Friday, April 20, 2012

Yogi Bryan the Magnificent: Christmas Tidings from Dillwyn State Prison

Bryan Shull, 39, learned the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga in the Richmond City Jail.  He has been practicing yoga on his own without a mat in state prison since August 2010.  This letter, again from Dillwyn state prison, is the second in a series.  (Bryan has since been moved twice and is now in Haynesville prison.) To see Bryan's original handwritten letter, click here.

22 December, 2010

Dear Robbie,

Please forgive my delay of a return in correspondence, as the Christmas rush to finish all these Santa envelopes and accompanying letters was way more time consuming than originally thought!

However, sitting in front of the T. V. & doing these while watching Christmas specials was the highlight of my Holiday season!  Do you remember this from the old Miller & Rhoads ads?

note: click image to enlarge

I’m glad you enjoyed the last envelope & I will continue to send you things as time goes by, and will include what I hope will be a sufficient release for you?  It would certainly be very pleasing to feel I have anything to contribute to the encouragement of others.

The circumstances of difficulty I was speaking of, are that “officially” we are to do no exercise in the building period, not even a push-up.  Although we have a (I guess) Muslim in the building who prays in a very small area on a “prayer rug” which is about the size of a floor mat in a car?

And I have been waiting until lights out & doing my practice in the same corner, very carefully, with help (a lookout) & am aware that once a guard walks by & realizes I’m sweating & obviously exercising.  I’m sure there will be a problem!  My way of thinking so far has been, not to get caught & have that conversation!  So I have been getting by: but have no mat and the tile floor is for one gross, & once sweaty slippery & it’s hard on my toes especially among other things (lol). Which I feel is compromising to my practice?


I have been filling out a request form, asking permission to have a mat, that I was not going to discuss where would be used?  Because, I had listened when you spoke in class about people in other locales or further back in time practicing outside with no mat.  I had a very good summer outside practicing in the grass, the cool thing is if it gets wet you just move! (But it would have been better with a mat there, too!)  I’ve been getting the runaround, like I get the form back and it says it’s not an approved item so, I send one in asking to get one approved & I get it back saying it’s not an item on the property list? (Like I said the runaround.)  It’s not like dealing with Father Pruitt [the Richmond City Jail Chaplain who makes the yoga class possible].  But if I could get them to first let me have it, later I could worry about where it gets used? I have to get one for it to matter!

I wonder if they can have a prayer rug … what’s the big deal?  I even tried using one (not possible for reasons I will not begin to try and illustrate here).  I wish there was a way to show them one? & explain to them what’s up.  But I just am allowed the form, not a actual person?

It’s very screwy the process we must go through to order a book, we have to fill out a request form & get permission for the book in question! It seems as though “they” want to protect us from learning?

I am not trying to sound like a skeptic.  It’s just that some of these things seem excessive!

And I would love for you to visit, anytime.  I am always here and you are allowed.  The only problem would be if you are a felon, which I don’t think you are!  My visitation days are every weekend on the even dated day, for instance if Saturday is the 11th and Sunday the 12th my day that weekend would be the 12th.  It would be great to see you.

We are allowed person to person visits (we don’t have to talk on a phone through glass or anything) & they have vending machines and it’s very laid back.

If you have any additional questions I know it sounds funny but my mother knows everything about this place almost! But she’s talkative, so I warned you! Go figure. (Hah)

And … I will keep practicing no matter what!  I dated a girl one time and we used to go out a lot, so had this expression “dance through life as though no one’s watching.”  And this is sometimes a scary place, I hate to admit it but it is. 

And I just practice!  I don’t care what’s going on around me.  And I’ve seen it all believe me.

Finishing these envelopes I lost a couple of days and it was hard getting back started and I felt like crap!  It really is something you’ve got to do every day!

