Friday, July 15, 2016

Danny Carter, Former Richmond City Jail Inmate, Continuing Yoga in Federal Prison.

Despite the bizarre, abrupt and unexplained termination of my longstanding, successful and well-established efforts to help the downtrodden population of the Richmond City Jail,  I am glad to know that the yoga program to which I gave my heart and thousands of hours of my time, is having continuing positive effects on many people.

The specific Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series practice from Mysore, India, that I brought to the jail is still being practiced by former jail students in at least three prisons, and also by many who are now free.

And in one Federal Prison, it is even spreading.  Danny Carter sent me the following letter in December.  In an upcoming post, I will share how Danny has been able to continue spreading this yoga practice, with my ongoing encouragement and gifts of books, and David Swenson's generous gifts of more books and supplies.

For now, here is Danny's letter from December.  Below is the typed transcript followed by images of Danny's letter:

My Yoga Journey

Around 2011 I had my first real exposure to an organized yoga practice through my now teacher and friend Mr. Robbie Norris.  He was bringing the practice of Ashtanga Yoga to the local jail and passing on his knowledge to people as myself that were working on finding a better way through life than they had previously had.  I myself have been an off and on heroin abuser.  I ended up in this facility that Robbie was teaching at for around 10 months for possession of heroin.  During this time I became rather well exposed to the teachings and philosophies of Ashtanga.  I practiced quite regularly and became a real believer in this practice.  Both its physical and mental benefits.  Robbie was not only bringing yoga to that facility but also a path to relief in a completely miserable situation.

Eventually I was released and went back to my life in the world.  My practice stayed strong for a good while but slowly it diminished.

Well now fast forward a few years.  I once again found myself incarcerated.  Not for new crimes I committed but for my past actually catching up with me.  In 2009-2010 before I met Robbie I was involved in some wire and bank fraud schemes with a few shady characters I was hanging out with in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Well in October of 2013 the federal government indicted the five of us.  So now here I am.  In a federal prison for the last 15 months or so.

Well I was depressed and some of the conditions are miserable being transported from state to state for court and being shipped off from anywhere near home to this prison I now reside in.

One day during this time that I was being transferred I found myself alone in a cell very stressed out looking at a storm through my window watching the rain fall.  The thought of Sun Salutations came to mind out of nowhere.  I decided to do some and see if it would still bring me some of the peace and contentment I used to get from the practice.  So I’m going through the Sun Salutations and as I come back to my feet from the final downward dog and resume the forward facing position I see a break in the clouds.  All of a sudden it seems the sun just burst through those rain clouds and blasted me with its rays for what seemed to be at least five long minutes.  It was like an epiphany to me a almost surreal moment.  I had achieved the peace I was looking for and remembered.

Well that was about a year ago now and from that day on I have slowly but continuously cultivated my practice back.  Along the way mostly from curiosity at first I have met and shared my knowledge of the practice of Ashtanga to the best of my ability with at least twenty-five or more people along the way.

Some have met with me only a couple of times to give it a try.  Others have become fairly strong practicers of this style of yoga.  We find us an unoccupied spot on the recreation yard and enjoy the day and the gift we have been given in this practice.

It makes me feel good to pass on my knowledge especially in my circumstances now.  I use to wonder what motivated Robbie to come to the jail where I first met him and be so dedicated to bringing his/our gift of yoga to the guys there.  I now think I may understand at least a little bit.

I now get to watch people’s practice of something that is so beautiful grow and flourish.  It’s great to see someone get excited about this practice as I was when I first started learning.

Yoga has afforded me the opportunity to meet and get to know people from a wide variety of backgrounds.  All because of the like, curiosity and love of yoga.

The exposure and teachings of Ashtanga that was given to me by Robbie are priceless.  He use to tell the guys in his class when I learned, “The practice is now ours for us to take anywhere.  All you need to practice is yourself.”  Well I’ve done and continue to do just that.

I’m glad I have been blessed with the opportunity to learn and pass on my knowledge of Ashtanga Yoga.  I’m still learning every time I practice and is still just as exciting to me as when I first learned.

I am now 6 to 18 months of my release.  I plan to keep practicing and spreading the gift here where I am until then.  Hopefully after I leave here I will once again become prosperous in life and my practice back in the free world.

This has been my yoga journey.

If you have read this I hope you have enjoyed.  I wish you all peace and happiness.


Danny 12-9-15

Hometown, Powhatan, VA.
Residing Currently:

Daniel Carter #85066-083
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 1000
Cumberland, MD  21502

Blessings to you, Danny, for continuing your practice and following your desire to share it with others!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Richmond City Justice Center Inmate Finds his Breath

George, 53, is a lifelong denizen of Richmond's Blackwell neighborhood.  He was introduced to yoga practice in jail, hasn't missed a single class, and practices daily on his own between classes.

Many thanks to Sheriff C.T. Woody, and Internal Program Director Sarah Scarbrough, PhD, for keeping the yoga program going strong.

And thank you, David Swenson, for continuing to send yoga mats and "spineless" Ashtanga Yoga Practice Manuals.  Because hardcover books are not allowed, David sends manuals with the plastic spiral spine removed, so the pages can be tied together like this:

George handed me this statement on Monday, April 20:

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"This Can't Be Life!"

