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.
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.
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.
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.
Psst. You don’t have to fear Monday. For many years I used to suffer from ‘Sunday Night Jitters.’ Sometimes it was well-deserved. I may have been blown off homework and was cramming to get it done. As an district manager, Mondays meant heading to the office for non-stop calls with my team, the corporate office and my boss. Though I loved, loved working in the world of books, at the end of Monday it sometimes felt like I had worked a whole week.
However I’ve learned that Mondays can be a day of inspiration. As soon as I’m up (these days before the sun) I sit and meditate. Most weeks, I welcome the new beginning. The Monday Campaigns, the folks who started Meatless Monday and Move It Monday had interesting stats on how our society views the first day of the work week.
Monday has a special significance in our culture as the beginning of the week, which influences our mood and health outcomes
The 7-day week and the meaning we associate with the days of the week is a social construct, and not based on biological or planetary cycles. Yet a range of negative health outcomes, such as heart attacks and strokes, happen more frequently on Mondays as people transition back to the structured routine of the week.[i]
While 27% of people report that Monday is the day they experience the most stress, 58% of people see Monday positively, as an opportunity for a “fresh start” and a day to “get my act together.” [ii] FGI Research (2014). Online panel of 1,000 respondents.
And guess what? Monday happens all day, if inspiration doesn’t come bounding out of bed with you- so what!! Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.
Go for it. Embrace Monday.
Today I’m going to think about what it means to be more vulnerable and compassionate with myself. My evening meditation will focus on compassion. And before I hit the sack I’ll spend time in a therapeutic pose that opens my heart.
The best part? If my plans get sidetracked- I have Tuesday to try again.
Creating a safe space for students should be the number one priority of any yoga teacher. As a teacher who is moving into the world of yoga therapy, I understand that the idea of what’s ‘safe’ varies. Getting properly trained in trauma sensitive yoga has been an invaluable tool when it comes to teaching in a wide variety of non-tradtional settings. The more I’ve learned, the more I have been encouraged to share my experiences and tips for creating a meaningful class.
1. Do your homework
I’m constantly reading about new approaches to teaching in this ever evolving field. In addition, I spend time talking to my former teachers who are experts in yoga therapy, trauma-senstive yoga and doctors. There isn’t an end to the learning process. Spending time learning about where you are going to teach a new class can provide assurance that your first class will be provide the best experience possible for your students.
2. Be prepared and flexible
Having a clear plan is always the way to walk into a studio and this is certainly the case when teaching in non-traditional environments. But when class starts and how people are moving doesn’t fit the plan- I must adapt. The same holds true when I teach a trauma-senstive/therapeutic yoga class. A few weeks ago I had planned a class for a group of students at Riker’s Island Correctional Facility. When I walked into the dorm there was a lot of talk about a search that had been conducted overnight, as a result the group was very stressed. Rather than work through the more powerful flow I had mapped out, it made sense to cut that part of class short so I could teach a few poses that released stress. In addition, I took the class through a longer guided meditation. The more tools you have in your toolbox the easier it is to adapt on the fly.
3. Know your audience
When you are teaching in a space with people who have suffered trauma it’s vital to understand their backgrounds and potential triggers. When I am working with women who have suffered sexual abuse, I’m careful not to do poses that could be deemed sensual. Cat/cow provides a good example of this. It’s a fairly innocuous pose in a traditional yoga setting, it’s great for warming up the spine but with women who have had a history of abuse it’s potentially a huge trigger.
4. Listen. Listen more. Listen again.
Active listening skills are required in trauma sensitive teaching. It’s vital to be able to listen to verbal and non-verbal cues. Are students comfortable? Are you talking too much? Or not enough? In a traditional setting with experienced yogis, silence is golden and allows for exploration. But when working with women who have been abused or PTSD patients silence can be scary. Listen with your eyes, ears and EQ (Emotional Intelligence).
5. Know your limits and have a network
As yoga teachers it’s easy to get connected to your students especially when you work with folks who suffer from PTSD, have physical illnesses or are in challenging situations like prison or rehab. I stay true to what I know to do with the body as a yoga teacher. I stay honest with myself about my skills and training. I am a certified therapeutic yoga teacher who has done trainings to work with folks who have chronic illness, addictions, are in prison and who suffer from PTSD. I’m not a therapist, a physical therapist, nutritionist or doctor. But I have built and continue to build a strong network of these folks who understand the value of yoga. Having a rolodex of names allows me to refer a student to the right person when they ask something out of my depth.
One last critical component to teaching trauma sensitive yoga is self-care. Providing a space for healing is rewarding but can be draining physically and emotionally. Knowing how and when to recharge is a part of my routine. I make sure that there is one day of the week when I am not teaching- at all. That is my day to take my own classes and relax. My daily meditation practice is also a way that I stay emotionally fit. As a Therapeutic yoga teacher I’ve also reaped the benefits of the TY practice. My bolsters, blankets and blocks are never far from me. Practicing what I preach has become a necessary part of my practice.
Yoga is now being widely recognized as a was to compliment many traditional treatment plans. The more that I’m educated, the larger impact I can have.
“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)
Recovering from major surgery was more intense than I thought. My ego set unrealistic expectations. No matter, my body was having none of it. During the first week, it was tough to do more than take short walks. By week two, I was doing restorative poses.
Fortunately, yours truly has daily meditation practice. Sitting each morning allowed me to get out of my own way.
Therapeutic Yoga blends restorative yoga (supported postures), gentle yoga, breathwork, hands-on healing, and guided meditation techniques combined in such a way that it is an excellent choice for those who need something gentle yet effective for bringing the body into balance and reducing stress. Therapeutic Yoga is a deeply meditative experience – it provides the opportunity to step away from the busy-ness of the outside world and access the deeper wisdom that resides within us.
This training has shifted my thoughts about how I practice and how I teach. Cheri and Arturo are gifted educators and yogis who allowed us to explore what it means to create a space to heal. Whether it’s healing from a physical trauma or emotional trauma, therapeutic yoga is a way to yoke or unite our bodies and mind through a gentle yet powerful practice. Still recovering from abdominal surgery, I was my own perfect test case. There were some poses that I couldn’t do. And for the very first time, I allowed myself to celebrate that.
That’s what healing is about. Giving permission to be still. Celebrating getting well.
If I can care for myself with such love and support- just think of how much I’ll be able to give to others. I’ve added a few therapeutic poses at the beginning and end of the vinyasa alases that teach. It’s been a welcome addition. Working hard and challenging the body can be fun and invigorating. Just as important though, is to honor the idea of being whole and nurturing the self.
Teaching this style of yoga is my calling. I wasn’t looking for it. And it’s made me realize that more school is on the horizon. More change I hadn’t planned.
But I think that’s when the best things happen.