Saturday, October 13, 2012

Anonymous Donor Supports Richmond City Jail Ashtanga Yoga

Funded by an anonymous donor, the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia has made an unrequested, non-competitive, $12,500, 6-month grant to Broome Street Temple, run by renowned Ashtanga Yoga teacher Eddie Stern.  Broome Street Temple is using the grant to support the teaching of Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series to Richmond City Jail inmates.

I offer my heartfelt appreciation to the generous donor.  And I am very grateful to Lisa O'Mara and Susan Hallett of The Community Foundation, and Eddie Stern and the board of Broome Street Temple, for their patience, effort, and communication over a period of months, involved in bringing this grant to fruition.

I started teaching at the jail in April 2008.  I have generally taught hour-and-45-minute classes, three times a week -- over 600 classes since the program began with the blessing of Rev. Canon Alonzo Pruitt, Richmond City Jail Colonel and Chief of Chaplains.  Over four and a half years the program has become  well-established and the large city jail staff has become wonderfully polite and helpful. 

I am fortunate to be able to share the most genuine, practical and existential method of holistic self-help I've ever seen, with people who need it as badly as I do.  Every time I
practice, I am thankful to Pattabhi Jois, who developed and spread this yoga method, and Valerie Jeremijenko, who taught me the practice with love, respect and great encouragement.

Oak Ridge Juvenile Correctional Center
I see the practice as an incredible gift, the sharing of which transcends any question of money.  However, I deeply appreciate this generous financial assistance, which has already served as an impetus for me to bring this specific yoga practice to the boys of Oak Ridge Juvenile Correctional Center.  In June 2012, social worker and therapist Angela Josie, who had read about my work in the May 24, 2011 issue of Style Weekly, and subsequently had some exposure to Ashtanga Yoga, asked me if I would consider establishing a program at Oak Ridge.  Knowledge of the impending grant compensating me for teaching at the Richmond City Jail allowed me to volunteer the program at no charge, in order to avoid the effort and wait of garnering funding.  I know the yoga works, and I want it to become a standard option for inmates statewide.  In July, I began teaching the boys six times a month, and within just a few weeks the staff at Oak Ridge began noting positive behavioral changes in the yoga students.  It's been a pleasure to see how much the staff cares about the boys in their charge, and how immediately they appreciated my passion to help the boys learn to help themselves.

Oak Ridge JCC

Now there is discussion underway to expand the program.  This will require a budget.  These are very troubled boys 14-18 years old, and in order for them to acquire serious daily yoga practices that will be instrumental in removing them from the cycle of recidivism that pervades the penal system, I believe they need instruction a minimum of three times a week.  They need a strong regimen to wake them up to their full potential.  In an effort to engage them more fully, I am asking them personally to make a commitment to the program.  I outline the benefits that yoga can bring:  peace of mind; improved concentration; increased strength, flexibility and balance; improved motor coordination; freedom from destructively reactive, impulsive behavior; and improved social skills including the softening of fragile, easily injured ego.   The boys want these benefits, but they will need frequent, sustained guidance and encouragement if they are to do the daily work necessary to establish their own practices as effective long-term self-rehabilitation.
Oak Ridge JCC

This yoga can change the arcs of the lives of the boys who acquire the practice, and in doing so also save taxpayers substantial money.  The average cost per incarcerated inmate in Virginia is $25,000 per year, and likely higher at Oak Ridge, as it is a small specialized facility for just 40 boys with severe behavioral and developmental problems. 

Oak Ridge JCC

Meanwhile, the Richmond City Jail program is going extremely well.  There are about 25 men who attend class at least occasionally; and about 10 who practice regularly on their own in their tiers, and come to almost every class.  The chapel has room for only about 15 students; once the new jail is complete, we hope to have space for larger classes.

On Monday, I will begin teaching a weekly class to the women of the Richmond City Jail. 

And at the end of January, dear friend and teacher Eddie Stern will be conducting a workshop at Ashtanga Yoga Richmond.  While in town, Eddie plans to share the vitality of his teaching once again with Richmond City Jail inmates, and also with the juveniles incarcerated at Oak Ridge.  Thank you, Eddie, for volunteering to be the fiscal agent for the anonymous grant, and for your valuable ongoing moral and physical support of my efforts with prisoners.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Self-Correction in the Richmond City Jail -- Keith Kaplan and Andre Garnett

Great things are happening in my small yoga world, which I will be writing about in the coming month.

My MCV medical student class is about to begin.

Individuals taking private lessons; boys at Oak Ridge Juvenile Correctional Center; and Richmond City Jail inmates are all experiencing changes exceeding their expectations.

These positive changes are a direct result of sustained daily practice of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga postures, as taught to many superb yoga practitioners directly by Pattabhi Jois, and by these excellent teachers to me.

Last Thursday night I practiced with my guys at jail.  Occasionally I do this so they can see that I give the same effort and attention I ask them to give.  I instruct them to practice only as much as they specifically know in order; and to stop, remain silent, sit and watch when they either get tired or get to a point in the practice where they don't know what comes next.  Some inmates initially resist the notion of my being so specific, but soon enough they realize the beauty of internalizing a specific meditation practice that improves overall health and increases awareness on many levels.  With 14 guys packed into the small chapel, pews upended and mats just inches apart, it was the best self-practice session with the inmates I've ever had.  The yoga continues to be taken more seriously in the jail, as more and more students are observed practicing in their tier on days class is not held.  The tiers hold 100 or more inmates in a very confined space (triple-bunk beds).  These days, when new students arrive, they are already impressed from having seen other inmates working on their self-practice.

Below are letters from two inmates who have each been practicing for about three months.  

Keith Kaplan, age 23, handed me the following letter at the beginning of Thursday night's class.  You can see Keith's handwritten letter here.