Marcellus Walker, 27, surprised the hell out of me when he handed me this letter on Monday, March 23rd.

As the packed room of 20 men rested at the end of the Richmond City Justice Center (Richmond City Jail) yoga class, I realized I wanted to know more about this young man who looks like a track and field star, and whose quiet nature has an element of somberness that often suggests internal struggle.

"Thank you -- this is a powerful statement," I told him.  "If you'd like to share this, so that someone else who can relate to your situation might see it, and be prompted to explore the benefits of yoga, then I can put it on the internet."  Marcelius brightened, looked directly into my eyes, and said, "I want you to, that's why I signed it."

I told him the statement is excellent --  except that it offers no clue of his circumstances or where he learned yoga, and that he might consider giving it some context.  The following class, Monday, March 26, he gave me another letter and said, "This goes before the other one."

My heart goes out to Marcelius.  He has four months until release, and I hope to hell he will stay on this track of daily self-examination.  Richmond City Yoga will be there for him, and Billy Scruggs has created a resource-list for former inmates that will also be helpful --

And so will the Sanctuary itself be helpful -- a space run by VCU's Liz Canfield dedicated to helping inmates find jobs, explore educational opportunities, make art and enjoy sober socializing.

If you would like to write to Marcelius Walker to encourage his continuing yoga studies and practice, please contact me at

Thursday, February 5, 2015

From City Jail to City Yoga: The Strange Journey of Billy Scruggs

Instead of leaving jail with the usual mentality of wanting to stuff one’s starved senses with all manner of worldly pleasure, my awesome friend, Billy Scruggs, remains fully aware of how good it feels to be clean, clear, patient and focused — and is attending “90 meetings in 90 days” to be sure never to forget how chaotic and crazy it was to try to manage life as a heroin addict.  Billy developed his perspective during 33 months of incarceration in which he took full advantage of the rehabilitative and academic programs offered by the old Richmond City Jail.

So, since January 5th, I’ve seen a rare thing: a guy gets released from a long jail sentence and is immediately on track, continuing his recovery and rehabilitation with his priorities intact, supported by his foundational daily yoga practice.  Billy rises before the sun every morning for coffee and 10 sun salutations before riding his bike to the west end YMCA for a workout, and then heading to his father’s house -- where he just finished putting in a new bathroom from floor to ceiling.  And Billy bikes and buses downtown four to five times a week in freezing temperatures for a full practice at Richmond City Yoga.  

Billy Sun Salutation B

In Richmond, VA, we are lucky to have a sheriff with a good heart who does what he can to help the people in his charge.  I give my gratitude to Sheriff C.T. Woody, and Billy Scruggs feels it, too.  Betterment programs at the old Richmond City Jail flourished under Sheriff Woody, who allowed far more volunteers to offer counsel and services to help his inmates cope and grow, than did any of his predecessors.  

The Rev. Canon Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, Woody’s Chief of Chaplains (and a Colonel), has been in charge of implementing this vision for nearly a decade, overseeing 80 different volunteer chaplains.  I’m forever grateful to Father Pruitt for allowing me to start the yoga program.  When I approached him in April 2008, he knew nothing about this particular yoga practice, but as a seasoned Episcopal priest from Chicago who had run a church in Brooklyn, he understood my passion, and with no red tape save a background check and and my signature on a statement acknowledging that I could be killed or kidnapped, he let me begin.  As it turned out, Father Pruitt can speak more eloquently about yoga than I — and it’s always been endearing to hear him talk to visitors or inmates about the program.  Father Pruitt graciously allowed many visitors to the old “yoga chapel” over these last seven years, both to observe, and to practice with the inmates.  On two occasions when I was teaching yoga to medical students, he allowed me to bring the VCU/MCV med students in at the end of their semester to practice in tandem with the inmates.  He also let me bring internationally renowned Ashtanga Yoga teachers Eddie Stern and Lino Miele to conduct workshops.  And he stood up strong for me when Style Weekly Magazine and the NYT asked for access to do stories.

Two other people to whom I owe gratitude for their support of the yoga program in the old jail are Chap’s right hand man, Mike Kelley, who always did an excellent job of rounding up the students in time for my arrival; and the former Director of School, writing teacher (and if I may say, Zen poet), John Dooley, who retired in November after 36 years of service.

The Ashtanga Yoga program at the jail is unique:  all inmates in the program are at some stage of establishing the same specific 90-minute yoga practice that I have been practicing daily since 2001. 

With the transition to the new $135,000,000 Richmond City Justice Center, in October there was a shift in responsibilities.  Father Pruitt now oversees mainly religious initiatives and chaplaincy.  

Mike Kelley now runs the men’s recovery and betterment programs; and Shond Glover, the women’s.  Both report to Sarah Scarbrough, PhD, the new Director of Internal Programs for the Richmond City Justice Center.  Since the Ashtanga Yoga Program has been placed under Dr. Scarbrough, she has become increasingly supportive of it, and I am now fortunate to be teaching five times a week at the RCJC.  I look forward to enjoying excellent relationships with Dr. Scarbrough and Ms. Glover, as the yoga has always positively influenced those inmates who attend every class and practice between classes; and generally they become the best behaved and most promising students in other program areas as well.

