Direct, inquiring, and gutsy, Oneika Mays turned to yoga, after a successful corporate career, to seek a path that would enable her to wrestle with buried demons. Now she serves women struggling with their own demons at Rikers Island prison. Bringing mindfulness meditation and trauma-informed yoga to these women has become her passion and calling. In addition to volunteering at Rikers, she is on the board of
YogaCity NYC’s Kathleen Kraft sat down with Mays to learn about the work and her vision for it moving forward.
Kathleen Kraft: How did you get to Rikers?
Oneika Mays: My cousin is a makeup artist and was working with an organization that gives prom dresses away, and she thought I should think about teaching at a prison. I emailed Anneke Lucas who is the Founder and Executive Director of Liberation Prison Yoga, and we had instant chemistry. There was an openness there. We talked about healing old wounds. Anneke has a past with emotional trauma and I have a past with sexual abuse and yoga has been a way to feel better and work with some of the self-destructive patterns I had created. I knew I would be able to relate to some of the women on that level. While I can't relate to being incarcerated, I can relate to feeling like I was in prison. I’ve never said that out loud—you can create some pretty big bars for yourself.
KK: Tell us a bit about your journey there.
OM: I've been there for almost a year. Because of a scheduling snafu, I initially went there, by myself, so I could experience it on my own. And I’ve stayed with that theme: When I teach a new class, I go by myself. Initially, I worked with detainees; now I work with women who are high-security and have few privileges. I also work with sentenced women who have been sentenced for a year—they’re the easiest to work with because they know they’re leaving.
KK: What are the issues these women face?
OM: There are a lot of issues, and I think it’s important to remember that I’m a yoga teacher—I’m not a therapist… I’m there to help them breathe better. There are women who are undiagnosed with mental health issues. There’s a lot of sex abuse in a lot of women’s backgrounds. There are addiction issues. The day-to-day issues are that the mattresses are 3 inches thick so they’re extremely uncomfortable. I hear a lot about necks being sore, backs hurting, and so on. My work is to help them accept what is—that’s where my mindfulness background is useful.
KK: Tell us about that.
OM: Recently, I took a course on MBSR. Focusing on mindfulness and guiding them through the body scan has made a world of difference. We’ll do a combination of meditation and some movement, depending on the physical level of my students. There’s a lot of weight gain there because the food is filled with carbs—some women gain forty pounds in just 5 months—so I’m teaching them to deal with that, among other things.
KK: What is the practice that you teach?
OM: The practice I teach is trauma-informed yoga, so it is different than your "traditional" yoga practice. It takes into account where people are. For example, we don’t do hands behind the back or head because it’s a trigger for being handcuffed. I don’t teach Cat/Cow because that can feel very sexual—the arching and the hips in the air—so we do Cat with a neutral spine. Sometimes we don’t even do Table Top—there’s a lot of talk of sex, so I am mindful of that. Liberation Yoga doesn’t teach a lot of Sanskrit, but I get into the Sutras and the philosophy a bit with them. MBSR is lovely because it’s secular and it’s about linking breath to movement. And they love it. Some women just come for the meditation and sit in chairs.
KK: What has the response been?
OM: It varies. It’s not a fairytale… It’s not like everyone is like "This is wonderful, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life." Some women get into it; some don't. I’ve had women curse at me. Just last week, I had a dorm that didn’t want to participate and, for the first time, I forced everyone to come into the room. I worked with a counselor, who helped me, but it was hostile. By the end it was OK, and I had won over a lot of people, but you reach who you can.
A while ago, I was teaching a class in the sentenced women’s dorm, and a bunch of women got up and left right away, and one of them said, “What is this fake ass Pilates bullshit?” I started laughing. I always imagined someone would say something like that. She has since come back to a couple of classes! I speculate that she was the class clown—she needed to deflect, make herself known. Jail is no joke. You have to figure out how you’re going to make it through.
KK: What is your personal goal with these women?
OM: I want to keep doing this work and take it further, to help them re-enter and practice yoga with them when they leave. Re-entry is a big topic right now—more and more you see programs popping up. If you don’t get a job, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up back in jail.