September 14, 2012

Coming into the Richmond City Jail the last thing I thought I’d be doing is Yoga.  I figured I’d work out, you know push-ups, pull-ups, things like that.  Never Yoga.  Now here I am with Robbie as my instructor, teaching me the practice.  This has been an amazing experience and I’m stoked to have learned this newfound glory.

Living inside these walls is not easy and I’m faced with day-to-day struggles which I’m powerless over.  Deprived of my physical freedom, yoga is my mental escape.  While on this emotional roller coaster, yoga has leveled me out and balanced my mind and body.  I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to doing something that was good for me.  This has really lifted my spirits.

Yoga has opened my eyes and slowed my mind enough for me to see the bigger picture.  This has been a long strange journey for me of self-searching and self-discovery.  I’m starting to find myself more & more through the practice.  I can see myself through eyes I’ve never looked through and it’s beautiful.  I’m beginning to see life for what it is and how it works.  I used to wander aimlessly through my mind but now I’m beginning to find purpose.  It’s an experience of ecstasy.  I feel almost reborn.

I can’t thank Robbie enough for what he’s done for me.  As well as the numerous other guys that have been unfortunately fortunate enough to have met Robbie here.  Robbie you have opened my eyes to a new beauty and blessed me with a new way of life.  Thank you for caring, your time, and your patience.  You’re awesome, dude!!!

With Much Love,

Keith Kaplan

Andre Garnett, 35, gave me the following letter a few weeks ago.  Below his letter I have typed its transcript.

"I remember the day my homie Colin asked me to attend a yoga class being offered at the Richmond City Jail w/ him.  I thought to myself, “Dude you’re 30 plus years old, have not conditioned your body to do something that excessive in years, are already dealing with a lot as is.”  This was in 2009, so fast forward 3 years and here I am taking the same class @ the same jail with the same instructor as Colin asked me to attend before.  I wish I hadn’t been so closed minded to the benefits of yoga then.  B-cuz I’m sure I’d be further along in my practice than I currently am.  What I like so much about replacing a calisthenic workout with Ashtanga Yoga is not only do the movements focus on stretching and building the muscles, joints, ligaments – but the focus of core breathing with the change of each position, coupled with fixed focal points, forces an inner meditation that truly brings mind and body to one universal place of happiness or tranquility.  No matter if one has a physical ailment of the body or finds oneself in a mental state of confusion, frustration, or sadness, from day-to-day events.  Ashtanga Yoga, in correct practice, tends to address all these issues.  Being incarcerated and practicing Ashtanga Yoga gives me an outlet to relieve the stress that builds up every day.  The two classes a week with Robbie are the only things I’ve come to look forward to on a weekly basis.  My personal practice is used to perfect the asanas (postures) and free my mind on a daily basis.  This is a practice I’m now thankful of discovering and plan to incorporate into the rest of my life.  My goal in my practice is to be able to one day teach this art just as effectively as it is being taught to me.  Thank you Robbie for your dedication to this way of life and may I one day aid in spreading it to those in need.


Andre Chaka Garnett
Garnett Industries
Ice Cold"

Friday, June 15, 2012

Bryan Shull Suffers Prison-Yoga Injury!

If William Broad can publicly declaim yoga injuries that aren't really yoga injuries, in order to create a sensation that helps sell his book, I thought I could employ similar provocation in the form of a misleading title to see if the same strategy helps to circulate this post.  (I bought Broad's book but haven't read it yet.)

And I will relay an absolute gem of a letter from inmate Bryan Shull, in which he talks about his injury and his practice.

(Also, I thought the title might humor my "virtual" friends Steve Cahn and Bobbie Allen, who have created an engagingly informative resource-blog for practitioners interested in salient information regarding all things Ashtanga -- and who have generously helped to spread the news of Richmond City Jail Yoga by linking to me.) 

William Broad's Yoga Injury

Back in February in an NPR interview with Terry Gross, William Broad gave an account of a yoga injury he suffered a few years ago (beginning at 2:00 minutes through 3:45).  As I listened I was astounded at the absurdity of his anecdote, and that he was being given such a national public relations effort -- from NPR; from his own paper, the Times, in which peers such as Jane Brody extolled his book; and from other major media.  Broad is widely known as an excellent and accomplished science writer, and he claims to have been practicing yoga for 30 years.  But, the very first example he gives of a yoga injury, has nothing to do with yoga.  Rather, it's an inane example of getting hurt while specifically not doing yoga in a yoga class.  Broad recounts attending "an advanced class" in Pennsylvania where "about half the people in there were going through teacher training," where he was working on "side angle pose" with a "beautiful young woman" and "strutting [his] stuff"and "chatting with her" -- apparently while in the pose -- all the while basking in the proud enjoyment of being able to perform so handsomely even though he was a "cranky old journalist" amidst a class full of "young, beautiful, flexible women."  Then he suddenly had a back spasm that stopped him in his tracks, caused a feeling of "fire in the base of [his] back," sudden vision impairment due to tears in his eyes, and collapsing of the knees.  And then, of course, he was deeply embarrassed; and it took a couple of months to recover.

I'll simply say I can't imagine anyone I've ever kown who has practiced yoga consistently and correctly for 30 years -- or even 3 years -- telling such a story to explicate how yoga can cause injury.  It's true that at the end of his story he did say he had been distracted, but he didn't properly emphasize that point.  Since yoga is certainly -- among other things -- a practice of the art of paying attention, he was specifically not practicing yoga; so why even tell the story?  What a waste of national air time, except for Broad, who was profiting by using sensation to generate interest in his book.

I would like to offer Mr. Broad a practice tip -- a funny bit of advice I saw the other day attributed to my friend Eddie Stern -- certainly one of the finest yoga teachers I have met:

                                                       Breathe, don't stretch.