One thing I’ve learned is with earplugs in you can focus on mindful breathing and dristi easier?  It provides isolation and you can hear yourself breathing?  Sorry if the letter is a bit of a ramble as I was saying the late night envelope thing has taken its toll! 

Merry Christmas!

Bryan the Magnificent!

Ps – I have since the beginning of this letter found out that the book policy has been changed to allow us to receive books if shipped from the publisher, I see this as an improvement!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Letter from Dillwyn Correctional Center: Bryan the Magnificent

Bryan Shull, 39, learned the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga in the Richmond City Jail.  When he was "shipped out" to the state correctional system in August 2010, he began sending me interesting yoga-related letters with fabulous artwork on the envelopes. The first letter from Dillwyn Correctional Center is transcribed (unedited) below.  To see Bryan's handwritten letter, click here.   More to follow.

15 November 2010

Dear Rob,

Sorry it’s been so long, it took awhile getting classified, settled in the new digs & catch up on my envelopes if that makes any sense!  And if it doesn’t well this is one crazy as way to live, if you can even call it living!  At any rate please know you’re sorely missed!  And that the only way I’ve remained anywhere near sane is through my practice.  That jail [Richmond City Jail] was horrible but having a solid opportunity to learn something like this, I’d have definitely stayed for that alone.  It’s been a rough go of it out here on the outskirts of humanity, esp. for those doing yoga on the rec yard!  As some people get a little freaked out and you have to listen to a bunch of stupidity, oh well.  What made it hard are the days for some reason you can’t!  & I’ve found out that there’s almost always a way to do at least something & about the worst thing you can do is miss a day!  By August or the end of it I was getting so much farther than I ever thought I would I kinda kicked it in to overdrive, started doing a full practice every day and sometimes it’s hard because – No mat!  & it’s a charge for doing exercise in the building but I sneak & do it anyway, and you don’t really need a mat outside in the grass.  However I’m kinda wondering what I’m gonna do this winter when it gets cold?  I’ll sneak inside! Right!  With time I’ve figured out every single thing you said was true!  The breathing is the most important thing & I didn’t really get how important the dristi was until one day when I was in Janu Sirsasana A and had decided I was going to concentrate that day on really staying focused on my gazing point all the way through & I was staring at my knee and realized I could extend my neck, head & shoulder area & touched my forehead to my knee!!  Then the next day I almost got my head to my knee in Parsvottanasana & I really started concentrating on my posture & form, my breathing and my dristi, from there I started saying to myself well why not “try” to do every single asana whether you can or not?  And man a month later I was amazed, it’s hard with no one to keep a watch or help, but there’s a certain very personal & very peaceful aspect to just being completely alone in my practice, internal honesty at its best or Samadhi?  There are times I wish you were here! – to see how great something is & then there are times when I’m like man I’m glad no one can except God (that matters).  I’ve had some really great moments, a feeling that maybe can’t be described in just a few words, but maybe like Yoga’s been here with me & been my friend when it was just me and God!  I also feel like it’s reintroduced me to  myself not only to the healthy body I grew up in, that I now feel comfortable in!  Very comfortable in by the way I ran into a kid from the [Richmond City] jail named Spoors (?) & he was like wow you look different how much you benching?   To which I replied about ten sun salutations!  You know five A’s & five B’s  and he said what are you still doing that crap and I said dude I’ll be doing it when I die.  It’s hard to remember everything you said but I try!  Like tightening the bandhas, it really being equal parts [effort] and surrender.  Or sucking in your stomach in downward dog.  Sometimes it’s like I can still hear you talking but I bet if you saw me you’d see that there’s a lot I’m not doing right!  But I’m trying every day!  Looking at my thumb when I’m supposed to as well!  And really enjoying it!  I’ve not had a chance to work on me in really any respect since I was a teen so I’ve been reading all the way cool books especially the Bible along with my favorites Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (nothing to do with motorcycles) you’d love it, Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose, & Bag of Bones by Stephen King was way better than I thought it would be!  I’m not able to eat bad or smoke so I’ve been trying to really eat right, sleep right, be physically fit & read, study, draw – basically all the yamas and niyamas respectfully!  And really between my recovery & yoga, my new relationship with God I feel completely like I’ve found my way!  Robbie I got to say I wonder if you know what a great thing you’re doing?  It would be a great thing to expose these folks at any rate but add in to have the blessing of the exposure during a very bleak & dark time in your life is even more profound.  I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s a very humanitarian effort that the 2 of you are giving [Jennifer Miller was teaching the Ladies at this time] oh so freely of yourselves, very compassionate.  & to bless people most folks are afraid of or won’t go near lest they be infected?  If you only knew how heartwarming it was to have something really enjoyable & positive to look forward to & even able to count on as well!  I’ll never forget it!  & how I found it, while living in an environment not un-equal to that of a P.O.W. camp in WWII.  I’m grateful to you as then and now there are a lot of days when it’s the only thing I have to look forward to, short term!  As you’ll see by the envelope’s return address, I’m at D.C.C. [Dillwyn Correctional Center] (wherever that is) and surviving the best I can!  I’m trying to get them to let me have a mat and as a way to verify what it is I’m doing I gave them the # you gave me!  I hope it’s OK & I had asked my Mom to call ahead of the letter as I thought it would be faster however I haven’t heard back from “them” or Mom yet, however I am nothing if not persistent!  I wonder what the best thing to do is when it gets to be too cold to be barefoot outside?  I don’t think I can sneak a full practice by them even 5 days a week and the tile sucks once you get sweaty!  I will work it out one way or another right?  I really would like to get a full first year in & in the time I’m here master the First Series!

