Once a week I head to Rikers Island in Queens, N.Y., to teach yoga to women in prison.
After a commute that involves a bus ride from Manhattan to the front gate on Rikers, I check in with a guard and then hop on another bus, check in at another station, and then make my way to the dorms. It's about a ten-minute walk.
On the way, I show my badge to another three or four COs (Corrections Officers) before arriving at the fifth floor of the Rose M. Singer dormitory. My students here are pre-sentenced. Many of them are there because they can't afford bail.
When my class with this group is complete, I wheel a cart with yoga mats and props down a few floors, and teach another class to women who are sentenced indefinitely.
It should be noted that over 80% of women who are in prison have some abuse in their background. And reporting domestic abuse only increases their chances of being arrested. No, not all women who go to prison are innocent, but this is something to consider given that the number of women who've been imprisoned over the past two decades is on a steady rise. It's a very complicated issue.
As a woman, I cannot even begin to fathom being confined in this way — being told when to eat, when to shower, when to sleep and of course, awaiting trial. My role as a yoga teacher is to help these women remember to breathe and feel OK inside their bodies, because it's one of the few freedoms they're allowed in these circumstances.
Our time together consists of talking, writing and yoga. I'll often incorporate therapeutic poses that help them deal with more common issues like PMS. The cots they sleep on make their shoulders and necks really tight, so we'll work on poses that help loosen and open those ares. We'll also work through the sadness they feel from missing their loved ones, as we continue to learn a little bit more about each other as the weeks pass by.
Here are five things I've learned about the human spirit through my experience of teaching yoga at Rikers:
1. A small kindness is often undervalued, but rarely under appreciated.
Each time I make my way through the maze of corridors, I make it a point to smile and say hello to everyone I pass. I had no idea that a simple friendly greeting would be something that so many of these women miss. "It reminds me I'm a person," one student said. Each time I come to Rikers, I make more of an effort to really see people for who they are on the inside.
2. Adaptability can get us through the most challenging of circumstances.
One student told me that doing yoga each week helps her deal with her tough situation. My hope is that students like this woman are learning to redefine what makes a good or bad day for them. The reality is — it's really unpleasant in there. It's jail, you know? But I've been able to watch their spirit become more flexible and dynamic during the therapeutic process. They've become more adaptable.
3. While it takes great effort, you can actually find peace in chaos.
Once that is understood, great change within becomes possible. The biggest request I get from the students is a long guided meditation, and tips to help them find mental stillness. Life in prison is incessantly loud and chaotic. I'm only there for three hours each week, and when I leave I often find my head is spinning.
Inside jail there is a nonstop barrage of buzzing metal doors, people yelling, daily announcements over loud speakers and CO's shouting out updates — all of it bouncing off concrete walls and down long hallways that are like echo chambers.
We end each class with a guided meditation since it is impossible to find stillness on the outside. We change our focus to hearing every sound with detachment; as an observer. Finding peace within can make the outside noise much more manageable.
4. Laughter is sometimes the only option.
Sometimes the only way to get over something is to trudge right through it. Just because my students are both sentenced and pre-sentenced, doesn't mean that their emotions have turned off. Finding ways to laugh can be helpful and critical to maintaining their sanity.
5. We are all in this thing called life, together.
None of us are perfect. I've done some pretty stupid things in my past as a teenager that could have gotten me in serious trouble had I been caught. One of my biggest realizations is that we are not the things we have done. We are more than that. When we can make peace with the past and live in the moment, every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.
These women are my inspiration. They are incredibly resilient, honest, funny and true. It's not my place to judge them. I'm there to teach, guide and hopefully help them create a space of self-healing. We are all human beings, whether we are walking down the street or in an 800-bed dormitory in the Department of Corrections.
Sometimes we have to redefine what liberation means ... may all beings everywhere be happy and free.
Oneika Mays is a teacher with the Liberation Prison Yoga project in New York — a program that brings yoga and meditation to incarcerated women, men and youth charged as adults.