And as I sometimes remind my inmates:  Only an extremely advanced practitioner can talk with his mouth closed, and if you can do that, I might like to become your student.

A "Broad Analogy"

From an interview with Vanessa Fiola on her blog, RecoveringYogi:

Vanessa: Do you think that the reason that people have sort of ignored the vast benefits that you’ve laid out in the book has more to do with the threatening of that mysticism?
William: I don’t know, it’s so complex and there’s so many levels. It’s this sense of the mystique of perfection, and there’s also the real economic interests, right? I mean, I don’t like using the phrase “the yoga industrial complex” because it makes it sound like this monolithic military thing, which it’s not. It’s fractured. But there are real economic interests that feel threatened by somebody saying “Yoga can result in serious injuries.” It’s been a little bit like going to Philip Morris to ask “Can cigarettes cause cancer?” and Philip Morris saying “Well of course cigarettes don’t cause cancer. Cigarettes make you feel wonderful!” There is a deep economic interest in selling good news.

[Well, thank goodness Mr. Broad doesn't claim to be a logician in addition to being a 30-year yoga practitioner. ]

Prisoner Bryan Shull's Yoga Injury

At least, Bryan Shull actually was practicing yoga at the moment he was injured, in June 2011 at Indian Creek Correctional Center -- by another inmate who came up behind Bryan while he was in Virabhadrasana, and swung a lock wrapped inside a washcloth against Bryan's face, breaking his nose.  Bryan is fine now.  He was put in solitary confinement for protection, and subsequently moved to a different facility -- Haynesville Correctional Center -- where he has continued to practice without a yoga mat since last July.

Can anyone explain to me why inmates in the Virginia Correctional System are allowed to own televisions, but not yoga mats?

When Bryan was first moved to Indian Creek Correctional Center, I wrote to the prison's chaplain in an effort to begin an Ashtanga Yoga program.  Although the center is two and a half hours away, I thought it would be a great experiment to see if I could generate interest among a group of inmates to learn (and practice daily) the Primary Series of Ashtanga:

 -----Original Message-----
> From: Robbie Norris [] 
> Sent: Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:14 AM
> To: Corbitt, Calvin R.
> Subject: Ashtanga Yoga/Bryan Shull
> Dear Chaplain Corbitt:
> Bryan's mother tells me that there has been some talk of starting a yoga
> program at Indian Creek.
> I taught Bryan in the Richmond City jail, where we now have a very good
> ongoing program of inmates learning this ancient non-discursive specific
> practice of meditative transformation. I teach there three times a week.
> The chaplain at the Richmond jail is Rev. Canon Alonzo Pruitt, who I'm
> sure would be happy to talk to you. His number is 804-646-4006.
> You might also want to take a look at my website.
> I would certainly enjoy coming down one weekend to help get it started,
> with follow-up visits to help get it running smoothly.
> I am not seeking money or red tape; I would just come do it.
> Hope to hear from you soon.
> Robbie Norris
> 804-928-6677
> Sent from my iPhone

I thought Chaplain Corbitt's response was interesting. He was certainly not unkind, but the sense of bureaucracy with which I'd have to contend was apparent:

On May 19, 2011, at 3:23 PM, "Corbitt, Calvin R." 

> Hello Mr. Norris, 
> Thank you for taking the lead on this matter and offering your services
> to the inmates of Indian Creek Correctional Center.   In order to know
> how to proceed I will need to know what type of yoga you teach.  If it
> is not affiliated with a particular faith, it would have to be offered
> through our recreation department.   If you are seeking to teach it as a
> religious exercise, I would need to know under what faith group.  
> Chaplain Corbitt 

I replied to the chaplain:

Robbie Norris <>
Corbitt, Calvin R. 
Re: Ashtanga Yoga/Bryan Shull
Mon, May 23, 2011 11:41 am

Dear Chaplain Corbitt:

Thank you for replying so quickly. 

This yoga practice is not a religion, and there is nothing to believe other than 
the existential truths that are revealed over time with continued practice: that 
love, gratitude and being helpful to others are natural states that produce 
happiness and stability. The philosophy of the practice has ancient roots that 
pre-date organized religion, and the specific practice is of unverified/unknown 
origin but has been propagated in the last century from Mysore, India and is now 
known throughout the world. While it is not a religion, the practice deepens the 
spiritual experience for anyone of any religion.

The program would be one of conveying the practice of the primary series of 
Ashtanga Yoga. This is a roughly 90-minute practice of meditative focus, 
synchronizing a specific method of breathing with a specific series of flowing 
yoga postures.

The practice works to harmonize mind, body and spirit, and is available to 
people of all faiths, as well as to atheists and agnostics. For instance, 
Muslims attending would be welcome to do their prayers during class as warranted 
by their Muslim prayer practice.

Jesus said, My yoke is easy, my burden light. The word Yoke is cognate with the 
word Yoga, which means Union, or Harmony.  So it may be true that Jesus was 
effectively saying, My state of mental, physical and spiritual harmony is easy, 
therefore my burden is light. This is my understanding of the verse, though I am 
open to correction.

Therefore, I would like to ask your assistance in categorizing the program in 
such a way as to minimize red tape so that we can begin soon, with a proper 
degree of respect, and I would love for you to be present to witness and 
evaluate my effort.

It may be helpful for you to look through my website, and perhaps talk to Rev. 
Father Pruitt, Undersheriff of the Richmond City Jail.

I don't mean to skirt your question. I suppose I would call it an Adjunct to any 
religious faith, rather than "a faith" or simply recreation in the normal sense 
of that word. But it is certainly a form of "Re-Creation," and tends to be 
centrally rehabilitative to those who practice correctly and consistently. The 
underlying foundation of the practice is love and non-violence toward oneself 
and others.