Here is a statement Billy gave me two years ago:

February 26, 2013

After about 10 minutes of practicing in the sanctuary I am in a hyper-focused but relaxed state.  The deep inhales and exhales remind me of the rhythmic sound of waves crashing on a beach.  Breath by breath and pose to pose my mind, body and spirit intertwine in a euphoric harmony.

Unfortunately, a series of terrible decisions I made have landed me in Richmond City Jail.  As with anything, good or bad, there are always opportunities in every situation.  If I had never passed through this facility I seriously doubt I would have ever begun practicing yoga.

Since I have started practicing yoga I have noticed many differences in myself.  Of course physically I have noticed many benefits, whether it's more flexibility or a reduction in aches and pains.  I have also become more patient and in tune with my surroundings.  Thanks to my teacher, Robbie, yoga has made life less stressful as well as adding a positive light in my life in jail.  I look forward to my yoga practice knowing it will set the mood for a great day.

Below, in a letter to a judge, I stated that I would trust Billy Scruggs with my own affairs.  I had forgotten I'd written that until I looked back at this letter today.  Thank you, Billy, for helping me continue to feel, a year and a half later, the same way.

Richmond, VA 23220

July 18, 2013

To:  Judge Beverly Snukals

Re:  William Joseph Scruggs

Your Honor,

This letter is on behalf of Billy Scruggs, currently incarcerated in the Richmond City Jail.  

Having taught some 700 Ashtanga Yoga classes in the jail, including no less than 55 classes attended by Mr. Scruggs, I emphasize to you that I have found Billy to be an unusually polite, trustworthy, and dedicated student.  He has the best attendance record of any student I’ve taught in the jail, missing just one class during eight months of twice-weekly classes.  In fact, I would put Billy in the top 1% of the nearly 800 students I have taught during the last five years at Richmond City Jail.

While I am not privy to Billy’s legal history -- knowing only that he has (at least) charges of breaking and entering without use of a gun -- I warrant that I have seen only thorough and consistent kindness from Billy since the moment I met him – and I have now been in his direct presence in very close quarters for more than 100 hours.

I can’t imagine how further incarcerating this man at a cost of $25,000 per year would do any good for the Commonwealth or Billy or anyone.  He is in his prime and has so much to offer the world.  Whatever he has done -- perhaps under the influence of addiction --  I see a dedicated student of a serious daily yoga practice, who has shown the discipline and humility to learn and practice the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga (on his own in very poor conditions on days class is not held), and who has attended every class with an excellent attitude.  Without hesitation, I would trust Billy with my own affairs.

I sincerely hope you will look into this young man’s eyes and believe what you see:  there is no malice, no resentment; he is not a complainer; but he needs another chance to live up to his potential.  Please do not contribute further to the degrading institutionalization of this man.


Robert P. Norris

Richmond City Yoga, opened just over a year ago, is becoming a cultural melting pot.  We have university students, teachers, professors, writers, artists, poets, musicians, farmers, nurses, doctors, businesspeople, tradespeople, lawyers, jail deputies, local yoga teachers, gentry, and ex-cons all practicing independently at their own pace, together in the same room.  People who come to RCY know my intention to provide a welcoming practice environment for ex-cons and drug addicts — and they all embrace and support the vision.  It’s a serious yoga practice for people with great appetites for transformation — which includes drug addicts.  The overall effects of consistent yoga practice are far better than that of drugs, and incompatible with their use.  My message to the inmates is pretty simple: you can’t be a junky or a crackhead, or someone who sells drugs to them, and have a long-term daily Ashtanga Yoga Practice.  It’s a difficult practice to learn, but once established, the benefits are so profound one does not want to lose this method of daily, healing, patient and arduous self-examination.

In this one-minute clip, Billy Scruggs arrives for practice on Saturday morning, where students age 4-80 are already practicing.  Well, first, you have to see the 4-year old student arrive :-)

Elsa and Norah arriving. Logan sports his tat.
 arriving on his bike. The lady in black is Doris Clevenger, who just turned 80.

Like former inmate Logan (who is doing great!) told me the other day, “There’s nothing else I’ve ever experienced that gives you so many benefits compared to the amount of time you put into it.”  And Logan has experienced more drugs both legally, under the supervision of psychiatrists, and illegally — and more therapy — than just about anyone I’ve met.  Now, he feels better than ever;  yoga, meditation, meetings, and a steady job are providing him a balanced, stable and happy existence that I am pleased to see him embrace.

It’s helpful to 24-year old Logan to see 35-year old Billy’s dedication.  It’s always good to get corroboration, even though the yoga is so good that, I remember thinking after a few months of practice, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I’m going to follow this path where it leads.”  

