Trauma is an experience of no-choice. It manifests when the physiological self and the psychological self are not in the same place at the same time. Yoga is a practice of bringing one to presence, where presence is when the physiological self and the psychological self are exactly aligned and in the same place at the same time.
The firm belief in this assertion brought me to work privately with those suffering from PTSD, as well as into city jails and rehab centers, because I believe that most of what we call "bad choices" that paradoxically seem so straight forward and should be so easy to fix, are affected by Trauma.
Since 2015 I've been going inside New York City jails to teach yoga to inmates through Liberation Prison Yoga, a not-for-profit organization funded and led by Anneke Lucas. I've also been teaching groups working through with addiction issues at Odyssey House.
These are some of my stories from Manhattan Detention Complex, Rikers Island and Odyssey House.
March 11th, 2019
I met Rowdy this morning at Rikers. He is a student I had once and wrote about a while back. He hollered at me and said he wanted to do yoga too but hey have no programs where he is now. I am always moved by how quickly the guys can connect, if you let them. Then I went to the dorm I’ve been teaching, and almost had two students but they then changed their minds: you can see the power dynamics so clearly in a small dorm of young men: they wanted to do it and then a couple of the more assertive guys made fun of them and they pulled out. But they stuck around and chatted and when I left they came up to the window to see me go. The internal dialogue between what they wanted to do and what they thought they ought to do was so clear to me I hope they saw it too. Maybe that’s what I had to teach today. And learn: there is no teaching without connection, and no connection comes without a price.
February 25th, 2019
The question, I though, was simple: what does it feel like to stand on one foot instead of two? We were practicing balancing at Rikers this morning, me and a new bunch of 19 year old guys, who had understandably been described by the officers on duty that I talked to on my way in (all of whom wished me luck) as “gangbangers”, “not the good guys”, and “Jurassic Park”. What does it feel like, I asked, as I always do, to stand on one foot instead of two? “Like going through life alone” was the answer that came from the guy next to me. I’m not crying. You are.
February 18th, 2019
I had a wild crowd today. 24 youngsters in the dorm and I had no mats so it started as shoulder stretching with one, then another wanted to know how to help cramps in his calf, then it turned into blown out leg kicking contest: they were so impressed that I could lift my leg that high that we bargained that I’d show them once and they’d do it after me for three breaths 🤣 I’ll admit, there wasn’t a lot of quiet meditation today. I snuck in as many long breaths as I could and the silence was stunning. But I guess sometimes you just go with what is in front of you. They laughed and breathed and some were truly interested in little things they’ve noticed about their bodies. Maybe sometimes the magic is in the little things.
January 11th, 2019
Current cold-weather-face selfie is tempered by the usual swarm of emotions I get when I leave Rikers Island after my class. I have been teaching in the “second chance” unit, where young adults 18-21 get sent after they committed some infraction that brought on disciplinary measures, and before they rejoin general population. It’s not the easiest place to be teaching at, and the guys only stay for two weeks at the time so it’s hard to create a relationship. Today I had one student, only two were in the house. I asked him how he felt: frustrated. Understandable, I say. What does he do when he’s frustrated? Beat somebody up. I smile: is that what landed him here? No. Murder did. Did it start with a beating? They usually do. Do you feel less frustrated after? ... quietly he looks at me: no. Not really. There is so much wisdom we can have access to. So much that needs to just be found and dug up. A system that punishes without nurturing, without teaching, and that punishes according to implicit biases and fear, a system that does not believe in change, is not a Justice System.
March 23rd, 2018
The women today were oh so ready for it! I love it when we can just notice how much the body can teach us about the mind and how much we can resource from it: accessing our “core energy” like one of them said, to remember that we are more than the sum of our actions and thoughts. Today we practiced looking at the dark spots like something that needs healing rather than something to be ashamed of. We cultivated dual consciousness and connected through our practice and the space we held for each other. Yoga is so simple, when we can let it happen; when we get out of our own way.