Ultimately, It doesn't matter to me how it is classified, nor will it matter to 
the inmates. I would like to classify it in such a way as to draw the largest 
inmate audience for my introduction, so long as the participants will have time 
and space to practice daily, should they desire, between my visits. My thought 
is to visit frequently and  enough times to get the class going smoothly, with 
Bryan becoming the teacher as soon as possible; and then I would visit maybe 

Robbie Norris

Sent from my iPhone

The chaplain passed my email to the recreation department, and a few weeks later I received an email from the recreation department asking if I was still interested:

On Jun 8, 2011, at 3:18 PM, "Moore, Gary L." 

> Mr. Norris,
> I was forwarded your email to our chaplain as I am the recreation
> supervisor here at Indian Creek.  I have looked over your website in its
> entirety and it seems like an appreciable and propagable activity for
> our population.  I just want to be sure that you're aware that Indian
> Creek is 2 hours from Richmond.  If you're willing to make the commute
> and travel, I'd be willing to set up a visit.  Let me know your thoughts
> please.
> Glmoore
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Corbitt, Calvin R. 
> Sent: Monday, May 23, 2011 4:05 PM
> To: Robichaux, Dara F.; Moore, Gary L.
> Subject: FW: Ashtanga Yoga/Bryan Shull
> Hello Ms. Robichaux and Mr. Moore,
> Yoga sounds like it would fit better under recreation so I'm passing
> this on to you if you are interested. 
> C. Corbitt 

I responded that I was indeed still wishing to propagate the yoga, but I never got a reply. Soon after, Bryan was attacked, and removed to another facility, so I didn't pursue my effort further.

I needed there to be an inmate who knew the practice -- Bryan -- so that the brand new group of students would have someone with whom to practice between my visits. Without such help, the chance of inmates practicing between my visits would be too slim to warrant the travel and effort.

The only other way it might have worked, without Bryan Shull, is if there had been an "Alonzo Pruitt" at the Indian Creek prison. The Rev. Canon Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt has been the lynchpin of the Richmond City Jail Yoga program. Here is a jail built for 800 people that houses an average population of 1500, and processes 30,000 inmates a year; the potential for bureaucratic meltdown is huge. However, when I initially telephoned Father Pruitt in April of 2008, he invited me to visit with him the next day. We visited; I signed a form saying that I understood I could be kidnapped or killed; I went out and bought some cheap mats, and began teaching the following week. Father Pruitt has a heart of gold: he was immediately open to experimenting with the potential for something positive; I knew the magic of yoga and that the primary series is perfectly suited to teach in prison. Father Pruitt knew little about yoga but yet he could see I was so inspired by the practice that I wanted to share it without reservation -- so he basically said, "Great, show me what you got, and if it's good, we'll make it ongoing!"

At the time, I didn't realize how unusual it was to be able to begin a program so quickly without wasting energy on bureaucratic nonsense. The state prisons generally house fewer inmates, with much lower turnover, and yet, they present far greater bureaucratic obstacles to my initiating a yoga program --- even when I have offered to do it for free, and bring the yoga mats myself, in an effort to streamline things. While attempting to start programs at two state prisons during the last year and getting nowhere, my appreciation for Father Pruitt has continued to grow. I met with the activities director of Powhatan Correctional Center, who expressed definite interest, but said any yoga mats used would have to be "purchased by the correctional facility through an approved vendor," which would take at least a month. Subsequently, he never returned my phones calls or emails.

The Richmond City Jail program exists because Alonzo Pruitt champions it to the administration and to the inmates. Father Pruitt speaks more eloquently about yoga than I do, and he personally recruits new students when the inevitable turnover causes attrition, to keep the class full; there are typically 15-20 students, which means in the small chapel space the mats are sometimes only an inch or two apart. Father Pruitt genuinely cares about the jail residents, knows the yoga is transformative, and has never ceased to devote his supportive energy to the cause -- even though there is no mandate for the program (of which I am aware), and he could cancel it any time should he get tired of the extra effort ... or tired of me. And there is extra effort involved, because sometimes I ask him to arrange unusual things, such as having visitors come observe the class, traveling Ashtanga teachers visit the class, and VCU/MCV medical students (whom I teach) visit and practice with the inmates. Without Father Pruitt, I don't think this program would exist, because it seems to me few people inside the system understand and appreciate the value of the program, and care enough about the inmates, to exert the kind of consistent good effort on its behalf, as does Alonzo Pruitt.

Bryan Shull was moved from Richmond City Jail to Dillwyn Correctional Center in August 2010. Then he was moved to Indian Creek Correctional Center in spring of 2011, and to Haynesville Correctional Center a few months later (after he was attacked), where he has resided for the last year.

The following evocative letter is the fourth in a series. To see Bryan's handwritten letter, click here.

June 2011


Dear Robbie … ,

And all who will read, I’m sure you’ve heard the glossed over version and that’s how we will leave it for now. I’ll just say getting hit in the face with a lock wrapped in a washcloth sure does ruin a practice!

Let me tell you I have never been so happy to be locked in solitary in all my sentence, I got to read four books and once I started to heal and got my balance back I made good use of the bare concrete floor & practiced every day! After a week I started laying my blanket down for the sitting asanas & really enjoyed the peace & quiet. It really was a nice change & I needed it, to heal in private & to get focused as well. I received the cut-out article from my Mom, bless her heart at a time when I needed it most. While getting back on my feet, anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I never give up. But I was very frustrated as it has seemed since I left the [Richmond City] Jail it’s been a constant struggle to just be able to do my daily practice, for one reason or another I’ve constantly felt as though I’m breaking my routine. Like every time I get situated in to that place where the salutations aren’t so difficult & I’m getting somewhere or making progress something happens, I can’t practice indoors at a particular institution or this or that or I get hit in the face with a combination lock and have to heal for a week! Then I was reading your article and was reminded that I’m not doing but practicing, the best that I can every chance I get.

