Speaker: Leslie Booker

Cultivating Compassion: Lessons from the Front Lines of Criminal Justice

“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.


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