January 15th, 2018
I was talking to my students at Odyssey House, Inc. today about the continuum exteroception-proprioception-interoception and we kept figuring it out as we went from pose to pose: where is the attention now? What are we listening to? Can we notice what's happening inside the body? We finished with a meditation where I invited them to picture an unpleasant place to be and notice the physiological changes in the body, if any occurred. Then to picture a pleasant place, and notice the body. When we came back they said they felt the difference. One of them said it's like people: we get different "vibes" from different people. I said yes, and different qualities of embodiment in different environments, whether we imagine them or actually are in them. He looked at me again and said "it's almost too much for one person to feel all of it". It is. That's why we escape, we numb and we overwork. I'm humbled once again by the insight of these young men, in recovery for substance abuse, as they make steps to feel themselves more. What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? These are hard questions for all of us and I believe the courage lays in the body, if we could just look for it.
#yogaeverywhere #embodiedlearning #bodywisdom #yoga #meditation#endmassincarceration #feelitall
December 15th, 2017
The whole Friday crew showed up this morning at Manhattan Detention Complex for our weekly Liberation Prison Yoga session. And once we got up to the dorm there were two volunteers doing an art program and our favorite Social Worker already there with them. So we shared the space and some people came to do yoga, some kept going with their art project, some listened to miss V's stories: she's a great storyteller and we all listen to her enthralled. Then I realized it: the tv was also off. Nobody was running around. No screaming, yelling, joking. No fights, no crisis, no.... out of the ordinary anything! It looked like a bunch of grandmas sitting around chatting and knitting scarves (well, no knitting is allowed in jail, but you get the gist). It was a rare moment of normality in a less than normal place: one of those moments where you can really see that jail is full of ordinary people who might have made poor choices but all they want, all we want, is to connect, relax, listen to a good story, breath with ease and find peace.
Why do I do this work? In the words of journalist Rebecca Hersher "because once you start to realize that there's a whole world of people to worry about, it's kind of hard to not go meet them all."
November 17th, 2017
When you go in to do yoga with the inmates at Manhattan Detention Complex you never really know what's going to happen. I started this work thinking that I had some answers, some things I could offer our students to "help them" feel better or even worse, become better. Over the years I've learnt that that's not how it goes. I've learnt way more than I've taught. Today I started with "Iris" and she mentioned how old she felt in her body as if the cage on her freedom was also restricting her muscles. We started moving until she got called out of class. "Juan" came over and told me, all confidential and grinning "do you want to see something special?" "Yes", I said and he proceeded to nail a perfect handstand and while he was at it, started teaching me how to do it. I tried, received his perfect assist and we discussed that interesting moment when you crack the code of handstand and finally "have it". I love how this work teaches me to just be there, and reminds me of how little I know. Before I left "Faith" told me about her belief that confusion is good for us, because it creates more questions, and questions bring inquiry and inquiry brings truth. There is truth that we can only experience. I'm grateful for this work.
October 27, 2017
Funny how Manhattan Detention Complex has become one of my safe spaces, because there is hardly anything about jails that invokes a sense of safety and for those who are incarcerated there never will: I come and go and can create that for myself. Today when we arrived they were holding a house meeting and we sat there with them listening for a while as they discussed how to make the dorm a safe space for themselves. I realized that the people I meet there are the main reason why the space became so important to me as I watched them trying to take care of their own community in order to create safety: they didn't choose each other, but they struggled quietly to listen and speak their truth respectfully, in that "I hear you, and I believe you, but there is also this other side" way that is so hard and so vulnerable and so important. When they finished we asked them if they wanted to do meditation or movement. They chose movement, "Kayleigh" asked for balances and that's what we did. Playing with the differences between sides and with eyes open or closed and moving or finding stillness. We looked for bodily sensations and found laughter and released some of the containment that had been necessary for the meeting prior. We all listened, to all sides, and that helped us find home base again, in the body, through the body, with our little community. .
September 15th, 2107
We had a sweet session today at mdc. During class Lynda asked us what is safety. We talked about what it might be to feel safe in the physical practice but we know that the conversation about safety is wider than that, particularly in jail, inherently an unsafe space, and particularly for these women, whose bodily safety is so often disregarded. What they go through just to feel they belong in their bodies is harder than most things I've ever had to face, and feeling safe in a body that is ground of so much struggle... I don't even know. What is safety? What creates safety? Can we pursue safety within even when outside we deal with things like jail? Today left me with questions, but when I turned to the wall there was a quote pasted there:
What matters most is how well you walk through the fire
June 30th, 2017
Is it really a choice when embracing with fierce joy what was handed down to you by society/life/history and becoming what the world that rejected you thinks you are (or wants you to be, cause we all need scapegoats) is the only option you have to stay alive and create a sense of self worth?
