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"Re-Entry Yoga - It Saved My Life Twice"

Aliyaah*, 29, spent 4 months in Rikers, NYC’s largest prison complex. She practiced yoga and meditation under Anneke Lucas’s Liberation Prison Yoga (LPY).

But when she was released in October 2015 she found it difficult to continue because she didn’t feel comfortable in New York studios, with their expensively dressed – mostly white - yogis.

Now she can. The Three Jewels Outreach Center in partnership with (LPY) is offering Re-Entry Yoga and Meditation. It is the first class of its kind to be offered for women whose lives have been affected by incarceration.

Lucas, who founded the organization in 2013, says, “Our students on the inside are always

asking where they can practice yoga once they are released. To be able to simply name a time and a place for them to continue our "Unconditionality Model" classes on the outside, is an incredible relief. Also, to be able to tell our students inside that their loved ones can join our class on the outside, gives each one a precious common denominator, and inspires hope for all.”

Colby*, 62, spent 10 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. “I think that’s why I survived. I was able to find a bright point. I was able to realize that being in prison was what I needed. Ten years is a little long. I probably could have done it in 5 (she laughs. My meditation is what I developed the most. I totally changed myself. I used to be afraid when I got out of the liquor stores on every corner. But because of my practice I'm not affected by wanting a drink or wanting to relapse. It doesn't cross my mind.”

For Aliyaah, being able to practice on the outside which can be fraught with as much anxiety and depression as inside, helps tremendously. “I feel more centered. I’m calmer. I’m kind of scatterbrained and if I don’t do it a few times a week I feel weird.”

Inside the softly lit practice room, the group of women, some black, some white, some robust and curvy, some lithe and thin, some young and some not-so-young gathered in a circle beneath the Buddhist Thangka paintings. One by one the women checked in with each other discussing briefly where they’re at in their lives or practice and what may have come up since they last met. The theme for the class quickly became apparent - Self-Care.

“What shape does that take for you?” Oneika Mays, a Liberation Prison Yoga teacher, asked

as she guided the women through a series of seated side bends and spinal openers moving fluidly into some core work through which there was a bit of light hearted grumbling and into down dog then wide open hearted Warrior 1.

The women were encouraged to use their breath fully to express themselves. Long deep open mouthed sighs were audible as a sense of relief filled the space. Throughout, however, the tone was playful as the women erupted into laughter again and again. Aliyaah, remarked with a big grin, “This is the most fun class I’ve ever been in.” Standing wide angle pose morphed from being a static stance into an expansive flow as Oneika encouraged them to take up space and draw their arms through the air from one end of the mat to the other. Wanda*, who is naturally buoyant and deliciously happy to be in the class (she’ll tell you again and again how much) quipped, “What’s going on over here? And over here?” as she did indeed own her “space”.

The joy was palpable. And the sense of play downright refreshing. Slowly, slowly the class wound down as Oneika expertly brought them back to the ground for forward bends, seated spinal twists and vipariti karani with a block beneath their sacrums. The effect was instantaneous. Savasana was welcomed deeply, bolsters and blankets and aromatherapy were employed as Oneika softly led them through a beautiful restorative meditation.

Oneika, who also leads weekly classes at Rikers, says, “I think we all suffer from some form of trauma whether we know it or not. Sometimes it's due to an event like abuse and others it's simply a result of environment (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) Taking an approach to yoga that is centered around choice and love allows people to safely explore what works for them in a particular moment.”

As the women gathered their props, Colby exclaimed that since participating in the Re-Entry Yoga class she has been pain free. “’Last week I expected to be extremely sore but jumped out of my bed. My knees and my hips have no pain and I have been battling pain because of the beds I have been sleeping on for the last ten years. And now I don't have pain. I have not been able to be this mobile with my neck since long before I went to prison. And this is just two weeks in. The vibe of this place is awesome. It’s non-judgmental. You can relax. Focus on yourself.”

Pain-free, calm, centered, joyful. Every single one of us wants this. Every person practicing yoga actively seeks this. And, now everyone can.

Re-Entry Yoga and Meditation is offered every Monday at 4pm.

*Last names have been omitted to protect privacy.

--Gina de la Chesnaye

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