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Child Trafficking Victim Finds Peace Teaching Rikers Inmates Yoga

By Meredith Hoffman | March 13, 2013 6:56am

NEW YORK CITY — Every Monday, Anneke Lucas passes through a giant gated door at Rikers Island and saunters down a sanitized hallway lined with guards. She shields her eyes as she passes the open, all-male showers and ushers a handful of inmates into a room.

She then encourages them to zone out all the chaos, the noise and the stress that's part of life in the jail.

As Lucas teaches yoga to the inmates, speaking above the racket from the adjoining 100-cot dorm, she finds peace not only in the calm it brings them, but also in the calm it brings about in herself.

"The prison work is very healing to me. It gives me purpose in my life to be able to share things that helped me with the chaos, the prisons of my own mind," said Lucas, 49.

"It connected with me the best possible way to be with people who've been damaged."

The Belgian native — who has worked with prisoners at Rikers Island, Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center and Bayview Correctional Facility — said she has used yoga over the past 20 years to transcend her own horrifying youth.

Starting when she was 5 years old, Lucas was the victim of child trafficking in a network that infamous child killer Marc Dutroux later worked in the 1990s, she said.

"My mother would lend me out for money... In this particular network children were killed," said Lucas of her experiences in the '70s. "I was rescued when I was 11, and part of the specific instructions for my safety were to move to New York."

Lucas said she turned to yoga both as "physical therapy" from injuries she suffered as a trafficking victim, but also as a mental respite.

"The spiritual side of yoga helped me see the greater purpose of what happened to me... to cure the mental disease I suffered because of the extreme nature of what happened to me," Lucas explained. "I needed it for my life, and they do, too. And they're in a state to recognize that."

Lucas, who previously had her own Ashtanga yoga studio in Park Slope, studied with the national Prison Yoga Project a few years ago and now only teaches in detention centers.  

"When I teach in prisons, I feel much more in touch with the true purpose of yoga, which is to get outside of the ego," she said, "and to be able to witness our ego operating in the world at a distance so we can get a larger perspective of our lives."

Lucas' classes begin with a 15-minute warm-up to "get sweating" and forget the surrounding noise and chaos, she said. Then she teaches standing and sitting poses, and incorporates elements of Tai Chi, including the popular "pulling the bow" pose, which mimics shooting an arrow.

"We bring our hand around from back and pull a bow," she said of the movement, "and release energy with sounds. They love that, being able to release any excess energy. We make a hiss-y sound, but it sounds really intense when it's 15 guys."

And at the end of class, Lucas leads 20 minutes of meditation and guided relaxation, with a key focus on inmates' breath "to get in touch with their stillness inside."

"At Rikers there's a core group of guys who come to class every week and can't wait. The guys who come have self confidence, and they get teased and heckled while they're in class," she said, noting that the room has to remain open for security reasons. "And then there are guys who watch the whole class with great intrigue and say they're going to come...but don't." 

But despite the obstacles — both psychological and physical, like the men's stiff forest-green prison pants that can limit certain stretches — Lucas said the sessions leave her feeling uplifted.

"I feel inspired with a lot of noise around. I like to bring people to a state of relaxation in most chaotic circumstances," she said.

And for her students, Lucas' lessons offer a deeper tranquility than they even find sleeping.

"In the two months I have been here, and that includes nights, I haven't felt as relaxed as after yoga class," Harold P., an inmate at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center who declined to give his last name, wrote in a letter.

Cleveland Carter, another inmate from the same facility, said the sessions helped him "breathe better" and "feel relaxed."

And Metropolitan Detention Center student Dominick B., who also declined to give his last name, said he planned to continue the practice even after his release from jail.

"Yoga class helps me to release stress, pain, and emotions, all the while strengthening my body," he wrote in a letter. "I look forward to yoga class next week and continuing upon release in a few months."

Meanwhile, Lucas, who is also a writer, said her work with inmates has enabled her to write about the most painful experience in her life.

"I'm writing a book that goes into that topic [child trafficking], and the experience of teaching in prisons has helped me...to understand everyone and to put in context what happened to me," she said.

"The prison work feels so good you have no idea. I come out feeling happy."