April 28th, 2017
I have learnt so much teaching with #liberationprisonyoga and hanging out with Oneika and the rest of the crew, and today I realized how much I have learnt from the women who came to class and shared their practice with us. I am a white, cisgendered heterosexual woman and even though, like all women, I've had to fight for myself and still suffer the deep conditioning of thinking that my body is wrong, that maybe it was my fault, that if my legs were just a bit thinner my life would be happier and so on, I was lucky enough to identify with the gender and to some extent with the body I was born in. So many people out there don't have that privilege, that it suddenly became overwhelming to me that the women inside allowed me to come in and be with them and never once they made me feel like I was "different". So many people out there never get a chance to make a home in their own bodies, and we often shame those who do and by doing so they don't ascribe to our chosen "categories". And every time we ask them to change in order to be accepted, or better, to please us, we are implicitly telling them they are wrong, broken and inadequate. May we all be fierce in our search of ourselves and let others do the same. Infinite gratitude to all the people who create safe spaces for us to start searching.
April 7th, 2017
Today was a day of wiggles, bubbles and haiku at Manhattan Detention Complex.
We practice in the common area and there is always a lot going on during class, but we managed to wiggle and dance and move and breath and create little pockets of time when things felt ok enough to keep our attention to the circle of yoga mats rather than to the hectic surroundings.
We created a bubble for ourselves and conjured it up in meditation, a space to be safe in, and light, and to find a home in this body for a moment. It seems we are always out there in the world, engaging, doing, and it's often hard to sustain our own space from outside invasions. In jail you have to constantly be aware of the surroundings, because things keep shifting, the word I think of is ephemeral, and if you're not ready you'll pay the consequences.
As we were getting ready to leave a fight broke and we got stuck in the officers’ “bubble”, waiting for things to settle so we could leave. That bubble is built with the same intent of keeping one safe and separated enough from their surroundings that they can choose when to engage and yet the quality of it is so different: we build concrete bubbles out of fear all the time and lose our own inherent ability to BE safe spaces for ourselves.
The inmates had haikus hanging on their wall, that they wrote. They all spoke of dreams and death and love and life. They spoke of us.
This is for them.
Softly ripped apart
This world is me, too
February 17th, 2017
This past couple of weeks I've been going to Manhattan Detention Complex instead of Rikers, and with a crew of friends like Oneika Mays and Luis. Going in with a crew helped me remember how important it is to have a community, a chosen family, a support system, and how privileged I am to have it. Even the inmates reacted to that, weshowed up together, people just jumped in, took care of the collective space even in the midst of fights, yelling, comments... Together we are stronger, and this strength can be used for collective good. Relationships built on power dynamics might give us that sense of "safety in numbers", but it's by caring for each other that we create meaningful connections.
Shout out to my families, you know who you are. I don't see nearly enough of many of you, but I hope you feel the love.
January 9th, 2017
My students in the young adults location of Odyssey House have been really interested in meditation, and the powerful healing quality yoga can bring to support their basketball and work out time. I always have incredibly deep conversations with these young men, that can go anywhere from environmentalism to god. They always remind me why I started sharing yoga in prisons and rehabs: we all deserve choices. We deserve support to learn and practice free will. We deserve to experience connection to develop ideas. We deserve to have meaningful conversations with a sangha that listens to us and allows us to express ourselves. We talked about Mindfulness and presence, and to explain how we often are trapped in past experiences I made the example of walking alone as a woman, and meeting a man and tensing up in fear before anything even happens: that reaction is not coming from the present moment, but from other conditionings. One of the African American students looked up and said "like when i meet a cop on the street and start running even if I haven't done anything wrong?" Yes. Yes.
