Finding Forgiveness in Healing From Trauma
By Anneke Lucas
Anneke Lucas, photo by Christopher
Gregory for NBC News
As founder of the nonprofit organization Liberation Prison Yoga, I enter jails and prisons — with one to four other teachers in training — to offer yoga and meditation programs to incarcerated populations.
As a survivor of child sex trafficking within a pedophile network, I can relate to the trauma of imprisonment. After spending 30 years focused on healing from my extreme childhood trauma, I was able to recognize wherever people were on their journey back to themselves.
When I started going into prisons in 2010, I believed I was going to find there people like the abusers of my childhood: members of the world's elite who had traded their conscience for the riches of the earth, reaching the most sinister depths on their empty path. Instead, the jails were filled with poor people who couldn’t afford bail, waiting for their day in court.
Many of those languishing in the prisons had broken drug laws, created by people such as my abusers, who gleefully broke every law they imposed on others. I found incarcerated men and women filled with gratitude for my presence alone, cherishing the inner stillness in our meditations. I met people quietly aglow, full of grace, humbly accepting the harsh conditions of their lives, however unjust.
I'm not saying that those who joined us in yoga class did not belong behind bars. Most of the time, I didn't know why they were there. Many people were clearly traumatized, but good-hearted. Some were exceptionally open, and others might have been manipulative, but my boundaries weren't tested much. It was clear that prison was adding to pre-existing trauma rather than healing it.
As I connected with these incarcerated students, the unconditional love I received was almost overwhelming. Every time, I would leave the jail with a heart full to the brim, experiencing tremendous gratitude for everything I freely get to enjoy.
Liberation Prison Yoga teachers, (l to r): Yael Stone, Anika Absar, Anneke Lucas and Oneika Mays
Seeking to serve the gay and transgender population in the New York City Jails, we were told that the highest concentration was to be found in a certain protective custody unit, where out of 30 inmates, 18 identified as gay or transgender.
As soon I was escorted into the cell housing area, I got an unsettling, sickening feeling. Not since I had been taken to orgies in my childhood had I been engulfed by such intense sexual energy. Hungry-eyed men observed me like bait. A childhood survivalist antennae that identifies men's sexual predilections put me on red alert. There were about six transsexual women who were happy to participate, but instead of gay men I saw sexual predators, and wondered if they had conned their way into this unit. I noticed two men whom I had no doubt were pedophiles, who told me they wanted to try yoga. I fought to hide my revulsion.
Most of the men on the unit had no interest in joining the yoga class, yet some circled around our group like hawks. There was a single common area, without privacy or even a wall behind our backs, but within view of the lone correctional officer by the gate. The TV was blaring at maximum volume, only we couldn't hear the TV over the insanely loud din. My throat started to hurt as I yelled suggestions to visualize a still point of light at the center of the heart that gently expands, bearing the qualities of peace and inner stillness, comfort and nurturing, no matter the commotion around. I was unable to calm myself and couldn't close my eyes, but after ten minutes I noticed our students' relaxed state. I was amazed and inspired.
Anneke Lucas teaching at San Quentin
Correctional Facility, photo courtesy of Prison
When we set up the yoga mats in a circle, I noticed one man looking like he was about to pounce on me. I'll call him Luis. I invited Luis to participate, and he disappeared. Asking my colleague to lead the movement, I guarded our circle and found someone who'd positioned himself just to stare. I addressed him. He lied about his intentions, and I remained on watch.
The escort officer who led us out the building after class casually volunteered some information that confirmed everything I had feared about the men in this dorm. We also learned that the transgender women had opted to be there rather than in another unit exclusively for transgenders, that there was a lot of consensual sex happening, and that because of the sex there were a lot of fights, hence the extreme chaos. Our escort also revealed that Luis had spent months in solitary confinement, mostly handcuffed, because he was so obsessed sexually that he had touched himself in front of female officers.
Thoroughly disgusted, and scared to go back, I tried to move our class to a separate space, to no avail. Since the class was backed by a grant, a study was being conducted for the cycle to which we had committed, and I was the lead teacher, I had no choice but to return. I built teams of four teachers per class to make sure we could look out for each other, spent a week in preparation, and gave precise guidelines to our teachers before going back. I was most deeply concerned about whether I could overcome my own fear of the sexual predatory energy that had triggered me right back to my past as a sex slave, this time feeling all the fear and repulsion that I had not been able to allow myself to experience back then.
Nothing had changed since our first visit. The chaos was the same; some of the men were on the prowl just as they had been the week before, the transgender women and two pedophiles were there, and a man with the intense stare of a predator.
