Yoga in Correctional Facilities: It's All About the Love

Yoga in Correctional Facilities: It's All About the Love
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This is an interview with Anneke Lucas, who in 2010 started teaching yoga and meditation at Bayview Women's Correctional Facility in Chelsea, N.Y., in 2011 at Riker's Island Eric M. Taylor Center for men, and at Providence House (Residence) for women. Each year since she has introduced yoga to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn for men and women, the Riker's Island Rose Singer Center for women, and the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She currently teaches at MDC Brooklyn, Riker's Island Rose Singer Center and Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Anneke has also organized New York Prison Yoga teacher trainings with James Fox since 2010, started a New York-based Prison Yoga Project, organized ongoing workshops for graduates of Prison Yoga teacher trainings and recently-incarcerated students, and organized the Service Yoga Sangha with Prison Yoga Project and Akasha Project, a series of five service yoga workshops.

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My life is built around healing from trauma with psychotherapy, yoga, and meditation, as I am a sex-traffic survivor, and was exposed to extreme violence as a child. My inspiration comes from James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project, and I'm motivated by a desire to share yoga and meditation, because the practice benefited me in my own healing process. My journey continues as I share the practice with the prison population, and share the love and understanding that I've received along the way. That love is reflected back to me in a powerful way. I thought I came to help others and find that I am helped each time I teach.

Is there a standout moment from your work with prisoners or the Prison Yoga Project?

The standout moment is during every class: When we meditate, the room goes entirely still in spite of all the noise, and peace and quiet reign. Some weeks ago, a new student, Harold P. at MDC Brooklyn, told me after class, "I haven't felt this relaxed in the two months that I've been here, and that includes nights."

What did you know about prisoners before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how have those assumptions changed?

I didn't expect to be working with white-collar criminals, but one of my classes is exactly that. I call it my "boardroom yoga class." Just like in regular life, the prison population comes from all walks of life.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio, and what are the reasons for these differences?

It's completely different. I try not to give commands during the class, but instead offer suggestions and emphasize that the time of the class is "your time, to do with what you choose." I may mix different yoga styles, doing energetic warm ups and strong standing poses, then slow, restorative seated poses to get in touch with body and feelings, and carve out at least 15 minutes for meditation and guided relaxation at the end. The class for women at Riker's Island is extremely gentle -- just helping them become aware of the breath, as those students are the most traumatized, both physically and emotionally.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Because of the chaotic environment, classes are often canceled last minute and students won't be advised that I was at the facility to teach the class. Students lose interest if they don't see me show up for several weeks in a row, which has happened, due to administrative mishaps. I have made dealing with the administration my yoga practice, by staying patient, never having any expectations, and trying to remain understanding.

What advice would you give to a woman who is going to teach incarcerated males?

Though male inmates have contact with female COs and female administrators, they are not used to seeing yoginis doing postures in tights, so wearing loose clothes that cover the whole body, including the arms, shows respect for their situation. It's good to have clear boundaries, not to give adjustments, and generally not touch, just maybe shake hands -- with all students as they leave the class, not just one or a few. To men who make inappropriate remarks or push boundaries to try to get attention, it's best not to give them special attention, just remind them this is a yoga class. Gender is entirely forgotten once they get connected to the yoga.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

A quiet revolution has been sparked: There are many more yoga teachers and students interested in giving back to the community than there were five to 10 years ago. I'm sure an organization like Prison Yoga Project will grow tremendously to keep up with this increasing awareness about the purpose of yoga. It needs to prow to help those teachers work with and within the U.S. justice system, in which yoga is increasingly accepted as beneficial. More and more programs will reach more and more prisoners in the U.S. as more and more yoga teachers are reaching youth-at-risk and underserved communities and veterans all around the country. In 10 years I see a country that, in spite of political turbulence and old-world greed, will experience a lot of healing. Those who have been reached by some of us will in turn become strong leaders, and help others on their own journeys.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

Service is taking responsibility for the welfare of others. I had no idea that it is also a key to happiness. Nothing is as rewarding, nothing gives more purpose to life, than service.

Karma yoga is an essential step in the practice of the eight limbs of yoga. Through this work I understand more about love, shared and received during classes, and because of this increasing understanding, the physical aspect of yoga has become far less important.

At home, I spend more time practicing pranayama (breath of life) and meditation, and less time doing postures.

What other organizations do you admire?

The Lineage Project, Akasha Project, Street Yoga, Dhara, Off the Mat Into the World, The Give Back Yoga Foundation.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Prison Yoga Project: A Path for Healing And Recovery
1 in 100 American adults are in prison today, and 60% of all released prisoners will return to prison within 3 years. Yoga can help break the cycle. GIVE YOGA TO A PRISONER.

Yoga, A Path for Healing & Recovery provides practices that have been proven effective in helping prisoners to gain insight into unconscious patterns of thinking and compulsive behavior. They have also greatly helped in improving their overall quality of life - mentally, emotionally and physically. Although this program has been developed through years of experience teaching yoga to incarcerated youth and adults, it focuses on the self-reflection and personal discipline necessary for one to lead a more conscious life, whether incarcerated or free. It is a powerful resource for anyone trying to break free of negative behavioral patterns. The book contains guides for physical practice (asana), breathing (pranayama) and meditation (dyhana).

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

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