Yesterday, I spent my usual hour driving from Brooklyn to Elmhurst in Queens to the Rikers Island Bridge, and the usual extra half hour to get from the bridge through the reception building to the numbered buses taking you to your jail. The bus system just changed – there used to be no schedule so you could get lucky – get a bus 5 minutes after you just missed one – or you might have to wait for the driver to finish his snack break and wait up to an hour for your ride. Now there is a schedule – the bus is supposed to leave every 20 minutes. Except it doesn’t. With the result that it’s at least 20 minutes, but it can still take an hour.
At the lobby in the women’s jail, things have changed too, as have many other procedures ever since the devastating report was published that got write-ups in the New York Times and has the Mayor’s Office and the Commissioner trying to change the ‘culture of violence on Rikers Island.’ But the staff are being watched more, which makes their already extremely regimented job even harder, because they’re under scrutiny. So at the lobby of the women’s jail, everyone has to now undergo a more thorough search than before. The scanner is more sensitive, and we have to take off our shoes, belts, etc. just to get in.
The three hours of travel time are always well worth it, since I receive so much from teaching the class. To be able to reach someone who feels alone and misunderstood, to make a sweet connection with someone who doesn’t expect to be treated with respect, is well worth the hardship of the journey. Because of the depth of despair of some of the students, and because of my ability to connect – usually – with just those students – I feel particularly useful. It puts me in touch with my purpose in life – to serve – and that awareness creates instant joy – deep and true.
Yesterday I noticed there weren’t a lot of women in the 50-bed dorm house on the B-side of the 5th floor in the annex at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island. I heard the whole house had been moved and everyone was new. When I called yoga I didn’t get any response. I must say that I didn’t really notice anyone despairing, depressed, or anxious. The inmates were just going about their business quietly, and they didn’t want to be bothered, not with “yoga or any other bull***t” as one person put it. I spoke to people individually and told them it would make them feel better, and they smiled and nodded and ignored me.
The Correctional counselor of the dorm came to call the yoga class, and said they had to come out. I told them they could just sit on the stools and do whatever they wished. They could meditate if they liked, or do movement from the chairs. One woman called to her friend walking in from the hallway, where she got buzzed in by the C.O.’s out in the ‘bubble’ with a very loud buzz and a bang when the door shuts: “Hey Tara, come do yoga.”
The most resolute and self-assured nope I’ve ever heard.
One young woman took four fingers out of her mouth to say: “This is going to be so boring.”
I normally have an open-minded response to such remarks, but this girl had taken the class last week, and had taken the trouble to tell me she’d really enjoyed it, especially the relaxation, so I was taken by surprise. ‘Mental issues… She has issues,’ I reminded myself.
I started with some mindful centering spoken in the gentlest of tones, with my four years of training of not using commands – in inviting, friendly language, encouraging students to take care of their own needs, their own bodies… I added that I trusted that everyone knew their body well enough to know how far they could go in any pose, to know what was enough.
“If you’re just sitting and breathing consciously, for the whole class long, you’ve had a perfect yoga class,” I mentioned, sensing little interest.
I’ve learned to curb the physical part of the class. The women get discouraged easily. They’re out of shape, have no access to a gym, and most have gained weight while incarcerated. Even with the little we do, and even with a child’s pose practically after every physical effort, I always lose a few students who feel that they ‘can’t do this.’
Fifteen minutes later several students were gone. There were three on the mat, and a few new ones had returned from getting their meds and were sitting on the stools. I addressed the group and said we’d do a mind exercise that would help with dealing with the conditions of jail. Beginning a mindfulness practice, I asked them to pick a scene of something unpleasant that had happened, that had stirred negative emotions inside of them. I asked them to see that incident, or that event, again in their minds, maybe re-experiencing the feelings. With the purpose of creating self-control over the negative emotions, I suggested to revisit the incident again, but this time without any sound – watching the other people’s lips move, maybe seeing themselves and their own lips move – no sounds. The next step is to ask students to watch the scene as though on a screen, perhaps with themselves in the scene, but at a distance. Eventually, after creating the distance, the screen with the unpleasant scene playing is floating farther and farther away, until it’s out of sight – until you want to bring it back.
For the 10 minutes that it took to guide the students through this exercise, I had the weird feeling of not reaching anyone – that I was speaking into a void. It made it quite difficult to even know what to say next or when to say it – though I’ve shared this particular exercise many times. Afterwards, I checked in and simply asked: “How did this go for you? How did it feel?”
A woman who was lying down answered in a monotone: “relaxing.”
“Did you do the visualization?”
“Did anyone do the visualization?”
Dead stares from the stools. One student on a mat raised a lazy hand.
“Yes? How was it?”
I took a deep breath.
I teach volunteer teachers that the most important thing we are there to do is to connect, and I hadn’t connected to my students. To them I was just another white lady coming to impose my program – telling them they need to change. I was trying to encourage them to accept themselves as they are – not telling them they needed to change. But my words were not reaching.
“The reason I am here is because…”
I heard my words leave my mouth, curious what would come out next, because I really didn’t know.
“… I really know what you’re going through here. I know what it’s like for you here, because when I was young, I was in a situation where I was treated like the lowest of the low. And I was told I was evil. All the time…”
Everyone in the room sat nodding. I felt the apathy lift. I was finally making sense to them.
We didn’t do much more – just a guided relaxation, but no one else left, and at last I felt my words reach. Speaking into a void makes the mind disintegrate. When your words are received, integration is possible, both for the speaker and the listener.
It was a great lesson in staying mindful while teaching, and reconnecting with the purpose. And that it’s okay to state that purpose, because the purpose is the essence of our connection, where healing can begin.