Game Changers: Meet Rikers Island’s First Mindfulness Coach

by Natalie Kiser

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Three years ago, Oneika Mays began a new job as a mindfulness coach. She hung tapestries on her office walls, laid down oversized yoga mats, and prepared to start advising visitors. But Mays doesn’t work at a yoga studio or a wellness center. She is the first mindfulness coach at Rikers Island in New York, one of the country’s largest and most notorious jails.

In her role, the Brooklyn–based yoga instructor and massage therapist works with inmates to help them cope with being jailed and to gather the emotional tools they will need to re-enter their communities when they are eventually released.

30: The number of people on the waiting list to participate in Oneika’s program

An inner conversation

At the 413-acre complex, Mays spends most of her time working in the women’s jail and in the facilities for transgender inmates. She leads a few group meditation and asana classes, but works primarily one-on-one with people who come for yoga, therapeutic movement practice, or lessons on self-massage for pain relief. Some just come for conversation. Her sessions are so sought after that she commonly has a waiting list of 30 people who want to see her.

Mays says her work is to help them see themselves. “[Mindfulness] is an invitation for people to have a conversation with themselves,” she says. She makes every effort to shift the power dynamic—to give up her power as a teacher—so that students feel in control of their own practice. This is especially important for people whose freedoms are limited.

“The big reaction for most folks is, ‘Oh, I feel so relaxed right now,’ and that’s a really powerful thing in an environment like Rikers,” she says.

Practicing lovingkindness meditation helps Mays make peace with her work in the prison system. Through her practice, she has found a sense of inner freedom she can share with people behind bars.

See also: How the Transformational Yoga Project Is Helping Prisoners Find Peace