Here is an email Billy sent me the other day, verbatim:

    Less than a month ago I was released from the Richmond City Justice Center after serving thirty three months for a burglary I committed while strung out on heroin.  Me being the wonderful criminal I am just walked into some random house to hopefully find some pain pills.  Little did I know I was breaking into a police officer's house.  The alarm started blaring, I freaked out and took off on my neon green bicycle.  I told you, awesome criminal.  So neighbors saw me flee the scene and of course reported it to the police. I was arrested shortly afterwards.  Thus I began my incarceration, time of reflection and rebuilding process.
     One of the most profound changes in my life occurred when I was introduced to Ashtanga Yoga in the city jail by a volunteer named Robbie Norris.  Of course being an ignorant western male I had many ideas and misconceptions about yoga.  It didn't take long for my opinion to change.  At first, like many people I think, my approach to yoga was that of a exercise of fitness activity.  Plus, the yoga participants got off the tier to go practice for an hour and a half.  My primary motives at the time were probably not the purest but thankfully I was exposed to this wonderful, life changing practice.
     After the first practice I felt sore and amazing.  Imagine twelve to fourteen men in a small chapel practicing yoga, needless to say there was some striving and stretching that was more out of a competitive mindset than one of a meditative practice.  This was the so called epiphany for myself.  When i finally focused on my breathing and gazing points and practicing daily, my life seemed to improve.  Forget physical part for a moment, I was exercising spiritually.  Mindfulness, awareness and compassion all became second nature.  Who knew? All of you yogis keeping this wonderful secret for thousands of years, shame on you!
     Having a daily practice has really helped me keep a level head, especially while incarcerated.  While incarcerated and now I would begin my day with a practice, even if it was just sun salutations A and B's, a few standing poses and a head stand.  Robbie, our fearless and dedicated instructor, would come twice a week and lead a full practice.  It took a month or two to learn the full practice, but even now after two years of practicing I still mess up the sequence sometimes.  There is no better feeling than waking up and enjoying some yoga and coffee to start your day.  I always feel balanced and prepared for whatever lies ahead after a practice. 
     If you would have told me I would go to jail and learn yoga I would have laughed in your face.  During my incarceration I was presented with some opportunities that have saved my life and made me human again.  Along with the yoga I was actively involved in a drug treatment/behavior modification program, a handful of creative writing and religious studies classes as well some spirituality mixed in there.  One of the classes I took was focused on the tradition of Buddhism and it history.  Of course we discussed Hinduism's traditions as well and I was lucky enough to have a deeper understanding of the yoga.  Quite a beautiful thing when you can see the simplicity and pureness of it all.
    As I write this I am looking forward to a full practice tonight after work.  There are so many things to be grateful for but one at the top of my list is having a studio to go practice in and an instructor who truly sees the therapeutic value of yoga and give his knowledge to those who could utilize it.  My yoga practice is such a integral part of my life now that I can't imagine going on without it.

At Richmond City Yoga, I give one month of unlimited classes to any former inmate who has participated in the Richmond City Jail Yoga Program.  If they take true advantage of the studio, and  come to practice at least three times a week during this first month, I give them a high quality yoga mat generously donated by David Swenson, one of the world’s top yoga teachers and author of the excellent and accessible Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual (2007).

I’m very pleased that Billy Scruggs has fully utilized his free month, and I look forward to giving him his new yoga mat at tonight's Led Primary Series class.  

If you would like to communicate with Billy Scruggs or Logan, or sponsor either of them for a month of yoga ($100), please email me at

Billy Scruggs is a skilled tile setter and carpenter.  I have one good job lined up for him already.  Please consider discussing your home repair needs with Billy.

Billy has also started a blog -- -- which will provide resources to help inmates, upon release, assimilate back into society.  

All of us offer deep gratitude to Eddie Stern of Ashtanga Yoga New YorkEddie Stern is the fiscal sponsor and the main advisor for the Richmond City Justice Center Yoga Program -- as well as for my own exploration of yoga. 

Thank you, David Swenson, of Ashtanga Yoga Productions, for your wonderful generosity in sending supplies over the years.

Thank you to Lisa O'Mara and Susan Hallett of the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, and to the anonymous donor, for supporting the jail yoga.    Many thanks to Bobbie Allen and Steven Cahn of, who have been very generous over the years in mentioning my work; Steve and Bobbie do fantastic work with their daily blog focusing on Ashtanga Yoga news and archives.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Three Years: From Richmond City Jail to Richmond City Yoga

Logan was a scrawny 20-year old junky when in June 2011 he attended my yoga classes for a month during his stay in the Richmond City Jail.  Although I could see he was a nice boy underneath his problems, he wasn’t at jail long enough for me to get much sense of his character, or for yoga to have an obvious effect.  But the several yoga classes Logan attended in jail did plant a crucial seed of interest. 

Three years later, on October 21, 2014, while sugaring my coffee at Starbucks, I heard a voice, “Hey, I think you taught me yoga at jail a few years ago.”  I turned and was so pleased to see Logan.  Imploring him to come to Richmond City Yoga, I got his commitment to come the next day.  The following morning when I arrived, he was there waiting.  That boy from jail is now a promising young man.  He wants to acquire the education and credentials to become a mental health therapist; hopefully, he will get help with this ambition, because the occupation would suit him well.  Logan is dedicated to working hard and doing the right things.  He’s funny, intelligent, attentive, and humble.  And his disciplined daily yoga practice is bringing him physical strength, mental resolve, and deserved confidence.