I am practicing yoga! On my own, for better or worse, sometimes in mud & being bitten by a mean horsefly the other day, or when it’s too hot or too cold. But practicing …

And I decided that I would no matter what & I have been able to keep going, regardless. I may not be doing things as well as I would like or sometimes as often however I’m way farther along or better off for doing what I can than I would be for giving up! I don’t have my teacher around often so I have to remember the little sayings, like, “it’s better to do a little yoga every day than a lot of yoga every once in a while.” And it is the only thing I would add is if I can do the sun salutations every day I tell myself at # 10 why stop now? I’m already started and have done the hardest part!

And through this the hardest part of my life while & when I’m lonely, depressed, frustrated or any of the flood of intense emotions I always have [yoga] & sometimes it’s all I have, to focus my energies or to look forward to or just to keep me company. The other day I found out my tenant was moving soon without much if any notice, after a few frustrating conversations with a great deal of unpleasant feelings.

I walked outside & found my place I’ve chosen here, a place that’s fairly level & the grass is somewhat consistent, off in a corner. And I began what I think of as the process.

Meditating a few minutes & just not thinking of all the crap in my life and with “a mind that had let go” I said the mantra after I Om-ed a few seconds & began, had one of the best practices I’ve had in a while… physically and mentally.

I got up and walked a couple of laps enjoying something my teacher tried to explain to us.  I feel it’s part of the process for me now!

As I walk away from wherever I practice I like to look back & think about what I’m leaving behind, then I enjoy the time afterwards that it takes for the “stuff to try and return.”  It never all comes back?  It feels like a little is lost in the process!  Sometimes a lot and I’m just so thankful, more than words could ever express!

As described in the article living incarcerated is the equivalent of either being a human who is in the same situation as a dog in the pound or to live like the victims of Hurricane Katrina?  Trapped in temporary housing for years?  Or like maybe using the bathroom at a restaurant every day? 

That article was good and well written and I was impressed.  However it only began to tell the story of how much help that you have so selflessly given each one of us.

I’m not sure I’d have made it this far with the amount of sanity I do have left without being taught how to practice, & to let go of a little bit with every asana.

Even though everything around me is pretty ugly & somewhat negative I have something beautiful and very positive to look forward to tomorrow & almost no one else in here does.

And for that I’m forever grateful and the least I can do is put forth my share of effort, and have a better day than everyone else around me?

The adventures of Yoga man shall continue, as I get a little closer every day ….

Yogi Bryan!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bryan Shull's Continuing Account of Practicing Ashtanga Yoga Alone in Prison

I bring yoga to the Richmond City Jail for two reasons.  First, almost every inmate feels hugely better every time they take the class:

On Monday afternoon, about 15 minutes into my practice at the Abner Clay Park gazebo in Jackson Ward, I peripherally noticed a guy coming toward me, who stopped and leaned against the gazebo upright pole.  He began talking softly, "Man, when I used to do yoga I felt better than I ever did!  But that was a year and a half ago."  From downward dog I asked, "Oh, yeah -- where'd you practice yoga?"  He replied, "In the City Jail -- wait! -- Rob!  It's Sylvester!"  I finished my sun salutation and we greeted warmly.  I remembered his presence in class.  He was a nice man with good humor and had been a fairly consistent student, but not a standout; he came to class for this first reason when he was in jail.  "Have you practiced any since you got released," I asked.  "Ah, man, Rob I ain't gonna lie to you -- I haven't.  Man! But I should."  We laughed and I said, "Well, ain't that something! The best you ever felt was when you were in jail." And then I resumed my practice, aware that too much conversation might suddenly prompt a "short-practice day," which I didn't want to happen.  Bless his heart, part of the reason I teach yoga in jail is to make people feel better while they're there.

But the second, main, and motivating reason I do it is for the inmates to learn how to make themselves feel better for the rest of their lives.  I want them to memorize the specific 90-minute practice the same as I have, and to cultivate it as their own long-term daily practice of meditative self-examination and exploration.  As much as I enjoy helping the men feel happy in the moment, my commitment to teach them derives from knowing that some of the students, when they begin feeling the benefits, will accept my invitation to apply the disciplined effort necessary to learn and adopt the practice as a life-affirming, and even life-saving resource.  As it turns out, these are the rare few, and the reason might be a sort of fundamental laziness, which when combined with a predilection for hard drugs, makes daily practice somewhat of a pipe dream.  They know yoga is better than drugs, but it requires effortful initiative to step on the mat alone.  If an inmate enjoys attending the class but can't find the initiative to begin stepping onto his mat in the cell, on days class is not held, he will not gain the habit of self-practice; thus he will not have an established practice to compete with the practice-killing temptations and obstacles awaiting him in state or federal prison, or in the outside world.  My mission is to instill the habit of self-practice.

I know this yoga will revolutionize the lives of those who adopt it as a fundamental daily discipline, and it is intrinsically rewarding to me to be able to offer that possibility to a person who is so off-track they've landed in jail.  While I can't speak for every human being, I do know that for me, and for every inmate I've taught who accepts my invitation to practice during days class is not held, the yoga makes us clearer mediums of consciousness than we were before yoga.  And it feels so lovely and sublime to do -- even though it always takes some effort to step ... onto ... the mat.  But the good news is, as the self-practice becomes more established over time, the effort becomes an accepted part of the equation; the benefits are so good and obvious, and the direct knowledge that practice is always worth the effort becomes ingrained in the practitioner.

The Primary Series practice makes a person feel healthy and well for just about a whole day.  (One friend I teach who has MS, says it makes her feel "neurologically put-together," an excellent description of its effect.)  If an inmate engages in a daily discipline that makes him feel neurologically and physiologically well every day -- regardless of whatever drama is happening in his external world -- common sense informs us that over time his life will get better; because for most people, if they feel better, they tend to treat themselves and others better, which leads to further stress reduction, in addition to the direct physiological reduction in stress due to the practice itself.

