Sacred Sounds in the Men’s class at Rikers Island

On Friday, David Crilly, the teacher who has been coming to Rikers Island every week to teach a yoga class to the men at AMKC, wasn’t able to be there, so I subbed. Originally, I had brought David in and had been teaching the class for a while, and so it was really good to see the men again, as it had been two months already, and I had missed the group. Some of the students had “gone upstate” meaning they were sentenced and were now serving time in prison, but otherwise the same students were still there and I was glad to be back. One of the students, let’s say X., looked depressed. He put his mat next to mine and I tried to acknowledge with a look that I knew how he felt as I asked him how he was doing.

“How are you?” he quickly replied and looked away.

Several of the Liberation Prison Yoga teachers, including David, are Yoga To The People teachers and I’ve been taking classes there lately. The philosophy of the studio resonates with me – all classes are by donation – and I also like the sequences – they’re easily adaptable for prisons. A solid vinyasa class, well structured, with lots of standing poses building on each other. We did this Friday at Rikers and though I had incorporated a child’s pose before each downward facing dog, after four sequences we were all sweating. We did just two seated poses and then I proposed to do a sitting meditation, in the middle rather than at the end of the class, to use the physiological changes from the exercise in our meditation practice. We visualized the strongly beating heart, with a point of light at the center, like the eye of the storm, unmoving, untouched by anything, quiet, still and peaceful. We expanded that point of light. Yellowish-whitish light enveloping the heart, quiet energy surrounding the heavy activity, the beating, pumping of the blood through the body, and then the light, completely still and full of peace, holding everything within it.

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As usual, the room became imbued with intense quiet and stillness, and as usual, it seemed the C.O.’s momentarily stopped clanging the keys and the inmates in the dorm stopped making noise as if to allow for a few precious moments of utter silence.

We continued with some finishing poses and ended up lying on our backs to do reclining half ankle to knee pose, and as X. looked over, nodding with a half smile at my flexible hips, my opportunity came. He likes physical prowess, and he had always seemed amused at my flexibility.

“Can you put your foot behind your head?” he asked.

We both smiled. It’s not often that I show off in a prison class: I want everyone to feel okay where they are at, and students might get discouraged if they see me do an advanced pose, but I could tell it would please X., so I put my leg behind my head and stretched the other one down to the floor.

X. called to his fellow students who were perhaps preoccupied, lying on the floor pulling their knee towards their shoulder with their foot in between, and made them look. I sat up and did a legs behind head handstand. They were clearly entertained, and hopefully inspired to grow older without becoming old. And X. was happier.

I never use Sanskrit names for poses in prison for fear of alienating students. I also don’t chant for the same reason, not even Om. But I had been reading about the Polyvagal theory. By learning about the vagal nerve affecting the whole body, and the various ways trauma disregulates this cranial nerve – both the viscera as well as the heart, lungs and facial muscles – and chanting as one method to regulate that nerve. Especially chanting with the lowest possible voice soothes the whole body to send a message of comfort and safety up to the brain. I explained all this and said I wanted to try it.

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I invited the students to chime in and chant Om three times. Baritones and basses filled the room, which was amazing, but then, after three Om’s, the men kept on going. They kept chiming in at different points and kept the sound going. This lasted for several minutes as we sank deeper into the vibration of utter peace of the sound, sounding like Buddhist monks.

One student transitioned into the chant “Nam-Myoho-renge-kyo” and everyone followed, chanting to tap into the deepest levels of our existence, on which our own lives and that of the universe are one.

The vibration in that dirty cramped day room of the 2-Top at AMKC on Rikers Island was so sacred, I have no words to describe it. We were all transformed, borne out by the Polyvagal theory, which points out the physiological and mental change that occurs as we stimulate the vagal nerve by chanting. A nerve called the recurrent laryngeal nerve vibrates when we chant and effects how the vagal nerve calms down our viscera, sending the message back up to the brain that we are safe. The whole autonomic nervous system is changed by the practice of chanting.

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When I was putting the mats away, I asked X. if he was feeling better. He said that yes, he was feeling better, and it was easy to see. He said that he always felt better after class and that was why he always looks forward to Fridays. He said the yoga class was the highlight of his week.

Then the student who had initiated the  “Nam-Myoho-renge-kyo” chant told me how he had picked it up at a Buddhist Center, and X. helped put away the mats. We stayed in the room talking, and it was a bit hard to leave. I felt such a special bond. I  bow deeply in gratitude for this experience, and thank God for the students of Rikers Island.