- Susanna, can you tell us a little bit about your background, how you came to this work, and where you are currently teaching?
I’m a social worker and pursued yoga teacher training because I wanted to bring yoga to settings like psychiatric units and homeless shelters. Yoga and meditation had been profoundly affecting my own life and I wanted to help more people have access to these practices. For stress relief, but also for the possibility of moments that are hard to find elsewhere— like when you get an incredible sense of spaciousness inside or you have, even for a few seconds, the sense that anything is possible. Traditional mental health treatment settings or other social service settings might offer interventions designed to help you improve your moods or manage anxiety, but there’s nothing that might also make you feel like you’re soaring. So I wanted to bring practices that could do that, could offer a connection with something greater. About a year after teacher training, I started teaching yoga within federal prison and felt all this even more strongly. How that sense of freedom and spaciousness could be an antidote (albeit very partial) to the experience of incarceration.
In 2011, I was working at a court on Rikers Island where I helped advocate for people who had been accused of violating parole. I wanted to start a prenatal yoga class on weekends but was told I should start with Mom & Baby yoga in the Rikers nursery instead since there was a common area where it would be easy to hold classes. When I had my son in 2013, I stopped teaching but when I came back in 2015, LPY had established an amazing prenatal and postnatal program so I started volunteering with them in the nursery.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Rikers nursery, it’s a program within the women’s jail, Rose M. Singer Center, where women can live with their babies until the age of twelve months, either while they are fighting their case or while they are serving a city jail sentence. There’s a large living room/playroom, an area for cribs, and cells where the mothers sleep with a baby monitor. There are often between one and three mothers in the nursery though I believe the capacity is around five, and when there are no babies, the nursery is temporarily closed. It recently closed so I’ll be teaching in the pregnancy dorm until it reopens.
- What do you feel are some common goals between you and those who you teach to inside?
Closing Rikers. An end to cash bail. As a mother, the wish to be the absolute best parent possible.
- What keeps you coming back:
I think Mom & Baby yoga is amazing. In the first year of a baby’s life, a mother often feels like her body is no longer her own. Imagine how this is compounded in a jail setting—you are constantly under surveillance and you don’t have control over so many daily decisions (for example, when to wake up, the time of your meals, the foods which are available). During yoga, a mother has the chance to deliberately come back into the body. One of my teachers, Lara Kohn-Thompson, uses the phrase “re-inhabiting ourselves” about the postpartum period and this type of yoga class offers a way to do that. Also, the anxiety and hypervigilance during a baby’s first year can be very intense for many moms so yoga (especially breathing practices) can help ease that. In these classes, some sections focus on the baby, some on the mother, some are equally focused on both, and that rhythm always seems really beautiful to me, like an example of the balance we try to find as parents.
It is also so fun! There is lots of singing and chatting and chaos. You might be doing a pose on your back and be ambushed by a baby grabbing your nose. When people hear where I teach, they sometimes comment that it seems sad but there’s actually so much joy. In some cases, you know the mom will be at Rikers over a year and it’s heartbreaking to know they’re ultimately going to be separated from their baby. However, even if those cases, I have no doubt that the secure attachment they formed during that first year will have a lifetime impact.
The mothers I have met in the nursery have been unforgettable. There are so many hard things about their situation but they do a heroic job shielding their babies from the negativity. One mother was nursing all year and she would pump at court and have them store the milk in a refrigerator; although this is a perfectly reasonable request, the legal system is NOT used to accommodating requests like this, so she had to be steadfast in her unwillingness to compromise. She was an incredibly brave and strong person.
- How do you integrate the “unconditional model” in your life?
As a social worker, the Unconditional Model resonates a lot with me. Trying to always remember that people are the experts on themselves. Taking the time to be patient and make your truly best effort to understand where another person is coming from. Not feeling you need to “fix” everything.
- How has Liberation Prison Yoga influenced you?
It has changed my teaching dramatically. When I first taught within prison, I was very focused on alignment (for example, “Turn your back toes in just a little more”). I also didn’t let students talk since I felt like it detracted from the meditative aspects of the practice, and I was constantly telling people to bring their mind back to their breath. I no longer do any of this—with LPY, we don’t give commands. I might offer that the breath can be used as an anchor for the mind to keep returning, but I no longer tell people they need to focus on the breath. I have stopped micromanaging in order to provide my personal idea of an “ideal” yoga experience, and instead let my students choose the experience that they want to have. Jails and prisons focus on controlling a person’s body and LPY classes offer an opportunity for a respite from this.
- Wise words for teachers new and old:
The walls of prison are tall not just to keep people in but also to keep people out. Try not to let institutional barriers get you too discouraged.