The practice naturally inculcates patient, non-reactive observation.  This quality is rarely apparent in a typical inmate prior to yoga, rash behavior often being responsible for their incarceration.  Doing this practice properly and daily begins to infiltrate one's life with the same skills and awareness one naturally develops as a consequence of continued practice:  attentiveness, consideration, patience, allowing for a spaciousness between stimulus and reaction in one's general life.

Another beneficial result of ongoing practice is that it reduces pretension.  You cannot get very far in practice by pretending.  You learn through direct experience that it is harmful to pretend you are stronger or more flexible or more prepared than you are.  The practice naturally prompts us to act simply, carefully, efficiently, patiently, and without guile.

The other day an inmate said, "Robbie! Let me ask you something. Have you always been so calm, or is that the yoga?"  I laughed and said, "What do you mean?"  He said, "Well, man, you're just always so calm! You seem like you never get upset! You're always so even!"  I assured him that not everyone would agree with him on that point, but that it's certainly true that yoga has naturally increased my reservoir of patience.  I am more considered in my actions than I used to be, and a little less reactive.

Everyone I've known who practices this yoga daily, would say without hesitation that the yoga has positively and fundamentally changed their whole life.

I am grateful for the incredible gift of almost magical renewal each day -- whether I deserve it or not -- and I thoroughly enjoy trying to impart this same life-improving gift to the inmates.


Bryan Shull, 39, is an excellent mechanic, and as you can see, a fine artist.  He is one of the rare students who became so inspired learning most of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga in the Richmond City Jail, that he has continued his practice for the past two years in state prison -- without a yoga mat -- and when necessary "on the sly."  Bryan enjoys writing about his "self-study," and has sent me several engaging letters.

This letter is the third in a series.  Click here to see Bryan's handwritten letter.

From:  Bryan Shull # 1416874
Indian Creek Correctional Center
Chesapeake, VA

February 6, 2011 and April 1, 2011

[Bryan has since been moved and is currently held at:
Haynesville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 129
Haynesville, VA 22472]

[Part one of following letter was written from Dillwyn Correctional Center and dated February 6, 2011.  It is unedited.]

Freedom … You’ve got to give what you take.  Easily dismissed as an old wornout lyric, from a once popular pop song.

As Valentines Day approaches I find myself in a last minute rush to finish my mailings & trying to balance my practise & reck time with Church & meetings.  I found myself letting the same foolish thoughts I had at Christmas return, Should I take a few days off, then double back with an extra dose of devotion?  Then I started thinking about my teacher preaching every day at least 10 sun salutations, My dad’s old song about not ever borrowing money to get out of debt & that’s when it hit me … How hard it was to catch back up from Christmas & how silly it would be to go through that again!  So I shifted my thinking a bit to what it should always be, putting my recovery, spiritual practices/Yoga first and then let everything else in my life fall into place.

What a difference it has made to get back what’s most important.  And I have as always been getting back exactly what I put into it!  As an added benefit I find myself feeling so much better, having more energy and being able to accomplish more in a day … So I’m wondering if this example of Devesa or Aversion is what they are talking about when they are describing Clouds of thought darkening the clear sky of the mind?  Useless clouds of worry & negative thought!  Causing an otherwise beautiful practice to start as an overcast day?  And for what?  Surely nothing good, so I began to practice for the right reason -- the joy of it!

And in doing so I kept in mind my teacher’s words, equal parts struggle and surrender [note: his teacher said “don’t struggle; equal parts effort and surrender.”], I have been just concentrating on my breathing, trying not to have any thoughts at all while practicing and most importantly enjoying it fully!

I as of late have had some of my best and most enjoyable practices ever.

[This second installment which came in the same envelope, was written from Indian Creek Correction Center, shortly after Bryan was transferred from Dillwyn, and is dated April 1, 2011.]

Sorry it’s been so long …

I carried the February letter & envelope I was working on with me, thinking as soon as I was settled I’d finish them, Well here’s the thing!  I’d had no idea they were to move me at all they just said (at 4:am) Shull pack your gear!

Then when I got here (Indian Creek Correctional Center) which is supposed to be a “therapeutic community” however I’m just not feeling it, I found it’s full of drugs & people who’ll steal anything they can get their hands on.  The food’s terrible & the water tastes like bait!

We get up at 5:30 am & group (about nothing) until 4:00 pm, the reck program is you can pick, you can go to chow or go outside? As outside reck & chow are held at the same time? Yes this does as they say bite the big one!  Then I get to the part I liked, “the Yoga” it’s why they call me yogi right?  Well it seems they have a problem with people “bucking the program” as they say, even though those who buck are sent to the hole & then shipped away minus any good time they had left to earn, I have all of mine intact 8 months or so?

That of course I didn’t want to lose, but still I resisted what I have now learned is a hopeless endeavor until they found out I do yoga & didn’t care?  And then I started to take a look around. 

I realized that there’s all these meetings & programs available to me, they even are trying to make me an usher at Church.  And somehow they found out I worked on the crew for the program at the [Richmond City] jail & have since recruited me for a crew member.  I asked about practicing yoga and was told just don’t hurt yourself!  SO now I’m at the point where it’s not really all that important what I think, my job is simply to wake up every day & do the best I can to put good out there in my own way & try to keep my side of the street clean. 

Putting my recovery, yoga, & my relationship with my creator first knowing everything else will work out as it’s supposed to!  It’s taken a lot to reset my internal clock and for a while I was walking around like a zombie!  But after awhile now I’m looking back & thinking two things, first it’s pretty funny that a guy so concerned with his recovery was so upset to have been moved to a “T.C.” [Therapeutic Community] camp or reentry facility!  And secondly is through all this I’ve had this wonderful practice to do every day and to keep me company!

