I want to hear about teaching yoga in jail, but before we get to that I would love to hear more about your background and what led you to this form of yoga.
I was born and raised in Harlem. Both of my parents grew up poor, but my dad got a really good job on Wall Street when Chase Bank was Chemical Bank. He made VP of his company, but he had his own issues and he molested me for a really long time. I think that was my first introduction to being an outsider. I was being molested, so I had secrets.
I wanted to be one of the ghetto girls because they were cool so I’d go hang out in the projects all the time. I lived a very street life by choice because I wanted people to like me.
What does a ‘street life’ mean?
I was hanging out on the streets with people who sold drugs, who were in gangs. I didn’t have any fear when I was around them. The energy was so high all the time, and I loved it. The culture of my community is smoking weed and drinking. That’s it. So I got high a lot and drank a lot. I ended up getting raped one night in the park on 124th street.
Bre… I’m so sorry.
No worries. I mean, thank you. I think that’s where my life took a shift. I was 17 and I went from being in this exciting world to being stuck in it and then I felt trapped. It wasn’t my escape anymore.
When did America’s Next Top Model start happening? How did that come about?
I had been kicked out of my first college because I was fighting. I moved back home and was attending City College and working at the H&M that had just opened on 125th street. This beautiful, beautiful black girl came into the store. She was tall, thin and had really long hair, she looked like what I thought a model was supposed to look like. She was the one who told me about Top Model.
There was one audition left in New York at Macy’s on 34th street. I spent the night outside. They gave us a piece of cardboard to sleep on. That night there were 11 of us, and the next day there were 2600 in line. They chose three people from New York.
A month later I was over on 127th street, and I get a call from a 310 number and they said that I was on the show. Well, that’s how I got to LA and then I got on the show.
What happened to your life after the season aired?
No one from that season got signed to an agency, so I freelanced. I booked Pantene Pro V and Old Navy in the same day. I booked over $200,000 that day, so Ford [Models] called me and was like, “We want you exclusively.” I worked my ass off and moved to Chicago and then LA, so I worked out of three regions for about 5 or 6 years.
The drinking and the drugging escalated. I was super lonely all the time. I was a hair model and this hairdresser cut all my hair off one day, and all my agencies dropped me within a week. I just didn’t have it in me to keep on fighting. Then I did Top Model All Stars and a season on a Tyler Perry show, and then I bottomed out. I crashed Tyler’s car and it was so fucked up… so he didn’t call me back [laughing].
Oh wow [laughing]. That’s wild.
Well… I booked one job that year and right after that job I went to rehab because I passed out in an alley. The next day my therapist showed up at my house and she’s like, “So, you’re going to pack your things and we’re going to rehab." I’m like, “Alright.”
In rehab there was a Brazilian lady who taught yoga every Wednesday. She would put lavender oil on me and made me feel like I wasn’t the shittiest person in the world.
You stayed in LA for a couple of years after rehab. How was it coming back to New York?
Coming back was hard because when I left I was a star and people had created their own fantasies about what I was doing in LA. I had to practice being uncomfortable. I had to fight with myself and work on acceptance.
How did you shift towards teaching yoga?
I got this check out of nowhere for $10,000 and I had to pay off my car, and by then I had found a yoga studio that I really liked. My sponsor lives on the Upper East Side. She’s this beautiful, white woman from Massachusetts. Total privilege. She took me to this yoga studio, and I did teacher training there. I was going to train with the best.
It was 2.5 month of gruesome, intense yoga and then I couldn’t get a job because I’m a black woman in a yoga community, which was at the time still very white. It was almost taboo for a black woman to be in a yoga studio on the Upper East Side. They were not hiring me anywhere so I went out to Brooklyn and out to urban communities, but what I noticed was a lack of yoga studios in urban communities. We like church, we don’t like yoga.
I was like, “Fuck that,” and I rented a dance studio down the street from here. It’s was a community class, pay what you can. People came and they came consistently.
I decided that I was going to travel with yoga. I started going to ghettos everywhere. I started going to Camden, New Jersey. Bridgeport, Connecticut. Atlanta. I would just teach yoga and we’d sell out every time.
So how did you get involved in prison yoga?
Through rehab, I went to Rikers to bring a meeting inside and I loved it so much.
What did you like about it?
I remember being that hopeless myself. It was so familiar to me in a nostalgic way. There’s so much possibility when you’re hopeless. You just don’t know it. I knew that I wanted to come back so I asked around and heard about Liberation Yoga. I emailed them, and Anneke [founder of Liberation Yoga] called me back the next day.
Anneke is this beautiful woman. She has such peace about her, and as soon as I met her I wanted to cry because she was okay [Anneke grew up in a sex ring]. I never see women like me that are okay, and she has a daughter. I felt like I found my long lost mom. She introduced me to incest anonymous meetings and taught me how to show up everyday.
So walk me through how is yoga in prison different than yoga out here.
I have to focus on safety first.
What does that entail?
We’re in a square with cells surrounding us so you have to be very conscious of the postures that you’re in because most people in jail have some sort of sexual trauma. We don’t want to trigger our students' pasts of sexual abuse, and we don’t want to over sexualize yoga.
Also, jail is fucking loud! There are a million things going on at one time. We’ve gotten whiffs of pepper spray, there’s lockdowns, alarms. When they open the gates they scream, “Sliders!” So you hear that on and on. Sometimes there’s fights in the middle of class. I’ve had students get sexual and just get on each other’s mats and you’ve just got to teach through it. Shit gets crazy.
What does yoga give the students?
To be quite honest, they’ve got nothing else to do. They’re bored. For me, I don’t necessarily like that a lot of them remember me from Top Model because they come to the mat and like, “I know her.” But whatever gets them to the mat.
They also want different. When they’ve been in and out of jail their energy is different, they’re tired. Newbies are not tired, their energy is up, they’re not settled yet. People who are repeat offenders want a different way of living, they come to every class.
What do you gain from teaching in jail?
I feel healed and needed. I always felt disposable modeling. There was no real need for me.
In February, we taught a class to sex offenders. The cell we were supposed to teach was on lockdown and they didn’t want to waste the trip. Anneke asked which unit we’d be teaching and they said “sex offenders.” My heart stopped. I’m pretty cool doing a lot of things but I was not okay with teaching child molesters and rapists, but I did it and when I saw Anneke get down on her knees to help a rapist get into a posture, I cried and I was thinking, “I can do anything. I’m free.”
What’s next for you?
I want to create more programs in my community. I have a program in Yonkers where I teach every other Saturday. I want to create a couple of those in the city and I want to create programs for my students when they come out of jail so that they have a routine.