Another one, who's been coming to class consistently for a few weeks (he cut school a couple of times to come to yoga, so we moved he class to after school time!) kept telling me that he is grateful that I come in every week and make a change, and while I understand what he means and I'm incredibly moved by his gratitude, I kept reminding him that I'm not the one making the changes: I might come and throw ideas, and different skills and techniques, and chat. But who really makes the changes is them.
May we empower others by giving them tools to make informed choices, and support so they can actually be free to choose, and by accepting their choices as they learn to empower themselves.
One of the first things we take into consideration when teaching Trauma Informed yoga, especially in places like Rikers Island, is that trauma, and not only terrible, violent events, but more like anything, small or large things, that happens to us, is in fact stored in the body. And the body is a complex system (of which we know very little, truly) that has a way of protecting itself and containing all those memories and fears and startling moments within itself.
Today Mimi and I had a short session, sometimes it takes an incredibly long time to gather everyone and start class, and in order to honor our students' time we try to finish before lunch starts, or they might miss it. It's hard to do everything you want to do in 45 minutes, but of all the things that can get lost meditation is never one. We finished asana with a long baddhakonasana, and talked about the body making the shape of an oyster to protect the perfect pearl inside. The meditation took us traveling through the body, finding secret gems, pearls and precious stones hidden everywhere, practicing seeing every cell of our bodies as one.
Imagine that: every single one of the trillions of cells making up our bodies, a gem.
At the end one of the students said that while she was looking for all of the gems she thought of the times when, without thinking, she finds herself shaking, dancing, or throwing kung-fu kicks at the air: she thought it was weird, but now she thinks it's just parts of herself that need to be set free.
September 30th 2016
You never know what to expect when you head to rikers to teach yoga. Today the energy was unusually high and hectic and I expected few people and some frustration. Instead, we had 9 students. We joked and talked and moved and breathed and the group was so solid, present and caring that I decided to do a little "sharing circle": sometimes things are too hectic and students are a little hesitant to make themselves vulnerable, which I understand more and more every week.
Today we passed the singing bowl around, to each person to share, with or without words, their intention, ring the bell, and pass it on. We each sat witnessing the truth of the others' feelings and the depth of their thoughts, whether or not we heard them spell them out. Everyone was silent the entire time, never interrupting.
Two of the women who joined we'd met in the hallway and they convinced another friend to join so they could spend this time together: they are in different dorms and don't see each other much. By the time final relaxation came, they scooted their mats a little close together, laid down, and held hands.
May we all hold each other, always.
August 5th 2016
This post has chapters. but they are all in the same book.
I was listening to this moving talk this morning, on my way to Rikers. Listening to Anneke Lucas 's words often awakens in me a physical sensation of expansive love for human kind together with the pain and questioning of how can we do this to each other and to ourselves.
Class was quiet today, and some of the ladies had injuries to work with and I felt compelled to share what I hadn't shared to anyone yet: that these past few days (weeks?) I've been doing a bunch of movements and practices that have been clearly hurting my body and that I'm always mind blown by how easy it is to fall back into patterns of harm. Everyone was ultra careful today, and they asked me multiple times if I was ok. So we did shoulder stand. Because when the awareness and the love are there, you can do anything. Thank you, Sangha, for taking care of me.
We did a meditation I've often done with Anneke, finding the light of the true self inside and making it big enough for us to take refuge in it. One woman stopped me and told me she couldn't find the light. I changed the visualization slightly to help her and she came a little closer, and felt good at the end but I couldn't stop myself from thinking that's the problem, isn't it: finding that light.
July 23rd 2016
It's been hard to get the women to the gym for yoga class at Rikers Island: the gym's AC doesn't work that well and it's really hot in there and it's hard to give in to the healing qualities of a good sweat when you don't know when they'll let you take your next shower.
This morning three students joined me and two of them where completely new to yoga.
We chatted, I told them to do whatever they felt comfortable with and to feel free to interrupt me to ask questions: I wasn't there to tell them what to do, but to practice together. They laughed, as they often do cause they get told what to do all the time and while they crave the freedom like we all do, for a while until they get used to me and our way of doing yoga it's hard to overcome the habit and they just kind of follow quietly. Halfway through class the exchange became more lively: my regular student started responding all the questions, so all I had to do was chip in whenever she couldn't, and do my breathing-moving practice with them, listening to their interest growing, to the level of detail increasing, to the inquiry about their own bodies and this work grow.
