The Power Of Compassion
Strength That Comes From Helping Others
Anneke Lucas is a mother, writer, teacher and sex trafficking survivor. And, she’s forged her skills, knowledge and extraordinary sense of compassion into starting Prison Yoga Project NY .
In three short years, under her lead, the NY branch of the national organization has grown substantially and now serves two facilities at Riker’s Island, the Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn and Bedford Hills State Prison. 11 programs and 18 teachers in all.
YogaCityNYC’s Gina de la Chesnaye sat down to interview Ms. Lucas, on the eve of The Prison Yoga Project Benefit which takes place November 16th at the Broome Street Temple, about her experiences and how her work has helped her cope with a horrendous past as a child forced into sex trafficking.
Gina de la Chesnaye: What drew you to Prison Yoga?
Anneke Lucas: I really liked James Fox's book, Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery that he wrote for prisoners. I also saw a picture of one of his students in pranam and you could see all of his struggle and pain as well as the peace - and that spoke to me.
GDLC: Can you describe your first experiences teaching in a prison?
AL: The first place I taught was Bayview Correctional Facility. The women there had the gym available and they were usually practicing when I arrived. They were physically very fit and we did an intense practice. I got them to do the 1st series of Ashtanga Yoga.
One thing was that they liked to talk - I asked if anyone had any injuries and it never stopped, the outpouring of injuries, most of them very severe. People were dealing with bullet wounds and things like that. I learned to stop asking. I stuck with the series that James developed. It's similar to Ashtanga but there are no poses that put pressure on the cervical spine. I learned to use gentle language to encourage them to embrace their bodies and to feel through their breath. I started at Riker's soon after with men and in all those classes the meditations were for me the high point of the class because the students were so in need of that quiet, that peace.
GDLC: What kind of meditation do you teach?
AL: Kind of whatever feels right. What they really like is the guided relaxation at the end. I get comments on how my voice helps to bring them to a place of deep relaxation, and some have told me this is the first time in their life they have experienced this. It’s a joy to hear that from them.
GDLC: Are you ever afraid?
AL: I have been. But I'm most often afraid that I am not going to teach a good class. And I have been in a few circumstances that I could tell were not safe. There have been times at Riker’s Island were there was no correctional officer (CO) present and an inmate meant to scare me and so I was scared.
Once we are in class the students at Riker's completely have my back. They are extremely loyal and easy to work with and very, very respectful. It's very important though to be mindful. Because, you can create unsafe situations if you are not mindful as a teacher.
GDLC: Talk about that.
AL: One of the aims of the class is to help the students create a sense of safety. Within the confines of where they are we try to help them use their breath to feel. And we have to work with the COs. One time a CO came through the class, went to a student who was crouched down in child’s pose and told her to get up and give her her name. This happened because my eyes were closed and I feel that I failed that student, but I did put in a complaint with the Supervisor of that dorm who was outraged. I haven’t seen that CO again. Apparently, she was new. Many of the CO’s are very supportive of the yoga program and do their best to keep the dorm as quiet as possible.
GDLC: How does the book you are writing, Let It Bleed, relate to this work?
AL: It’s my journey from a sex slave - literally and mentally - to liberation. “You can see how the themes correspond to prison life. It’s not only that their experiences are similar, and their background, to what I experienced - but the imprisonment as well. It’s true that you can be free no matter where you are and the yoga practice can do a lot to help you attain that.
GDLC: How much do you share of your past in class?
AL: Sometimes I say things in the beginning so that they know they can relate to me but I don't go into specifics. With the women at Riker’s who have been sexually abused or sex-trafficked, with whom I conduct survivor groups after yoga class, I do…I pick a theme and then take an aspect of my past and then talk about it so that they can look at certain aspects of the issue. And it helps them to open up because my stuff is so extreme that they know they can say anything. They relate to me. Because they know what I’m talking about. And it helps.
GDLC: What do you look for in prospective Prison Yoga Teachers?
AL: It’s nice to work with teachers who already have experience teaching yoga but it’s not a pre-requisite. We look for someone who is truly compassionate. Compassion comes from doing the work on yourself and the personal growth that comes from that.
The teacher should understand yoga in the larger sense of the word and is willing to, or already knows, the joy that can come as a result of working with under-served populations. Usually there is a very particular, personal reason why people want to work with prisoners. And I think it is important that people are aware of that reason because there is a lot of violence there and usually that reason is linked to some kind of violence in their past. But then again, some of our teachers are naturally compassionate well-rounded people who are passionate and feel naturally inclined to expand their horizons and want to serve as the next step in their own yoga practice and so that also works.
GDLC: What can people expect from the training?
AL: Fourteen hours with James Fox who is extremely experienced, a very compassionate person, and one of the rare yoga teachers who does not want to be a guru but simply has a lot to offer. They learn the ins and outs of working with the prison bureaucracy, the specifics of the difference between teaching general population versus the prison population and a lot of trauma, the psychology of it, trauma yoga and I am also doing a portion of the training because I have worked with women and James has not - it’s really wonderful to spend 14 hours with people who have the same intention that you do. It’s a wonderful two days.