I almost feel spoiled at times?  And … wait there’s more, there are others (not zombies), people who thought they were doing Yoga till I came along!  And there’s more still, it seems I’ve come to some place in my own practice where it seems that I just keep getting a little more & more or closer & closer on the regular whether it be a goal of reaching farther or being more in tune with my breathing?  Maybe I’ve just hit a sweet spot, but I sure am enjoying it & trying to soak up every little bit while it’s like this!  It’s like getting little gifts along the way!  Or maybe yoga on the incentive plan?  And I’m able to share with others!  Which combined with watching people go home on the regular has really put me in different spirits altogether!

It’s a lot farther from home & I don’t get as many of those wonderful visits I miss so much?  But sometimes we’ve got to grow where we’re planted!  Live life on life’s terms as they say & besides as I think of all the selfless people in my life like you who gives so freely of themselves I’m reminded of how lucky I am.  It’s true I’m fortunate to not have my way.

As I would’ve sold myself short in more ways than one.  I’ve really gotten a lot of enjoyment out of sharing with others.  This has truly been a gift and I can’t thank you enough but I think about you after I practice.

And am very sorry it’s taken so long to get used to my new digs & sorted out enough to start getting out some work, there are no frogs yet … but I’m sure they’ll turn up eventually?  This was just what popped out when I picked up my stuff, I thought it looked better before I tried to finish it!

I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did working on it.

                                    Thank you again,
                                                            Keeping the faith &
                                                            Missing you guys

                                                Tune in next time for the
                                                            Adventures of
                                                                                    Yogi Shull
                                                                        The Mystic Bryan?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Eddie Stern visits Richmond City Jail

It's been great to become acquainted with Eddie Stern over the past nine months.  I wrote to Eddie last August asking if he would consider coming to the Richmond City Jail in September while in town for a workshop at Ashtanga Yoga Richmond, and the following day received his reply:

Dear Robbie,

Thank you very much for your email. It would be an honor to come with you to the Richmond City Jail to teach. I am scheduled to be in Richmond Friday thru Sunday. If Sunday afternoon is possible, after the workshop is finished, that would be ideal. However, I don't want you to go through any trouble to change your schedule, so alternatively I could come to Richmond a day early and come to the Thursday evening class. 

Thank you again for thinking of me and for the invitation.

Yours truly,

We began an earnest (and humorous) exchange of emails, and shortly upon discussing alternate times to visit the jail, Eddie offered to visit twice, for however long I wanted -- both before and after he was to conduct his workshop at AYR.  In fact, Eddie repeated in subsequent emails, and upon meeting at the train station, as well as at the end of the weekend when I returned him to the train station, that he was honored to be asked to come to the jail.  This is the essence of "namaste"(I bow to you) : feeling honored to help the needy.

And this was about as pure as Giving can be.  The subject of money never even arose (except when I took Eddie to Balliceaux where he insisted on buying me dinner).  He knew mine was a volunteer effort and was just so happy to help.

Good teachers thrive from sharing their knowledge, and passion for practice.  If one is driven by helping people, loves yoga and believes in its transformative effects, every visit to the city jail offers so much inspiration to the teacher, because there's a constant supply of inmates in great need who appreciate the instruction.

Eddie is a master of the Ashtanga Yoga practice, a master teacher, and a scholar of yoga.  In a NYT article  last fall, (a slightly funny "humor piece" about relatively nothing), Deb Schoeneman wrote that Eddie's name is always "uttered in hushed, reverent tones."  This did make me laugh -- because it's both true and funny, and I imagined Eddie would laugh when he read it (which he did, as evidenced by the Beavis and Butthead opening to his blogged response).

I have known of Eddie for almost the entire 11 years I've been practicing, initially through his contribution to Lino Miele's Astanga Yoga (1996).  Additionally, my first inspiring teacher, Valerie Jeremijenko, would practice at Eddie's studio whenever she was in New York visiting her sister, Natalie.  And Valerie did speak softly and earnestly about Eddie.  I knew he was or had been Madonna's teacher, and  Gwyneth Paltrow's -- and I had seen him in the film Ashtanga, NY (2004).  I also had several issues of Namarupa, the magazine Eddie co-publishes with Robert Moses; as well as his recent collaboration with Guy Donahhaye:  Guruji, A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students (2010). So although I had never met Eddie, he had been an inspiring presence to me since the inception of my practice.

Picking up Eddie at the train station, I amusedly saw that he was also a cheerful, dapper, sartorial connoisseur; and super sharp, with easy, graceful humor.  His clarity, transparent honesty, cultured passion for teaching and telling stories, and scholarship are why people speak so respectfully of Eddie.  He has become known worldwide in Ashtanga circles and beyond, without advertising or seeking attention; his studio didn't even have a website until just over a year ago.  Every year for 18 years Eddie traveled to India to study with Pattabhi Jois, and he translated two of Jois's books into English.  Steeped in yoga practice and study, Eddie exudes intrinsic kindness, precision, and lack of pretension.  Michael Pepe, a student who has been practicing with Eddie for about a dozen years, and now lives partly in Richmond, and so practices at both studios, seemed so pleased when I told him of my impression of Eddie.  "And the wonderful thing, Robbie, that you'll find if you continue to know Eddie," Michael said, "is that he's always like that, very consistent."

Click here to see Richmond City Jail inmate Sean Hardy's letter to Eddie.

Click here for the article, "Pose Posse" (NYT, February 27, 2012), which includes an excellent video interview with Eddie and footage of students practicing at his Ashtanga Yoga New York studio.

Click here to see a nice clip of Eddie on Martha Stewart.