From age seven to 11, Logan suffered abuse that I cannot detail.  The pain and confusion that arose caused him to seek escape in whatever drugs he could obtain, and later, to qualify him for “partial disability” income due to PTSD.  By the time he was 13, Logan was addicted to oxycontin, and by 15, he was addicted to heroin and occasionally shooting up cocaine. Meanwhile, he was also taking all manner of prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. 

On twelve occasions since age 16, Logan was hospitalized for several days at a time in various psych wards.  Diagnosed at the time with bi-polar disorder, he now thinks that diagnosis was inaccurate -- his bipolar symptoms simply the manifestations of the anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs prescribed.  Compounding his problems, Logan was additionally prescribed anti-psychotics, such as Seroquel.  

In March 2012, Logan switched from heroin to 125 mg of methadone, an extraordinarily high dosage.  

Six months ago, blitzed on Nitrous Oxide and acting on an immediate urge to run an errand for his girlfriend, Logan went tumbling down a flight of stairs and broke his femur.  Thus began his wake-up call.  During this 16-day hospital stay, he was given 10 mg per day of hydromorphone in addition to his regular high dose of methadone, some oxycontin, and Seroquel.  Upon release, now with a metal bar running through his femur from knee to hip, he resolved that his old life must end. 

Here is a determined young man:  when he left the hospital on July 18, 2014, he took himself off of 125 mg of methadone cold turkey.  Stopping such a dose unaided is almost unheard of.  Additionally, the methadone clinic advised strongly against such an abrupt withdrawal. 

A month later in mid-August, Logan stopped taking the 30 mg of oxycontin and discontinued his nightly dose of the antipsychotic drug, Seroquel.  He undertook these measures with no support from the healthcare industry, and once he was able to walk the distance, began attending NA meetings.  Anyone familiar with serious narcotics addiction can recognize this supreme effort and willpowe

At Richmond City Yoga, I give one month of unlimited classes to any ex-inmate who has participated in the Richmond City Jail Yoga Program.  Additionally, I offer a nice gift to any such person who takes true advantage of the studio: if they come at least three times a week during their first month, they get a high quality yoga mat generously donated by David Swenson, one of the world’s top yoga teachers and author of the excellent and accessible Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual (2007).

Logan completed his first month at RCY on November 22, just days after his 24th birthday.  He has attended class five to six times per week since his first visit.  
Logan practicing Marichyasana A

I opened Richmond City Yoga in November 2013, for the express purpose of providing a place where ex-inmates and others with drug problems would feel welcome and encouraged to learn the method of self-help that I myself have found vitally therapeutic for the last 14 years.  Several ex-offenders have done some practice at the studio, but so far, only Logan has shown the discipline and fortitude that I envisioned when opening the studio.

I believe Logan is a special young man whose hardships have prepared him well for the inevitable obstacles to be navigated in daily yoga practice and in daily life.  He is genuinely courteous, and he has no entitlement mentality: he is willing to start at the bottom, and work hard.  

A few weeks ago, I suggested that he visit a couple of restaurants and present himself to the owners, whom I know personally and briefed beforehand.  Logan agreed and told me what day he planned to go, and that he would be happy to do any work he could get.  It may seem trivial, but few ex-offenders I’ve known keep their word the way Logan does.  He always comes to the studio when he says he will (virtually every day); and he not only visited the restaurants at the appointed time with typed resumes, but donned a coat and tie and texted me a selfie lol.  
Logan hitting the pavement, looking for work.

Neither restaurant owner had a current opening, but both were gracious and invited Logan to check back in January.  Logan was undeterred, felt good for having made the effort, and indicated he would continue seeking to meet potential employers.  Last Wednesday after morning practice, I invited Logan to a diner for breakfast, and introduced him to the owner, Kathy, who was appreciative of my bringing her a potential worker, but said she didn’t need anyone at the moment.  We took our breakfast at the bar, enjoying conversation with Kathy while she was busy and on the run.  I could tell she was taking a liking to Logan.  She liked the big “karma” tattoo on his right arm.  He laughed and said, “That’s the first time my tattoos have been seen as a positive by somebody who might give me a job!”  When I went to pay, Kathy said, “Robbie, my dishwasher just called in sick — can he start today?” Then she decided to wait, but asked Logan to come the following morning.  He went the next day, last Thursday, and washed dishes for five hours, happy to be employed.  Not only did he fare well in Kathy’s judgment, but on Friday she had him ringing up customers and began training him to work the front counter and wait tables.  It didn’t hurt that customers remarked on Logan’s cheerful demeanor.  
Kathy didn't know that as soon as she asked if Logan could come in the following day, it would warrant a photo op.

Of course, I am happy for Logan.  Here is a young man who a few years ago was heavily addicted to narcotics and thoughtlessly seeking out and accepting whatever other drugs came his way — and who was unable to work.  Now free of drugs save coffee and nicotine, he is working full time, and aiming toward a very realistic dream of becoming a therapist.

My wish is that anyone who reads this, who is so inclined and who has the means, will please contact me so that we can join forces to help further this young man’s dream.