Yoga never fails at that: at Rikers they are particularly receptive as they are not often asked to pay attention to themselves. Instead, they often need to shut down the body's needs to survive.
The more I go, the more I feel that what I "teach" is far less than what I learn. And that what we can learn by ourselves is far more superficial than what we can learn with the reciprocal support of others.
June 17 2016
Every single one of the women we had in class today had their first child at 17.
This discussion usually sparks whenever we do core work in our practice, as if deep in their bellies they always held their experience, the life-changing connection with the baby, the sense of humble yet fierce bond they feel for their kids, whom they left at home. But this also always comes with complaints and insecurities about their physical bodies: most women gain weight fast when they are incarcerated, and that contributes to their disconnection from the body as the incredible vehicle that allowed them to come this far and to have their babies. One of the students shared today that her friend had a baby at 16 and that baby is now 16 and pregnant herself and "you'd think kids know better these days, there is so much knowledge about pregnancy and sex. But not enough education: everything we show them on TV and magazines is hypersexualized, but then we chastise them for being sexual." We also critique women for having babies too early, but put them on TV, to be looked at and judged like circus animals, we judge women for having babies too late, we judge them for not wanting babies at all, for having them and looking like it rather than teaching them, us, that bodies change. They're vehicles that take us through life. Once we got to half-moon pose everyone was surprised at how many things their bodies could do. At how many choices they had, and how much agency.
That's one of the things yoga does to us: it lets us take our bodies back. And we need that, dearly so within the "yoga community" as well.
June 3 2016
We started out with 9 ladies this morning at Rikers, more than half of them usuals, and 3 more joined us as they caught us on their way back from rec.
With all this support from the students there, my "work load" decreased: they started with a guided meditation, taking turns to take all of us to the beach, exploring the sensation of sun, sand, and water on our toes, the satisfaction of a cold drink and a sun hat... I got to sit, close my eyes, and experience being taken somewhere else by these amazing women who decided to share their deepest, most vulnerable desire with me and the rest of the group. We did some asana, too, sun salutations, balances, squats, and crow! A bunch of them took flight and the ones who didn't tried, and they helped each other through with laughter and such light. When it was time to relax they took the meditation over again and led us to the more perfect place of relaxation to find a thread of affirmations: "I am beautiful, I am powerful, I am sexy, I am a Goddess, I love myself and my body, I am perfect, I am perfect, I am perfect..." Such wisdom comes from the willingness to be tender...
May 20th 2016
Spring is springing and it can be felt at Rikers Island too.
I've had a few regulars coming to the Friday morning class for a few weeks now and each week when I come they bring friends, they encourage those who have more challenges, and they are eager to repeat things we've tried so they can do them during the week. Last week they noticed that doing flow with breath makes the body lighter, and today they taught it to the new students. They even told me that they spend the week waiting for Fridays! We get so used to walk around in these vehicles we call bodies that it's easy to forget how magical they are, how articulate, creative, expressive and intelligent, and how much we can learn from them. I think that we are all finding a certain freedom in knowing that it might take a while to remember and learn all the steps, but we are indeed learning and we were full out flowing together today.
May 3rd 2016
Things were quiet this morning at Manhattan Detention Complex.
Maia and I showed up earlier than usual and everyone was still sleeping. When they finally got up and joined us on the mats it was clear that one of our usual students was not her usual self: she told me they put her on medication and it makes it really hard to get up in the morning, and she felt she didn't really have a good reason to. A few minutes in she said she only wanted to sleep and I paused and told her that she could. That she could even go back to bed if she wanted to. She looked at me and teary eyed asked, "Really? You really don't mind?" And after I assured her, she went back to sleep.
It touched me deeply that she didn't want to upset me by not joining the class, because I felt that she cared about my feelings: the first and most important thing I've learned teaching these classes is the importance of connecting with the students, and allowing them to connect to us in their way.
But I also know how much these places can disempower people and take agency away from them, and I hope that the hug we shared before she left was not to make me happy (though it did), but because she felt the freedom of making the right choice for herself today.