Awakin Calls » Leslie Booker

Leslie Booker: Meditation/yoga teacher, criminal justice reformer, social activist
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Jun 13, 2020: Cultivating Compassion: Lessons from the Front Lines of Criminal Justice


Watch: Video Recording

Read: Summary By Kozo Hattori  


“Caring for myself is not self indulgence.  It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare” -- Audre Lorde These words open Leslie Booker‘s website. Known as “Booker”, she brings her heart, wisdom and compassion to the intersection of social justice, yoga and mindfulness.  She is passionate about expanding our vision around culturally responsive yoga and mindfulness teaching, and about changing the paradigm of self and community care. An activist who spent more than a decade on the front lines of the criminal justice system, Booker is a mindfulness/movement teacher, trainer, mentor, writer, and changemaker consultant. She inspires others on their journey to find a sense of freedom and liberation within a world that is See full.

“Caring for myself is not self indulgence.  It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare” -- Audre Lorde

These words open Leslie Booker‘s website. Known as “Booker”, she brings her heart, wisdom and compassion to the intersection of social justice, yoga and mindfulness.  She is passionate about expanding our vision around culturally responsive yoga and mindfulness teaching, and about changing the paradigm of self and community care.

An activist who spent more than a decade on the front lines of the criminal justice system, Booker is a mindfulness/movement teacher, trainer, mentor, writer, and changemaker consultant. She inspires others on their journey to find a sense of freedom and liberation within a world that is burdened by greed, hatred and delusion.

Booker teaches yoga and mindfulness. She began sharing her practice with teens incarcerated or involved in the court system and other vulnerable populations in 2005, after nearly a decade in the fashion industry.  She served as a senior teacher and Director of Teacher Trainings with Lineage Project from 2006-2016, where she worked with incarcerated and vulnerable youth.  During this time, she also facilitated a mindfulness and cognitive-based therapy intervention on Riker’s Island from 2009-2011, a partnership between New York University and the National Institute of Health.

“I was really overwhelmed at the beginning, by the environment, by seeing so many of my little brothers and sisters locked up,” Booker admitted about first teaching 12-15 year old incarcerated youth. “It’s heartbreaking to see another generation of People of Color starting their lives behind bars and feeling stuck there, like it’s where they’re supposed to be. But I knew that it was something I needed to do. As Van Jones says, ‘We need to call them up, not call them out.’ I needed to go back and try again.”

Booker found that to teach in that environment, she had to go deeper into her meditation practice.  “You’re seeing a lot of suffering through generations of historical trauma and the challenge is to not get caught up in that narrative, in the weight of it, but to face it head on, to empower them to move through it, not around it.”

Soon after she began her practice, Booker went on a retreat to Uganda with the Venerable Bhante Buddharakkhita, a Ugandan Theravada Buddhist monk, and as she was leaving he said, “Your practice has to be your work, and your work has to be your practice, and there can be no separation.” At first Booker says she didn’t know how to integrate those, because she was an activist on the front lines, working in jails.  Now, in her teaching, Booker draws on another expression of Audre Lorde, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Realizing that “these tools that we’ve been shown of fear and hatred and greed and delusion are not working," Booker says "I know I have to turn towards compassion, towards love. I have to turn towards hearing your story and seeing how we are more alike than separate. Because me living divisively from you isn’t healing this world that we’re living in.” 

Throughout her career, Booker has contributed to the advancement of her field both in theory and practice. She is a a co-author of Best Practices for Yoga in a Criminal Justice Setting, a contributor to Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality’s report: Gender & Trauma—Somatic Interventions for Girls in Juvenile Justice, YOGA: The Secret of Life, and contributed to Sharon Salzberg’s book Happiness at Work.

Booker is on faculty with the Engaged Mindfulness Institute, Off the Mat Into the World, Bending Towards Justice, the Yoga and Dharma Training at Spirit Rock, and sits on the Advisory Boards of The Art of Yoga Project and Lineage Project.  She is co-founder of the Yoga Service Council at Omega Institute and the Meditation Working Group of Occupy Wall Street.

She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Fashion Merchandising from Virginia Commonwealth University, and went on to train at Spirit Rock in their Mindful Yoga and Meditation training (2012), Community Dharma Leaders’ Training (2017), and will complete the Spirit Rock 4-year Residential Retreat Teacher Training in 2020.

“All of my years of being out there on the front lines, working in jails,” Booker says, “at the end of the day it all comes down to love.  Not in that weak sentimental way, but in that way that is strong and powerful.”

Join us in conversation with this compassionate teacher who deepened in the power of love after teaching on the front lines of a broken criminal justice system!  The remarkable sujatha baliga will be moderating the conversation.


Five Questions for Leslie
What Makes You Come Alive?

I love seeing folks come alive: discovering their worth, their wisdom, their truth, and what they have to offer the world. In sharing practice with vulnerable people for many years, I witnessed a lot of lost hope; the by product of generations of enslavement, displacement, and legalized oppressions. Being in the presence of folks letting go of the narratives and the boxes that have placed upon them by society and the media...you can't feel more alive than that!

Pivotal turning point in your life?

My family and I lived in Japan when I was a kid. In my experience, it was an incredibly safe and protected place for children to grow up. When we moved back to the states I was 9, and the US was in the midst of the Regan - era. Due to his policies and tremendous budget cuts in Section 8, HUD and the closing of many institutions, there was a huge influx of folks experiencing homelessness.something I had never seen before. I remember riding through DC in the back seat of my parent's car and asking my parents to help me understand what I was seeing. I could tell that folks appeared to be sick and in need of support, but they were on the streets without familial or government assistance. I remember a felt sense in my body, perhaps a quivering in my heart. It was at that point that I realized that there were folks' whose humanity was not seen or honored in our country. This manifested as anger and rage for years, and thenI began to be with and ask the question "What's needed now?"

An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?

I've been blessed with many angels in my life. Folks that have seen that I needed a little space, a little guidance, to be introduced to that teacher, . Even being deported from London after a producer didn't get me the right paperwork, gave me the opportunity to learn to advocate for myself! One major act of kindness in my life was from sometime around 2003. I had been working in the fashion industry in NYC since the late 90's and had found myself in a really toxic work environment. The manager of the showroom next door was a refuge for me. He noticed that I was feeling stuck, and felt like I didn't have any options. After crying on his shoulders for a few months, he suggested that I leave and come work at his showroom for a month. He made himself scarce, I saw him just a few times. He knew that I needed some space, a moment to pause, and to reflect upon what was really important to me. That space and that silence allowed me to drop into my heart, and to remember that little 9 year old girl in the back of my parent's car. It gave me the capacity to catch my breath, and turn towards what allowed my heart to open.

One Thing On Your Bucket List?

To learn how to swim!

One-line Message for the World?

We really need to remember how to embody radical presence. To be fully awake, to know what's happening inside our own bodies: the clenching, the shutting down, the turning away from, so that we can acknowledge what's really here, and learn how to stay.

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