I sat cross-legged on a yoga mat to lead the opening meditation. Without a word, Luis slid down on the empty mat next to me, lying backwards on his back, looking straight up my body into my eyes. I guided the group, looking down into his eyes to keep him from staring at my body. In his eyes, I saw how troubled he was, which awakened my compassion. I found courage, and continued to guide the trauma-informed meditation while smiling at him to establish a human connection, and also to keep him from looking elsewhere.
I asked another teacher to lead the class after noticing that one of the pedophiles (as confirmed by our talkative escort) was having trouble following along. I went to sit by him and verbally assisted him, encouraging him to coordinate breath with movement. After a brief struggle to overcome my judgment, I was able to simply be present with him.
Luis left the circle to go stand outside looking in, his eyes shining with sexual excitement now that he had a better view of all the moving bodies. I asked another teacher to lead the class and approached Luis, blocking his view. I commended him on controlling himself, because, I told him, I could see that it was difficult for him. He looked perplexed, then started to tell a story about him being innocent and that he shouldn't even be there.
Anneke Lucas at San Quentin
Correctional Facility, photo
courtesy of Prison Yoga Project.
"I don't know about all that," I replied. "I just know what I observe, and I can see it — I can see the problem — but I’m not judging you."
He looked confused. Sexual politics are all about power and polarization, and sex offenders deal with either gullible victims (or targets) who swallow their lies, or with those who see through them and judge them harshly. Engaging with someone who speaks to them calmly, directly and rationally is a new experience.
Letting Go of Fear
I realized a long time ago that when I let go of judgment, fear vanishes. Judgment covers our fear, which rears up when we get too close to the person we’ve judged. Once I faced men’s inappropriate sexual energy, I could observe it with awareness without being affected by it. Thus, I was able to be present and positive with Luis without reacting to his flattery or provocations.
I continued offering this nonjudgmental presence to the men of this unit in every subsequent class. I was direct, yet compassionate. Many were dumbfounded when I didn't indulge their lies and told them I wasn’t judging them.
After my fourth and final class, Luis wanted a certificate of completion, but he had not participated in the minimum number of classes required to receive it.
"You told me you were going to give it to me!" he protested. "You promised!"
"Yes, I did —if you joined us. But you didn't, last time or today."
He continued to test me:
"Oh, so you're a woman who likes to get men to do things for her, right?"
"I can't give you a paper saying you did something that you didn't do. But it's okay," I told him. "I’m not judging you."
In overcoming my fear, I found the forgiveness that I had been seeking. I don't know if Luis can begin to heal, but I know he got a taste of something different. That something different is what we, as a society, want to expand into creating nurturing environments where rehabilitation is possible for all. I could tell Luis was sincere when he said he would miss us, terribly.
My therapist had told me that I didn't need to forgive to heal. But without the small moments of forgiveness, towards myself, and each time I was provoked in that unit, I would not have been able to transcend the sexual power dynamic that had abruptly seized me in its vise-like grip.
The perpetrators of my past enjoyed privileges that prevented them from being brought to justice. I know that it’s critically important that I speak up so the world can wake up and see through the trickery of the dark side of power, yet I don't seek revenge. I don't envy these powerful, charming psychopaths, slaves to their ego and all-absorbing addiction to power, which offers them momentary illusions of freedom.
As we gain awareness and learn to recognize emotional sickness in people who are expert at hiding it, we will learn not to give our power away to the sickest of all, who take delight in keeping people divided, killing millions in pointless wars, and endangering the planet only to enrich themselves. Forgiveness doesn't mean that jails and prisons would not be better filled with these emotionally bankrupt perpetrators who commit the greatest crimes.
What forgiveness means to me is that I can continue do my part, engaging in advocacy work to help save victims of sex trafficking, with compassion for all. On the inward journey of our own emotional healing, insight, understanding and forgiveness are the pearls that merit the dive. With increased awareness, we will unite and conquer with love.
Click here to read the March 21, 2017 NBC News article on Anneke, “Human Trafficking in Hotels: New York Lawmaker Teams Up With Advocate.”
Click here to contribute to Anneke's campaign to help victims of sex trafficking
Click here to Anneke's petition to help victims of sex trafficking
Anneke Lucas founded Liberation Prison Yoga in 2014. As a survivor of child sex trafficking and extreme violence, she used elements of her own healing journey to develop programs based on how she would have wished to be treated in her young adult life. A close analysis of those people who were able to get through to her when she was shut down by trauma forms the cornerstone of LPY’s philosophy, which is expressed by its teachers becoming aware and unconditionally present for their students. Anneke, an advocate for sex trafficking survivors, speaks internationally on the subject, and is writing a book about her healing journey.