Thank you, Eddie!  Thank you for your immediate and continuing interest in sharing your instruction and understanding with the Richmond City Jail inmates, and your gifts of several copies of your books Yoga Mala (Stern translation, 2002), Suryanamaskara (Stern translation, 2005), and James Fox's Prison Yoga Project (2009).

It is heartening to become acquainted with a teacher who carries his extensive learning with such grace and humility, and I do hope our acquaintance will continue: it is beneficial to my practice, to my ability to teach, and to me as a human being.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

David Swenson Gives to Richmond City Jail Yoga

I’ve never met David Swenson, but when I wrote to him last year about the Richmond City Jail Yoga, he replied with the same wonderful kindness and enthusiasm that is so apparent in the section titled "Thoughts" on his website:


WOW your work is an inspiration! Thank you SO VERY MUCH for sending it along. If there is something I can do to support your work let me know. Maybe I can donate books or DVDs to your programs. Also let's keep in touch and maybe someday I can come there and participate in the program with you!

I send you my best wishes and respect!


We continued email contact, and meanwhile there arrived at my door two big boxes containing 10 high-quality yoga mats, two copies of Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual (2007), David’s instructional DVDs, and the fabulous Advanced A & B Series (2004) featuring David Swenson, David Williams and three others practicing on the beach in Maui.

Because David’s mats are of superior quality I doled them out slowly, to the most consistent practitioners, securing promises that the mats would be returned to me should the inmates get released or shipped or quit the class for any reason.

                                                              Photo by Scott Elmquist

The prisoners were grateful, and when they realized these gifts came from a man respected the world over for his longstanding practice and teaching abilities, they felt especially honored, as can be seen in their letters below.

There are 30,000 prisoners a year processed through the Richmond City Jail, which was built to house 800 inmates and usually holds around 1500.  Some are in jail for a short period before being released or shipped to state or federal prison, and some have been in the jail for more than three years.  Because of this high volume of traffic through the jail, we have at least one new student in almost every class.

                                                             Photo by Scott Elmquist

Thank you, David Swenson, for your moral and material support!  You have been a great inspiration to me during my 11 years of practice and I look forward to meeting you one day.

                                                          Photo by Eve Painter

Below are letters from four inmates written to David Swenson last July, followed by his response to them:

July 17, 2011

Dear Mr. David Swenson,

My name is Sean L Hardy.  I am one of the fortunate & grateful recipients of your generous contribution of yoga mats and videos to the Richmond City Jail yoga class, via Mr. Robbie Norris, who dedicates his time, talent, and wisdom to all of us, so faithfully and freely, three times a week.

I also participate in a recovery program here in which consists of many educational groups & lessons, such as anger management, relapse prevention, fatherhood, twelve steps, etc., none of which has reached me on the deep level nor put me in touch with my true self and enlightened me to the magnitude that Mr. Norris’ class has had on me.

I’m 43-years old and am finally finding the life long search, for inner peace, I’ve been missing, through Ashtanga and Siddha yoga.

Thank you again sincerely and so much for your compassion and generous contribution.

Agape Love,

Sean L Hardy


Dear David,

I am writing this letter to thank you for the yoga mat I received in class from Robbie.  First let me admit the Richmond City Jail is the last place I’d expect to get drawn into something like yoga.  And I am very much drawn in and captivated by its effects and benefits but am sure you are well aware of that.  Not only is it physically refreshing, I can’t get over the calm I get from a very strenuous workout not to mention I can touch my toes.  That alone is enough to have me in awe, seeing as how I’ve never been able to do that due to a curved spine.  After receiving the very comfortable mat, I sat on my bunk and a strange emotion came over me.  I realized I never received anything as a reward to dedication to something.  Except maybe legal trouble and incarceration.  So, what is just a mat to some I see as a stepping stone to better achievements.  Not to mention motivation to master this spiritual art.  I will add this experience to the growing list of life skills I am taking with me once I’m released to embark upon my world changing mission.  You’ve shown me the power one stranger can have on another person’s life with one simple kind, selfless act and I thank you from the warmest place of my heart.

Marco Thomas
Resident of Rich City Jail


To, David Swenson

This is Keith Thompson one of the many yoga students at the Richmond City Jail Robbie Norris has touched so very deeply with his love and compassion for us all.  To open our minds and to truly find our paths of enlightenment.  He brings people like your self to the acknowledgment of people like myself behind bars.  Trying to renew our minds, bodies, souls for all of mankind.  To give back the love and compassion just like it has been given so freely from you with the loving gifts of yoga the mats and DVDs.  I hope one day I will be able to touch people’s lives and hearts the way you did that day when Robbie Norris came in with those yoga mats and DVDs.  Thank you so much with all of my love of my being.

Keith Edward Thompson # 79848


Mr. Swenson …. David,

AUM.  Just a few words of thanks and appreciation for the asana mats.

I have only been practicing some 8 mos. Tho’ even or especially at 54; I feel that Astanga has helped me to focus and with discipline it too has strengthened both physical and subtle bodies … my body much more agile and lithe.

Through the auspices of my yoga instructor Robbie Norris I have been exposed to Hatha/ Astanga Yoga and feel my life changed.  And too I have viewed yoga master Jois in NYC 9/11 (what a collective energy and beauty) and as well “David Swenson and Friends” (in Maui), and your earlier work in “Mysore.”  I have to admit that my naivete renders me unable to fully appreciate the depth and capacity of 2nd and 3rd Series Astanga.  However, I see its grace, ebb and flow, kriyas and sublime existence --- a life refining beyond what words can express, and I think to myself that we are about the same age – how amazing you were, so young and focused, this life.  I am so grateful to you, Robbie, et al, who have made Astanga Yoga available to me.

And again thanks for all the things.

Click here for David's response.

Click here to see copies the inmates' handwritten letters.