Many thanks to RCY student Stacey Scott for paying Logan’s second and third month’s dues.  Thanks to the anonymous donor and theCommunity Foundation for supporting my work at the jail.  Thank you,Eddie Stern, for being the fiscal agent for the grant, and for being a continuous source of inspiration and education.  Thank you, David Swenson, for your generous donations of books and supplies to help inmates and indigent ex-offenders.

Stacey Scott (in red shirt on green mat) has sponsored Logan (on green towel) for two months.

Robbie Norris

Here is Logan’s recent letter, written a week before landing his new job at the diner.  (Below the typed version is his handwritten letter.)

December 5, 2014

Before trying yoga, I had a preconceived notion that it was an easy or “whimpy” exercise regime for bored housewives.  Boy was I wrong.  I first tried yoga in the Richmond City Jail while I was incarcerated there for a month [in 2010] because of minor possession of a schedule one controlled substance. I still did not take yoga seriously by not applying myself to the practice and not practicing on my own.  Several years later I saw Robbie at Starbucks on the way to one of my 12-step meetings.  He enthusiastically invited me to his studio, citing his offer of a free month of classes to those who participated in his RCJ Yoga Program.  I promptly went to the studio and came as often as possible, and practiced on my own as best as I could not even having a mat of my own.  I now still go to the studio as often as possible, and practice every day with the mat most generously donated by David Swenson.  I was even blessed by another student, seeing my dedication and progress in the practice, to have my tuition in the studio sponsored by them [for my second month].  Yoga has benefitted my health in every aspect.  It has stabilized my emotional health, as a natural anti-depressant and mood stabilizer.  I always feel happier, more peaceful and more confident in myself.  It continues to tone and strengthen my body, even after breaking my femur and having permanent hardware inside of the bone.  The open-mindedness, willingness, and dedication to a daily yoga practice has translated into other aspects of my life.  Such as my search for employment, and especially in my daily recovery program from addiction.  Yoga keeps my life in perspective and keeps me humbly dedicated to bettering myself daily.  I cannot begin to express my gratitude to Robbie, those who support the wonderful outreach work he does, and all those who support and encourage me in my practice.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Richmond City Jail Yoga: Healing and a New Voice

Last Thursday night, April 17, I mentioned to the men of my Richmond City Jail Yoga class that if they find the yoga especially helpful, enjoy writing, and don’t mind being identified, I would be happy to post their opinions.  When occasionally I ask students to write, typically I just tell them to write “whatever you want” — because I want them to write their own message without my influence.

Doug Calder gave me this statement yesterday, and more are on the way.  I teach the men two classes per week; one class is an hour and a half and the other is an hour and 45 minutes.  The chapel can accommodate up to 15 men, with mats an inch apart and the pews upturned and pushed to the wall; usually eight to 15 men attend.  About half the students also practice daily on their tier between classes.  Each tier holds up to 100 men; visualize big steel cages with triple bunks and two-inch thick mattresses, in a very confined space — not an ideal space for yoga, but they find a way to practice.  I constantly remind them that the value lies in the commitment to daily practice, and assure them of the importance of establishing the discipline of dailiness while incarcerated, as the obstacles to the discipline “on the outside” are actually much greater— namely, so much freedom that can easily entail a million “reasons” not to practice.

Although yoga studies are being done, I haven’t seen any studies on the effects of sustained daily practice.  The studies I’ve seen are on the effects of once or twice per week 60-minute classes for six or eight weeks.  The effects of sustained daily practice (in and out of class) are far more remarkable than the effects of simply taking one or two 60-minute classes per week.  Dailiness requires much more discipline, patience, and introspection; and includes much more exercise -- and healing -- than simply attending class once or twice a week.

With the continued beneficence of an anonymous angel, and with the help of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, the fiscal agency of Broome Street Temple, and the wise counsel of my friend and mentor Eddie Stern  — all this made possible by the openminded graciousness of Sheriff Woody facilitated by his Chief of Chaplains, Father Alonzo Pruitt — the Richmond City Jail Ashtanga Yoga program is immensely grateful for just having received a 3-year commitment of further support.

The program has existed for six years.  It is now time to do a serious medical study.  One current student, a 57-year old African American who three years ago suffered a stroke, began taking classes a few months ago.  When he began, he could barely raise his arms over his head and place his palms together on an inhale.  He could barely bend over without losing his balance.  He could not lift either foot off the ground for a full second without help.  Now he moves through the whole practice, with modifications.  He says he received a lot of therapy after his stroke, but that “this yoga is the best therapy I’ve ever received in my whole life, for anything.”

His story soon.  But now, Doug Calder’s statement (typed version below photo):

April 20, 2014

I am 31 years old and was introduced to Ashtanga yoga in the Richmond City Jail, of all places.  After 2 months of incarceration & being clean from drugs, I was encouraged by other members of my tier to participate in the 2 weekly yoga practices.  We all worked out together on the tier, so I expected yoga to just be an extension of our workout routine.

