Doctors typically treat patients at hospitals or clinics, but doctor and journalist Seema Yasmin takes a whole new approach, by teaching yoga in jail to promote mental wellness and physical activity.
Name: Seema Yasmin
Suitless Pursuit: Yoga instructor at Rikers Island Correctional Facility
(Seema inspects bacteria on a petri dish during an outbreak of flesh-eating bacteria at a Navajo reservation)
OK, this seems too on-topic with Orange is the New Black. You actually teach yoga at a jail?
Yes - every week, I teach a yoga class in the women's jail on Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York.
I did yoga teacher training when I lived in Arizona, and when I moved to Harlem, I knew I wanted to teach. I looked around the yoga studios here but they charge so much for lessons, and I thought, what does that say about yoga itself, and in a neighbourhood that's historically not an affluent area? Of course, it’s being gentrified, but still. To me, it was, and still is, important that yoga be accessible, and that it’s taught where it’s needed. So I thought, I'm not going to make money out of this. I'm going to volunteer my time. I looked around a few places and ran into Yoga Prison Project, New York, run by Anneke Lucas. I agreed with her philosophy and have been teaching with them since.
Why yoga in jail?
I've worked in jails and prisons in the past in a research or clinical capacity, to address outbreaks, and I've always had an affinity for them. As doctors, we talk about serving underserved populations and I feel that that’s really the inmates: we forget about them, whether it's because we want to, or because we neglect them. And so where's a better place to teach yoga, mindful meditation, and exercise in general in a place where people are essentially kept? I thought it could be a powerful tool.
And you don’t get paid for this?
No. It's on a volunteer basis.
When did you start teaching at Rikers Island?
I started in November 2013.
How do your yoga teaching days start?
It takes two trains and two buses to get to Rikers Island, even though it's only about seven miles (11km) from my house! Rikers Island has about 10 jails, and once you get there, you go through clearance at the main building. And then you take one of four buses to get to your jail, and that sometimes takes the longest! This is the most challenging part of my commute.
Once I'm there, though, it's great. I love the women I teach, and the women who run the dorms in jail. You can tell that they’re really cared for, and that there’s commitment to programs like this.
(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
What was your first class like?
I went in with an open mind but I didn't know what to expect, even though I had been in other jails before. Rikers Island is notorious and has a bad history, and I wondered if people would find yoga corny and if they even wanted to do it, but the women loved it. Some, of course, had doubts, but most rolled out their mats right away.
My biggest concern was meditation. I always do meditation at the end of my classes, but I was worried that it wouldn’t work. I mean, jails are noisy! There are alarms going off, doors slamming, gates opening and closing, people yelling, but I tried it anyway. I told them to listen to my voice, then I fell silent, hoping for some silence and calm. Suddenly, a guard started screaming as he tried to break up a fight across the dorm. I was startled so I opened my eyes and stood up, but when I looked around the room, everyone was so calm, meditating. Since then, I’ve learned what’s possible when you’re committed to a process.
How many people are usually in your class?
Jails have a big turnaround so it varies from week to week. I’d get anywhere from five to 15 women. Some are regulars, some have to leave in the middle to go get their meds, some come and go.
And what do you do for a living?
I’m a journalist and doctor.
What kind of a doctor?
I’m a doctor in public health and epidemiology. When I was working in Arizona, I was a disease detective in the Centre for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Office. I was stationed at the Arizona Department of Health and I investigated and tried to stop outbreaks that happened throughout the state. It was a really exciting and interesting job.
(Seema takes blood from a dog on the Yavapai Apache reservation in Arizona during an outbreak of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever)
Does your job as a doctor and yoga affect each other?
It takes me by surprise when I say this, but I strongly believe that yoga is much more powerful than medicine in many ways, because you’re giving tools to people to take care of themselves and make healthier choices. As much as I believe in western medicine, teaching yoga in jails is so important to me because it’s something the women can take with them forever.
It’s the combination of the physical and mental health, right?
Right, and meditation can be so effective. And again, the fact that we can meditate in a very noisy jail astounds me. When I told Anneke this, she said, I agree. Think about it - that’s where you need it the most. That’s where you need to find peace, and you certainly can’t find it in your surroundings. So you need to find it within yourself.
You mentioned that you had worked in prisons and jails before.
Yes - when I was a medical student in England, I did some work in Her Majesty Prison Holloway, and then at the Center for Health Justice in LA where they do incredible work in HIV and Hepatitis amongst prisoners. The infection rates are much higher in prisons compared to the general population. In Arizona I investigated an outbreak of paralysis in inmates in a maximum security prison.
Do you get to talk to any of the women?
I think my medical training and being a journalist licenses me to be very nosey! I talk to them as much as I can. Some of them want to, some of them don’t want to.
(Photo: Prison Yoga Project NY)
Do you have any memorable moments with these women?
At the end of my classes I always share a motivational quote or a story. But sometimes I think, this is so corny. These women have such stressful lives: they have to think about their court dates, child care…so many of them are in for non-violent offenses that they were coerced into, or they’re victims of domestic violence, abuse and trauma. And then there’s me saying things like if you worry it takes away today’s peace or whatever, and I feel like it’s such corny crap. But I do it anyway, because why should I treat anybody differently? So, once, a lady came up to me and said “you know that quote you said a few weeks back? I thought about that when I was in court the other day.” And I thought, “Yes! It’s okay to be corny, to be me.”
What does your family think of you doing this?
My mom has never been keen on me working in prisons. When I was in medical school I was set on becoming a prison doctor. She was glad when that didn’t pan out, but she and my husband are both very supportive.
What are your future goals?
I really want to write books. And continue being a journalist and a doctor.
Do you have any advice for people who want to go into yoga or teach yoga at a prison or jail, just like you?
Look for the Prison Yoga Project, or other non-profits that will help you teach yoga in prisons/jails. And if there isn’t one, get in touch with the correctional facility in your area and offer your services.
Sorry, I have to ask - are there any similarities with Orange is the New Black?
Definitely in the mix of people you see, and their life stories.
What does yoga mean to you, as Seema Yasmin?
It means space: creating physical, mental space to breathe, stop and be.
After this article was published, we learned that Seema has landed her dream job as a professor of public health at the University of Texas and staff writer at the Dallas Morning News. Congratulations, Seema!
Find Seema online: http://www.seemayasmin.com/
To find out more about Prison Yoga Project: