Rikers Island Yoga

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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.

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Rikers Island Yoga- Creating Your Own Prison

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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

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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.