Teacher Interviews

Interview with Liberation Prison Yoga teacher Jacqueline Sailer, teaching at Rikers Island, Rose M. Singer Center


Jacqueline, can you tell us a little bit about your background, how you came to this work, and where you are currently teaching?

Looking back it seems clear that my path has always been to help others get through things. I did this as a lawyer advising individuals and businesses, and later representing plaintiffs in class action lawsuits. I pursued yoga intensively when I realized its power to enrich my life and heal my mind, body, and spirit. From there it was a natural progression to seek out others who could benefit from yoga practice, who may not know about it or have easy access to it. I focused on marginalized populations, and it was maybe in 2014 or 2015 that I sought to get involved with Liberation Prison Yoga. Now through LPY, I teach detained women at the Rose M. Singer women’s jail (“Rosie’s”) at the Rikers Island jail complex in Queens, and those who are re-entering society at Three Jewels studio in lower Manhattan. I also teach yoga to addicts at the New York Harm Reduction Educators in Harlem.

I started my formal yoga training at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York City, where I received my 200-hour certification, and have also completed programs at Kripalu Center on teaching yoga to seniors and to teenagers. I’ve spent many hours studying different trauma-sensitive teaching models in addition to the LPY model, including the Lineage Project and the Holistic Life Foundation, and online with Hala Khouri. This spring I’m training with David Emerson, the director of yoga services at the Trauma Center of the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts. Since I have no formal background in sociology or psychology, the insights I glean from others who work with at-risk youth and adults caught up in the criminal justice system or otherwise experiencing extreme trauma are invaluable. Separately, I spent several seasons studying breath-centered yoga, embodied movement, and anatomy at The Breathing Project with Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews at their New York City studio. I also completed a course on Mindful Based Stress Reduction created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In addition to yoga, I am a lawyer based in New York City, married and have two children.

What do you feel are some common goals between you and those who you teach to inside?

I don’t always have the same students; in fact, it’s uncommon to have the same group or more than one or two repeats in a class. Frequently our class conflicts with other programs like medicine or library runs, or outdoor recreation time, or court hearings. And people are constantly being moved to different dorms or released. Indeed, we usually end the class telling each other we hope we don’t see each other the following week—it’s a little prayer we send up and an acknowledgment that jail sucks and no one wants to be there, as much as they might like yoga! But even if they don’t come to the mat to practice with me, I exchange hello’s and how are you’s with women who I have met through class or otherwise. That’s my first general goal – to be respectful and courteous. And it’s a shared goal, for I am treated the same by my students. Even at the end, when the class is over and I’m packing up the mats and props, most students help put things away and thank me for coming.

In addition to respect and courtesy, my goal for my class is to be present and open: eyes open, ears open, mind open, heart open, so I can connect in the best possible way. I offer the opportunity to find peace and warmth in a judgment-free, supportive community, and I stir in a good amount of silly and humor. We (my students and I) all want to do yoga to feel better, and I think that as a group we accomplish that. By the end of the class we’ve talked and laughed a little, moved and breathed together, and we feel connected and more balanced, even if it only lasts for the next 5 minutes!  

On being authentic:

By and large, my students are in a vulnerable and raw state of mind, fearful, anxious and stressed to the max. They’re at rock bottom with nowhere to hide. The circumstances demand authenticity, and that’s how it is for me. I am my most real self when I practice yoga with these women. It’s hard work but I love it. It’s hard because it means leaving agendas/game plans behind, being open to all possibilities, and above all, valuing honest and real connections. The hardest part might be letting go of layers of protection built up over the years to be as vulnerable and at the moment in the circle with the women, I am teaching. It is my preferred way to be now in life.

How do you use Meditation and what are some of your “go to” resources:

I consider focusing on the breath a prelude to meditation and a key to self-regulation. In class we spend time on our breathing, noticing what it feels like to use our breath to move different parts of our torso. We connect our movements to our breath. At the end of class, we observe how we breathe while either sitting or lying on the mats as compared to the start of the class. It’s a fine line between meditation and relaxation in my class. Relaxation is a popular part of this practice and although it happens differently in each class, most often I will start with a body scan, and then the sky’s the limit. We sometimes do a group relaxation where we take turns guiding the group. That’s a lot of fun.  

Some of the challenges:

The biggest challenge for me is getting from the entrance of Riker’s into the dormitory to teach a class. I’ve spent a lot of time waiting at the entrance of Rosie’s for an escort to take me to the dorms. On my way to the dorm with an escort, there have been lockdowns, which means I’m stuck wherever I am until the blue light stops flashing. And even when I get to the dorm, I have been turned away at the door because the guards are conducting a search in the dorm and turning things upside down in the process.

What keeps you coming back:

I happen to teach yoga to women who haven’t been convicted of any crime yet. They are pretrial detainees. That means they are legally innocent but locked up for the days, weeks, months (or years) it takes to get a final adjudication on their charge unless they post bail. Many of these women can’t afford bail. It’s not a matter of being a threat to their community or not showing up at trial — if they had the money they’d be home. According to New York City Department of Corrections data, as of 2014, 38,000 inmates held at Rikers were detained because they could not make bail. Of that number,10,000 people were not able to meet a $1,000 bail, and 3,400 could not come up with $500 or less.

The U.S. Supreme Court and other courts have held that jailing someone because that person doesn’t have the money to post a cash bail violates his or her federal constitutional rights of equal protection and due process. It’s a long-standing practice that is wrong but it happens anyway. I see what spending time in jail does to a person, and I hear stories of lost jobs, housing problems, and families split up. These consequences of being locked up don’t disappear if the person is later found not guilty, or charges are dropped. The collateral damages of this broken bail system are far-reaching and terrible.

Some women are lucky enough to be able to cobble together enough money to get out and deal with their criminal charges from the outside. Some plead guilty rather than challenge their charge from jail, and are more willing to live with a criminal record than spend more time in jail. Some have serious chronic physical or mental illness; others are addicts going through withdrawal or in a jail methadone treatment program. I have only heard one person say that she preferred Rosie’s to her homeless shelter because it was safer and provided three meals. But she later added that she missed her freedom.

I go back for all these women because they are experiencing the worst of our society. I cling to my belief in the benefits of yoga—which of course includes mindfulness and breathwork—and hope that taking my yoga class helps these women learn to cope and calming skills to help them through this hard time and later when they return to their community. 

Wise words for teachers new and old:

My students at Rosie’s are my teachers. We learn from each other. I’m forever grateful for this experience.