.
It’s about balance. It’s about give and take. It’s about being kind and real at the same time. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it.
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.

Rikers Yoga – Trust Is a Process Part II

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I wandered into the new class in one of the sentenced women’s dorm a little earlier than usual. Most of the students from last week were at work or at a program. However, with most of the dorm asleep- I said I’d hang out for a bit and see if anyone wanted to do some yoga. I put down three mats and sat on one hoping I’d look pathetic and someone would take pity on the foolish yoga teacher.
Bam. Five minutes later someone came out. Maybe it was pity. I don’t care. Proud I am not. It was someone from last week and she said that she loved class but her neck and back had been hurting badly. She did however request to do downward dog and tree pose.  It was louder than the previous week but I was sure that we could create a therapeutic space to soften her body. And then…
The return of Fake A*s Pilates aka Tasha (not her real name). Last week I had a few dissatisfied customers. She was one. I thought- here we go. If I could have raised one eyebrow I would have. But instead I smiled and was met with a softness that I’d not seen from her. Tasha used to be in another dorm and while she was never disruptive during my class I’ve seen her yucking it up. She asked if she could sit with a bolster under her back because it was hurting. As she was talking her eyes were moving in the direction of the TV. I Love Lucy was on.
When you teach in jail there’s a dynamic- being tough doesn’t work, but being a pushover will also get you nowhere. It’s a delicate balance. I looked at her and said I’d be happy to have her sit if her back hurt and she didn’t want to practice but the pillow wasn’t for watching TV. We were creating a community.
Could she agree to do that? Did that seem fair?
She paused a beat and said, “Yeah, definitely.” Tasha sat with the bolster and did arm variations throughout class. No wise cracks. Three more people came back from work duty and we’re excited to grab a mat.
About midway through class Tasha  said she wanted to lay back down in bed. She thanked me and left.
The room was loud but the energy was friendly. As I was leaving Tasha said goodbye again and she’d see me next week.
This place has taught me more about interpersonal relationships than anywhere else. I don’t know Tasha’s story and may never know it. But she let down her guard a bit. I can’t imagine what it must be like. Humor is probably a great coping mechanism.  Today was interesting. We’ll see what happens next week.
Namaste y’all.

Rikers Yoga – Trust Is A Process

Photo NYT
Photo NYT

I went to Rikers today instead of my normal Tuesday. My regular class in the max area was thrilled. No one got the message that I would be coming today. I got a hug followed by a we missed you- we thought something happened. One confessed that she thought I’d forgotten about them. I assured her- no way. But I really appreciated her honesty and told her so. The building was quiet and we had a beautiful practice. It was so quiet I could hear students breathing. A gift in this environment.

Started a new class in a sentenced women’s dorm and had a large group excited to come to yoga. This excitement extended to the CO who turned off the TV and kept the dorm fairly quiet for our whole practice- another first. One moment to be filed under hilarious- one woman left class calling it fake ass Pilates. Can’t win em all! We had a great time. At the end of class one student said ‘Please come back. People say they will come back and don’t.” Before I could say anything someone said- nah she’s here all the time. Trust is process. It takes time. It takes patience. I hung around after and two students wanted an easy routine they could do in the mornings. After writing one we practiced it together. Not all will practice on the outside but some will. And by learning to breathe a little more deeply they are opening up opportunities to honor themselves.

It’s cold outside but there was a flicker of warmth inside. I’m grateful and honored that they let me in.

Namaste Y’all

Rikers Yoga – Less Sex, More Reflect

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When I’m teaching at jail I’m with lots of women who have varied sexual histories ranging from abuse, violence and miseducation. With all the joking that happens (because listen it’s jail and you have to laugh or you’ll cry) many students get into a playful mode when we practice asana (poses). And that’s fantastic because part of being able to let go happens when we are relaxed and laughter can assist in that process. I plan classes that focus on breathing and movement. Classes contain poses with lots of heart openers but I’m careful with how we move through the hips. More than once have we moved through a pose that has elicited a response like ‘This is something I need to try with ______’ or ‘I’ll be the hit at the club with this move.’

It’s all in good fun- but as I get to know these women and their stories I feel more comfortable being conversationally candid.

In a sexualized culture it’s easy to see how yoga poses can look like a good way to improve upon the ahem– beast with two backs. Even aspects of the yoga world have become sexualized far beyond the initial message of finding one’s center through the breath.  So a few weeks ago in class I decided that I would do something different. I addressed the comment. I asked their permission to ‘be real’ for a second.

‘Yoga and this class isn’t about a better way to frak (except I didn’t say ‘frak’).’

Mouths dropped. Eyes widened. Smiles crept on faces. What was this crazy yoga teacher going to say next? ‘When you take a moment to close your eyes and breathe. It’s a chance for you to remember that you are sacred. When you do yoga you get to tap inside an essence that gets hidden because of all the stuff that happens to us. But yoga is a way for you to see how special and you are.’

I got a high-five and ‘See, this is why frak with and your class.’ (Except she didn’t say frak)

Sometimes yoga is gritty and dirty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not holy and full of grace.