I quickly learned that there was far more to yoga than I originally anticipated; there was meditation and history.  After 4 months of regular practice, I have noticed changes physically, emotionally, as well as, spiritually.  Physically I have increased range of motion, greater balance and better posture than I have ever had in my life.  My morning yoga practices allow me to start the day with noticeable improvements to my general outlook towards life and problem solving abilities.  I find myself coming up w/ solutions that are more creative and effective, when I have practiced earlier that day.  Spiritually yoga has allowed me to be more aware of the world around me and our effect on each other.  I never thought I would find myself practicing any form of meditation, but despite myself, I have come to believe in its positive effect on my sense of peace.  Given my surroundings at the time, it was fairly obvious to me that “what I was doing” wasn’t working for me; and I am grateful that I was openminded & willing enough at the time, to try something new.
Doug Calder

Monday, September 30, 2013

Someone Has Cast Bread upon the Waters, and Look How It Has Helped!

Ruth Tracey, 23, had been a long-time shoplifter. On her last night in jail she gave me a remarkable letter (reproduced below) that shows how timely it was for her to receive instruction and encouragement in the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga. 

Enthusiastic and grateful for being introduced to a happy way of life that actively discourages pretentiousness and promotes integrity, Ruth has been practicing daily since her September 5th release, and has memorized the full Primary Series.

Ruth Reviewing David Swenson's Practice Manual

Thank you to the anonymous donor, to The Community Foundation and to my inspiring friend, the scholar and yoga master Eddie Stern, for your meaningful support of my efforts.  I’m very fortunate to be able to offer people their own specific daily practice of moving meditation synchronized with conscious, controlled breathing -- a practice of love, respect, gratitude, patience, and profound physical healing.

With the inception of the non-competitive, anonymously funded grant last September, I added two classes per week for the ladies of the Richmond City Jail, to the two men's classes I was already teaching. This joint effort between the donor, TCF, Eddie Stern and the Broome Street Temple board, has been helping me reach twice as many inmates with the same daily practice that has been enormously beneficial to me since I began learning it in 2001 -- and I am deeply grateful that the six-month, $12,500 grant supporting my teaching has been renewed for a third period.

Ruth "preparing" to practice in the home of my good friend Walter Coppedge

In jail, Ruth Tracey exuded an air of graceful, understated good humor -- never loud, and always the most attentive student.  Everyone liked her, even though she never joined in the choir of resistance and disruption that is occasionally offered by the ladies.  Influenced by Ruth's simple example, one of the most immaturely resistant young girls in the class has become -- in Ruth's absence--  one of the new class lynchpins.  

I was surprised and moved when I read Ruth's letter, because it's unusual to see such thoughtful and engaging writing from a young inmate who has no formal education beyond high school.  She hasn't attended university, but writes like a 23-year old with an English degree.  In the last 25 days we’ve practiced together three times, and I’ve watched her through the practice once. I am thankful that the grant directly funds my thoroughly enjoyable teaching, and also that it indirectly makes it feasible for me to spend extra time, expense and effort staying connected to some of the better students who leave jail and still want to practice but have neither the money nor the confidence to head straight to a yoga studio.   Absent the awesome support of this grant, I would likely have missed the opportunity to meet such a special person as Ruth at a critical time in her life. 

Sometimes I have excellent students in jail who upon release promptly resume the lifestyle that brought them to jail in the first place.  Over the last month, I have seen that Ruth is different.  She's been honest and reliable, has donated items she had obtained through theft to charity, and has begun making restitution, sending weekly sums anonymously to the stores where she had stolen books.  She has a healthy spiritual thirst and is currently reading Edwin Bryant’s translation of the Yoga Sutras.

Virabhadrasana A

In August, I received an unrequested, non-competitive $5,000 grant from Eddie Stern's Broome Street Temple, funded by the Libby and Lloyd Ann Charitable Fund of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia. This money was awarded in connection with the successful state of the Richmond City Jail yoga program, as an incentive to expand my efforts.  Thank you very much, Libby and Lloyd Ann -- whoever you are!  This is proving to be critical seed money in initiating my dream of opening a practice space downtown where I will invite the approximately 700 folks I've taught over the last five and a half years in jail, to come back to class and resume their practices -- and encourage them to bring their families, friends, and neighbors to come practice with them at low cost.  The main focus of the new space will be conveying the Primary Series in a way that anyone who desires can learn and practice it independently or in community with others -- regardless of his or her fitness level, destructive habits or station in life. My hope is that over time the space will become a cultural melting pot that is also patronized by MCV students and faculty, Sheriff Department employees, college students, and whomever else wants to come.  Ruth Tracey has offered to help me with whatever chores she can in connection with my endeavor, and I look forward to seeing her grow.  I believe she is embarking on a very bright future of being a healing presence in the world.

Virabhadrasana B

My Yoga testimony -- Ruth Tracey   Thursday, 9/5/2013
To see Ruth's handwritten letter, click here for part one, and click here for part two.

