Interview with Liberation Prison Yoga Teacher Lea Bender
Lea, can you tell us a little bit about your background, how you came to this work, and where you are currently teaching?
I’ve been practicing yoga in some capacity for over twenty years. The yoga practice has always been my refuge and my way of connecting inward. But there was a turning point in my practice where I felt a desire to take the practice outwards and become a teacher.
I started my first teacher certification program in 2016, a year that would turn out to be the most challenging, disorienting and ultimately transformational of my life. That year, I separated from my husband and father of my then four-year old son. Due to a call my ex-husband decided to place to the police when I was not there, I experienced the ironically named “criminal justice” system first-hand. The story is too long. But the short version is that I learned what it feels like to be locked up and have my rights, my freedom and my humanity stripped from me with no conviction or even proof that the police report was true (it was not). Thirty-six hours later, I was released after being held first in a cell at my local precinct and then later in a cell with thirteen other women at Central Booking in Brooklyn. I was never convicted of a crime or sent to jail, but after experiencing some of the conditions that our barbaric and corrupt system exposes people to- many of whom are either completely innocent or have committed small, petty crimes like jumping a subway-I was traumatized. My eyes were pried open. I knew I wanted to find a way to go inside and help bring some kindness and humanity to these dark places.
It took some time to get there, but teaching yoga is now my full-time job. I’ve been teaching men at Rikers Island on Fridays for almost a year now. I teach yoga seven days a week, but my Friday morning class at Rikers is always one of the most rewarding.
What do you feel are some common goals between you and those who you teach to inside?
We are so much more than our own worst moment or a momentary lapse of judgment. I think our common goals are the ones we share with just about everyone: to feel seen, heard and respected; to feel good in body and mind, to feel a sense of peace and calm, to have agency to cultivate inner peace in any circumstance.
What keeps you coming back?
The transformation in the faces of the men from the beginning to the end of class. It’s sometimes shocking how a man’s face and demeanor can change throughout the course of a one-hour class from appearing adversarial and/or mentally unsound, to one that reminds me of the innocence of my own son and the peace of the Buddha. My heart breaks every time I see this transformation. Some men have told me that the yoga class is the first time they have felt happy in a long time.
Also, I am lucky to get to teach at the same time as two other amazing LPY teachers: Mimi Visser and Myda El-Maghrabi. Seeing them each week and sharing our experiences with the men (we rotate between three dorms) definitely inspires me to keep coming back.
How do you integrate the “unconditional model” in your life?
I try to see everybody as I see my own son: as a being just like me, trying to live out their best life, contribute in a meaningful way, and who ultimately just wants a chance to love and be loved.
How has Liberation Prison Yoga influenced you?
Liberation Prison Yoga has taught me how to work with traumatized populations and has given me the opportunity to get to Riker’s every week and share these practices with people who are most in need of them. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve in this way, and to LPY for creating the structure that enables me to do so.
Wise words for teachers new and old:
As a teacher, you have the most to offer, and the most to gain, if you check your ego at the door, especially in this kind of environment. Remember that your kind attention and commitment to consistently showing up are huge offerings.