Adventures in Teaching Yoga – Rikers Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

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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

This week instead of the noise, I couldn’t help but notice the beds.  I use the term bed loosely. The mattresses are about 3 inches thin and sit atop metal cots which sag even when empty. While I’ve seen them before, on this particular Tuesday they were glaring. Maybe it was because I was on the third floor with the sentenced women. I guess in my head I rationalize that many of the women on the fifth floor will be going home. Because they are consider detainees, the energy feels more transient.
I don’t know. Maybe I was stuck on the beds because I’m more familiar with my surroundings. Whatever it was it created an opening, a desperate moment of clarity…
As the CO announced class I took in utter lack of privacy of prison dorm life.  I averted my eyes and felt flushed with shame. There wasn’t anything happening- but the dorm is their space. Some women were sleeping and others were talking. And a CO is there the whole time watching all of it. I’m not waxing political with commentary (yet)- but a stark reality is clear. This is their life- at least in this moment.
On the third floor 12 students came to their mats. I am glad but try to hold back because I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. But maybe it won’t. In the common/dining/yoga area the person watching TV turned it off and went back inside the dorm. It pleasantly surprises me but also gives me pause. These women have to adapt at the drop of a hat. I can never forget that. I’m the visitor. It doesn’t matter (to me anyway) that I choose to be there. These women must be able handle whatever comes their way, even if it’s a yoga teacher with some mats.

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.

When I leave Riker’s I’m consistently struck with the need to do more.
More for the women there.
More for women in prisons everywhere.
I watched the documentary Crime After Crime about Deborah Peagler and her 27 year incarceration for death of her incredibly abusive boyfriend. The system was not set up to support her. In fact,  statistics show that because she was abused and called the authorities she is over 80%  more likely to end up in prison (Center for American Progress).
And then I think about the women who get out and their struggles to transition back to the world. It seems overwhelming and at times I have to fight against the voice that says what the hell is yoga going to do? What can I do? Without fail I come back to M.’s face sitting there on her mat, moving, breathing and maybe knowing that she is important. Her body is important. Her ability to inhale and exhale into a better life is possible.
So I’ll be back next Tuesday and the Tuesday after and the Tuesday after that. Two weeks ago Seane Corn, a yoga activist spoke at a yoga festival. She said that as yogis we can no longer be silent and passive. We have an obligation to take the love we have found on our mats and share it to bring change to the world.

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.

Namaste y’all.

Interested in finding out more about Liberation Prison Yoga? Click here

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Adventures in Teaching Yoga- Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

BKS

“True concentration is an unbroken thread of awareness.”
― B.K.S. IyengarLight on Life

 

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.

 

Namaste y’all.

 

 

Adventures in Teaching Yoga- Riker’s Island (Liberation Prison Yoga)

Namaste1

“Comedy is acting out optimism.”

-Robin Williams

 

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.

And yet…

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.

star pose

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)