I remember myself as a child between 4-6 years old always playing on the floor, putting myself in full lotus lifting myself off the ground swinging back and forth like an old country porch swing, attempting to walk around on my hands.  Back then I had no knowledge of yoga, its uses or benefits.  I was just a kid exploring my body’s flexibility, trying to make myself and my family laugh to escape the pressures of early childhood trauma.  As I grew older and learned how to read, I took refuge in books, immersing myself in their stories so I wouldn’t have to face my reality, reading all day, and if it was a good book, all night, becoming a real introvert.  The days of experimenting with the limits of my body’s flexibility were over.

By the time I was 17 I became interested in yoga again.  By then I was already a criminal, though I hadn’t been caught yet.  I feel ashamed, yet oddly get a sense of freedom admitting that I stole books -- among other things my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t buy me --books on various religions and spiritual systems, languages, yoga and philosophy.  Paradoxical, yes, very.  I was excited about yoga, but my interest in it was very superficial -- focusing solely on the positions, completely underestimating the importance of or downright ignoring the breathwork and meditation aspects of the practice.  Then it became something I only did when I was bored-- hardly a healthy practice.  So it’s no surprise that I eventually stopped practicing altogether.

Utthita Parsvakonasana B

Through the years that followed my interest in yoga waxed and waned, but I started doing a deeper reading on the subject.  I was at a time in life where I was believing in all these philosophies, but practicing very few -- living life as a hypocrite.  When I read that one of the 8 limbs [includes] non-stealing, I stopped “practicing” again feeling guilty because I was still addicted to stealing.

After my last run in with the law, I finally made the conscious decision to change my life and start acting on what I said I believed, to start making things right the best I could both for the sake of my future and for the world around me.  I knew I could accomplish great things, but not if I kept wasting my life and potential trying to cheat the energetic economy.

Over the course of the last four months, I made it my personal mission to start taking the steps towards becoming a healthy, whole being -- and seeing it through to fruition.  I dutied myself to becoming diligent in prayer, which has helped me really believe I have received forgiveness, helped me forgive myself and feel set free from all the guilt and unexpressed emotions I had stored inside the recesses of my soul.  When I was transferred to Richmond City Jail and was made aware that yoga classes were being offered, I jumped at the opportunity.  This was the first time ever practicing under the guidance of a teacher instead of just trying to teach myself from a book.  Rob is an excellent teacher.  Being in his presence you feel a light, airy energy emanating from him and it is obvious that he is deeply seated in peace.  It’s inspiring, making you want to cultivate that level of tranquility within yourself.  He makes practicing yoga possible for anyone regardless of their level of flexibility, and gives personalized attention to advancing the practice of everyone in the class, gently pushing you to reach new thresholds you never knew you were capable of achieving.

Marichyasana D

Yoga and meditation have improved the quality of my life in multiple ways.  Most importantly, I am learning to breathe during challenging circumstances, constructively assess my thoughts and emotions so as to use logic in handling real world situations.  Making time and space in my life to practice daily, mustering the drive to do it even when I’m not feeling up to it is teaching me self-discipline.  As a result of dedicating myself to daily practice I have noticed an improvement in my digestion -- both of food and the events in my life, helping me to understand and accept them better.  As my balance increases, so I am able to find my balance on the high beam of life mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  Yoga has helped me to become more patient, knowing that if I keep putting forth a daily effort my abilities will increase and I will be in a better state to accept what life has to offer me.  Meditation has helped me to face the root causes of my emotional dis ease and realize that I was stealing material things trying to fill an emotional void, that it takes effort and dedication to self to heal emotional scars -- amassing material things will never make you feel “good enough” -- whether it is acquired by legitimate means or not -- if you don’t understand (and work to fix) the reasons for your feelings of inadequacy.  I have started to become more mentally flexible, more tolerant, better able to “see” people’s energy and strengthen my own energy field so as to repel negativity from taking root and overgrowing in my mind.


My experience has shown me that yoga is an extremely useful (I’d even go so far as to say necessary) tool in helping people in the jail/prison systems, mental institutions, those on the outskirts of society -- everyone really -- to become more whole beings, better mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, citizens.  It is especially useful in correctional institutions since the vast majority of the residents are products of an invisible negatively charged magnet a certain demographic calls the only life they’ve ever known.  A perpetuation of feelings of despair, hopelessness, helplessness, pain, anger, resentment, and a whole host of negative attitudes about life passed from generation to generation creating their realities, keeping them moving in a downward spiral unable to evolve.  Here the accessibility to yoga classes are most needed to help people learn how to connect to that stable center within themselves and make the necessary adjustments in viewpoints, outlook and character to completely change into better people for themselves and those around them.


I truly believe everything happens for a reason.  Though the events in my life have been undesirable, it has ultimately been for the elevation of my soul, so I give thanks.  Yoga and meditation played a big role in my coming to that acknowledgement.  If everyone looked at life this way -- especially some of the most troubled -- we will have made a huge first step towards the enhancement of our collective future.  As I get ready to walk through the doors of freedom tomorrow morning, I feel much more prepared to face the world a new woman, take life by the horns, fulfill my (unlimited) potential, be more grateful for life and listen to the guide I’ve had within my whole life but always ignored.  Thanks God.  And thanks Rob for inspiring me to make my practice a daily ritual.  The work you do is greatly appreciated and immeasurably important. Peace. 

Departing After a Happy Practice