Poem by Inmate X

Since the pilot program started in April 2014, including discussion and free-flow writing in the yoga and meditation program, I’ve come to know my students much better than ever before. I ask them to write however they want, in whatever language they want, not to pay attention to grammar or spelling, because it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t need to be shared, it can be thrown out right after if they choose. Or they can give it to me to read.

The writing is the last component of the class. By this time, the students have had a discussion on the topic of the day, which can be anger, self-esteem, addiction, depression, or other issues related to incarceration. Participants say anything that comes to mind about the topic, and I always make sure to communicate that the topic relates to me as well, or to everyone, not just inmates. Don’t want to make it appear as if we’re coming to talk about anger because they’re so angry, and we’re not. Then we do yoga. Some participants are sitting on the stools screwed into the vinyl floor; others are on the mats that are arranged in as much of a circle we can create in our space between the kitchen and the tables. The women sitting at the tables are encouraged to do the poses also. Or at least the top half. This is why we keep to standing and seated poses, and not much vinyasa. Many of the women are out of shape; the Riker’s Island fare doesn’t help with their figure and the gym at the RMSC jail, though half of it is supposed to be open to inmates, is not a place where they are allowed to go. Rec is one hour a day, around 10:30am at the 5South A and B dorms, when they get to go to a paved courtyard with benches, to breath the outside air and move. At least walk. Or just sit. Many spend much of the remaining 23 hours on their cot, and standing in line,  waiting for their meds.

With some luck, the topic can be woven into the yoga class so that poses and movement reflect the theme, but most of the time my language focuses on encouraging students to tune in with their bodies and try to honor wherever they are at, because yoga isn’t like a sport, we do it to feel better, not to be better than others – we do it to go inside, not to show the outside. And I’m busy talking about linking the breath to the poses, because that is also what makes yoga different from sports, of course. New Liberation teacher Oneika Mays was with me during the last class. The topic was self esteem. We were on our second program, having started in the dorm across the hall. We did some beautiful warrior poses that show all the strength and pride of the protectors that we are, protecting ourselves. Ready to strike, yet unmoving. The breath keeps the pose alive, the energy high. Some of the sitting students half joined, raising their arms in Warrior I and taking aim over their front middle finger in Warrior II. We sat down and did some seated poses to open the thighs, those poses that can make women feel particularly vulnerable, and then Oneika suggested we did Warrior III. Hard as it was, everyone seemed to have fun. One woman stood up from her stool in the back and did the pose between the tables.

In the 10 minute guided meditation, we used that Warrior energy, forming a bubble of protective energy around us like an impenetrable shield. Inside the bubble, there is the energetic spine, like a fluid pole of light, strong, still and radiating peace. The nurturing substance of our true selves, the love and peace was shining through the energetic shields, connecting with the others in the room, while the background noise of arguments and jangling keys and banging doors lost its invasive importance. Then even those noises seemed to subside. It was quiet.

After meditation, we invite students to hold on to that sense of stillness and peace as we hand out paper and pencils for the writing exercise. I ask that they begin to write about the negative side of the issue, and end up writing about the positive. It’s a guideline. They do what they want. For about 15 minutes, the class is quiet still, industriously so. Then I asked if anyone would share. Here’s what one student shared with the class:

“In Warrior III I am flying highLiberatedLike a phoenix I riseOut of the ashes. Out of what no longer serves meBelow are flames of doubt, fear.Up above is courage and strength. Me.
My arms carry burdens, strong with all the love holding me up
Full of grace
Giving me rest
Yoga is the place where I am my best”

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Photo: Ana Kersnik

She received spontaneous applause from the group. Others chose to share, and as always there was raw beauty and deep honesty to be heard in the shares. And the applause was continued, thankfully. Others preferred to hand in their writing, so I could look at in in private. We know that they can’t really hold onto anything very private themselves. They really have no privacy. Even the toilet stalls are open.

We closed the group with a closing ritual suggested by Liberation teacher Kimberley Weiss-Lewit, to help prepare the group to cover over whatever raw or vulnerable place was opened during the class. “We keep that bubble of protective energy around us as we go back to daily life – it is around us like an aura. Nothing we don’t want can penetrate. We put on our masks, and go back.”

 

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