As pre-natal teacher and doula, Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit has been helping pregnant women create a sacred and empowering space for themselves at prisons around New York for several years. She is now Liberation Prison Yoga’s Director of Women’s Services, serves on their Board and teaches LPY’s pre-natal yoga classes at Rikers Island. Kathleen Kraft caught up with recently to learn more about her advocacy work and how it started.
Kathleen Kraft: Tell me about your pre-natal yoga classes. Who takes them? What kind of feedback do you get?
Kimberleigh Weiss-Lewit: For the past two years I’ve been teaching pre-natal yoga to the
pregnant inmates at Rikers. They are racially and culturally diverse, but most have a common thread of living with past trauma. The class size always varies. Last time I was there, five women took part but sometimes the classes are smaller.
Classes start with meditation, then I ask them how far along they are and if they want to tell us about any other pregnancies or births. A lot of them have birth stories they want to share with the group as well as their feelings about how they want this birth to go.
I have seen such a difference in women from when they first consider coming to the mat to when they are resting at the end of our practice. Many, many women have shared about feelings of peace, of quieting down the constant worries in their minds and of the physical relief from aches and pains.
I also provide support to the women in nursery, as well general post-partum and breast-feeding support. We also have a mommy-baby yoga program, which I sometimes teach.
KK: Tell me some of the stories you’ve heard.
KW: When a woman decides that I am a person to be trusted she will often share stories about her children and about her births. Just like other women, they worry and plan and dream about this upcoming birth. I encourage them to talk with the doctors and nurses about having freedom to move in labor, knowing that many of the things we practice in pre-natal yoga can serve them to have an easier birthing experience.
KK: Is your teaching method different when you are in a prison?
KWL: Throughout the practice, we use in trauma-informed language that doesn’t sound like the guard’s language they frequently hear. We use phrases like we “invite” you to try this pose, or you “might feel good in this pose if you want to try it.”
The reason trauma-informed is a separate category is that we found through practice that teaching this way created the safest space for the most people. For example, we would say, “Your eyes can be closed or softened,” because for some people closing their eyes is not going to feel right. There aren’t a lot of long silences or pauses, and we guide meditations.
KK: You also have a re-entry program for women who have been formerly incarcerated?
KWL: Yes, we now have two programs at Women’s Prison Association and Our Children, both well-respected agencies in New York City that provide housing for the women as they come out with their children. The agencies provide job training and support for the women and yoga classes as well. And I provide support for those teachers.
KK: There are different kinds of situations—some are pregnant women who will keep their children and others will not if they are unable to—many things to consider as a teacher…
KWL: Yes, I ask about their plans, and seek to empower the women to think about looking for support and programs for them and their babies. And when women return without their babies, I make sure to give them time to talk about their birth and their baby and reassure them of their choice. In our yoga practice, I focus on the present and on how the practice itself is a gift of healing and love for both of them.
KK: What types of challenges, if any, have you come across at Rikers in terms of the actual teaching?
KWL: The biggest challenge is motivation. Because being pregnant can be a really hard experience for anyone, and being at Rikers is an incredibly difficult situation because it’s not actual incarceration; it’s a jail so it’s a holding situation, so there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen to them. I have to learn to connect on the fly because that person might not be there the following week. So it’s helping people feel safe enough so that they can just practice. Sometimes I provide pregnancy education and answer questions they are not asking their doctors.
KK: Tell us about the work you do as a doula.
KWL: I work as an independent doula with my amazing partner and back-up, Lisa Acevedo; and do what my first yoga teacher did which was to create a sacred, healing space—because a woman needs to be comfortable to give birth. Having someone there, especially for first time moms, helps hold the space and make the birth experience feel empowering as opposed to something that happened to them. A woman that feels in tune with her breath and her body while giving birth uncovers any amazing inner strength. I have seen women transform.
KK: I have to ask—has your mother been a big influence?
KWL: She’s huge. What my mother taught me was to live with heart. She’s a very smart woman, an educator who has educated herself. She was the first woman to be educated from her family—she grew up in a poor family in New Haven and became a special education teacher.
She taught us to be non-judgmental and to take care of other people—when we were in
high school she would pull over and offer a ride to anyone who looked like they might be going to school! My sister and I both went into a social work because we saw what value it added to my mother’s life to have purpose. And to show up honestly, let others show up honestly, and to let it be messy if it’s going to be messy.
Weiss-Lewit also teaches pre-natal classes at Devotion Yoga in Hoboken, New Jersey.