Friday, October 02, 2015

Of a Tuesday Morning

For the past three weeks, I have been teaching yoga at the Manhattan Detention Complex (yes, the same one that used to be called the Bernard Kerik Complex). Every Tuesday morning, I meet up with my fellow teacher, Jaime, and we go up to the 7th floor together, after a good bit of complicated security measures are taken. We teach an hour-long class to the women in the transgender unit.

I have this privilege through a group that I have mentioned before, Liberation Prison Yoga. LPY advocates for teaching yoga in prison in a way is "trauma-informed". We don't teach with commands. For example, we wouldn't say, "put your foot forward and bend your knee." We might say instead, "For this posture, we step our foot forward and bend our knee." It's all about offering the students a choice, even in subtle or simple ways.

This past Tuesday, everyone seemed agitated and distracted. We practice in the communal space so there are televisions on and people wandering around in the best of circumstances. This week there seemed to be an extra number of guards and inmates coming in and out, extra noise and extra tension in the air. I was leading the practice and it was a challenge to keep the class together between the background noises, side conversations, giggling about farting, the freezing cold cement floors, and a host of other internal and external disruptions. My inner school marm was wanting to call everyone to order, to sit at their desks with their hands folded. 
Fortunately, I resisted that approach.  I used two other things: the experience of our breath and a bhavana or visualization/direction for our minds about the full moon , drawing inspiration from the beautiful moon that happened on Sunday night.  At the end of class, I read this poem by the 14th Century Persian poet Hafiz.
Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
Someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a
Full moon in each eye that is always saying,
With that sweet moon language, what every other eye in
This world is dying to hear? 
I wish I could say that it settled everyone down and we finally were able to relax into our bodies and experience a moment of calmness, but it didn't.  They did seem a bit shocked that I had read something so openly vulnerable in what it revealed and what it asks of the reader.  Then, one new woman in the unit asked me if I knew about Buddhism since she was interested in that.  And another woman sat with me and Jaime and told us more of her story - even going so far as to tell us that she was starting to ask why she let herself go back to drugs whenever she was out of prison even when she knew it would end badly.  We didn't really have answers for her but we listened to what she had to say.

Make no mistake.  These women are tough.  They have had hard lives and they know how to survive.  A couple of yoga classes isn't going to suddenly make them soft and tender-hearted - although I see moments of softness and tenderness in there, alongside the toughness...and the strength and the brilliance.  I see a lot of brilliance.  I am not fooling myself that a few hours of deep breathing will make up for the years of whatever horror they have witnessed and experienced, and who knows, maybe even inflicted on others.  I don't think that is why we are there.

I do think, however, that showing up, caring, making mistakes and then having a laugh about it, moving around a bit, sitting still a bit, reading a poem, taking a deep breath, sharing a story - being there with a full moon in each eye - is a worthwhile way to spend an hour each Tuesday morning.

What is yoga practice?  It's in there somewhere.


Jan Morrison said...

As far away as we live from each other, as different in ages and stages that we are, as crazy as it is to say this - you and I share so much. Keep on doing what you're doing. I taught a fellow at our family treatment centre to meditate last week. He asked me to three times (proper wha?) but then wouldn't come the second morning. I have several more weeks with him though so we'll see. This week I'm going to teach mindfulness to a class of 7th graders at the school on the reservation. My plan is to teach everyone at the school before the year is out. I think I'll do it. Mostly, like you, it is a matter of being as present as I can be, share stories, art, and jokes. What did the fish say when it swam into the wall. Damn!

Robyn said...

You know, Jan, I was thinking about when I was writing that post. Wondering about your work with the First Nation communities up there. Last week, all the parts of working with people who are in jail that are difficult were right on the surface. An hour of class left us both wrung out - the issues go so deep and feel impossible. But what is our choice? To not go back?

Love that the fellow asked three times! And I keep telling myself, you just never know how what you say and do impacts people....because you don't! Your one meditation instruction might have been a lot for him right now, but he won't forget it. And I trust that he will come back. This week or next or next year...who knows.

So happy to know that you are there and that we get to connect one way or another!! xoxo

Jan Morrison said...

Let us make tshirts that say "we are asked to do the impossible, we say YES" or "impossible to do, impossible to walk away" or my daddio's favorite saying "when the going gets tough, the tough get going"
The pain people are in living in this community is extraordinary and yet they are lovely shiny people. What odds, eh?

Robyn said...

"Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them"?

Perhaps it is because they come by their troubles honestly versus, say, Donald Trump (!!)