Namaste y’all.

 

If you are interested in learning more about Liberation Prison Yoga- click here 

Rikers Island Yoga (Teaching in Prison)

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We are all prisoners, undergoing a life sentence, imprisoned by our own minds. We are all seeking parole, being hostages of our own anger, fear, desire… it is a thin line that separates us from these people, who stare at us from inside this cage. The same things that do not go beyond the threshold of our thoughts, have crossed, in their case, the threshold of action. But still, we are alike.

– From Doing Time, Doing Vipassana

Well, they must have done something to be in prison… 

I think it’s ridiculous that inmates get yoga. 

Why do you come here? 

These (and more) are the negative things people have said to me about teaching yoga at Rikers. I write about teaching in prison every other week to honor those I believe are the forgotten. Our society is built on the idea that only the ‘good’ deserve ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ people are expendable.  It implies that were are the things that we do.

I do not think that we are.

We are more that the stuff we buy, the jobs we do, we are more than the people we choose to be with and the choices we make. Because someone made bad choices in the past does not mean that she shouldn’t have a chance at a preparing for a better future.

I’m not okay with throwing people away. I’m not okay with a woman being overwhelmed with gratitude because I  looked her in the eye and said, ‘Good morning.’ When it comes to jail I believe that the system is broken. I’m not talking just Rikers. I mean lots the institution of detention. Punishment without programming and plan for re-entry (and the follow-up after re-entry) is a recipe for recidivism. And reform at Rikers is said to be underway. I have seen some changes. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Sorry, I don’t mean to preach.  It gets under my skin.

I know. Yoga teacher heal thyself and all that. My passion is a gift and a curse.

Moving on.

As my mom says, “It’s Tuesday so it must mean Rikers.” So our story begins.

I could hear the rain pouring down and pulled myself out of bed. Soaked like a wet dog on the PATH train I hoped that the weather and my now clingy sweats weren’t an omen.

While the prison seemed to creak under the weight of the rain, classes were a different story. After spending time in Building 16 I taught my first class to the women in 3SA. The dorm holds sentenced women. Last week, I dropped by to see if they were really interested in having class. Apparently, a few of them stopped by a counselor’s office on Monday asking about yoga, just to make sure I wasn’t full of bs.

Eight women came to their mats. The energy was definitely more calm than the women in detainee areas. There wasn’t that frenetic, anxious energy. Women who are sentenced know how long they are there. We were able to sit and talk about what classes could look like. Lots of times pre-trial women are distracted, and with good reason. Some of them are new to this situation and most don’t know what is going on with their cases. They are learning how to survive in this environment and are scared.

Because it’s prison.

We sat with our mats making a large circle. One woman sitting at the table asked if she could watch. Instead, we invited her to come sit even if she didn’t want to move. “I just want to be a part of what’s happening here,” she said. Another woman stated that with the TV on in the background, it would be hard to concentrate.  Nearby, people were intensely watching a movie. Honestly, compared to other floors it was so low that I didn’t even notice it. In fact, I couldn’t tell you what was on. I asked Rachel(not her real name)  if she would be okay about thinking of the TV and all the noise around us as background and white noise. Someone else pointed out that it would help them learn to be still when it’s crazy. And still another said that we would get so focused on class that it wouldn’t matter.

‘This is going to be awesome’, I thought.

We began class with an awareness practice. I watched as everyone started to breathe into the moment. I don’t mean this in some woo-woo way. The witness practice as we call in cancer therapy training allows someone to bring moment to moment awareness to internal and external actions. Much of my cancer and chronic illness training is useful in this environment.

Our focus: being more than the body. Every movement was about the breath and allowing things to be how they are supposed to be in the moment. Building on this sense of living in the present we glided into one restorative pose and then guided meditation. Lunch was wheeled in as we were wrapped up. We formally closed class wishing each other peace and peace for everyone.

I’m hopeful for what we will learn from each other.

So when I ask myself why I do this I answer, how can I not? I live in the world. We all have different ways that we serve other humans. This is mine.

People in prison need consistent programming and  mind/body activities like yoga. From Us News Blog:

The focus of our prison system should be to improve society, not make it worse. As such, we should rededicate ourselves to reducing recidivism, and implementing the evidence-based policies that do so, such as increasing educational and vocational investment in prisoners.

And listen. I’m not a fool. I don’t waltz into Rikers chanting Om and teaching from a rose colored yoga mat. That’s not me. It’s also not my issue to deal with what people did.

I teach yoga and meditation so women find that place inside that lets them see who they are outside of all the stuff people say they are. Those powerful labels that can shape a life when we don’t pay attention. Powerful labels can shape a life when you’ve spent most of your life living in a situation that was ‘survival-centric’. Eventually those labels of what the external says is so becomes what is known.

I teach yoga and meditation so women get a moment to breathe into their spirit and say, I am a person. I am worthy of attention. I am worthy of love and being loved.

Namaste y’all.

If you would like to learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga click here

If you haven’t seen Doing Time, Doing Vipassana you can check it out below.