We have nothing but time…

I wonder how you’re doing?
I wonder about the guys [in the Richmond City Jail]  & the class as I’m sure it’s rolled over a few times by now!  I wonder … I hate to mention if it’s a sore subject however I wonder how things are going for your Mom?  Like I said if it’s a sore subject I apologize.

… I hope you’re well and your work at the jail’s going on, please with Jen happy holidays for me & tell her I could sure use some of those cookies about now.  This is the part where I say that I’m on a rant & that if you’re ever out this way please stop on by & thank you so very much.

And now for the poetry section of the talent show!

He gives more grace when the burdens grow greater.
He send more strength when the labors increase.
To added affliction, He adds His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we’ve exhausted our stored endurance,
And our strength has failed as the day’s half done.
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
The father’s full giving has just begun.

His love has no limit, His grace has no measure.
His power has no boundary known unto men.
Far out of his infinite riches in Jesus,
He gives and gives … and gives again.

Yogi, Mystic, Factory Trained Brain Tech,

Bryan the Magnificent!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Therapy for All Ages: Doris Clevenger, 77

"Everything about yoga was totally new – the stretching, the bending, and then quickly dropping to the mat; look up, look down, and so on; all performed with regular, even breathing."

When I met Doris Clevenger, she was 76.  Doris was not a fitness or exercise-oriented person, nor was she very kinesthetically attuned.  Doris sustained an injury causing total loss of sight in her right eye when she was 8 years old.  Fifty-seven years later, the condition was found to be surgically curable.  But the lack of sight in her right eye for nearly six decades had contributed to her being unable to spread her right hand and fingers wide and flat -- when her hand met the floor, it would be in a sort of cup formation.  

Doris wasn’t even aware of this gradually formed body-habit until she started yoga.  Now, not quite a year later, her hand spreads almost completely as it meets the yoga mat.

("Also about my hand," Doris said, in response to reading a draft of this post, "I think the problem was due to something that happened to my thumb when I was gripping a ski pole too tightly during cross-country skiing, a sport I worked at for a couple of years with my children.  But you are right, I never noticed the inability to lay my hand flat.")

In spring 2011, while standing independently, Doris couldn’t even begin to lift one foot off the ground without losing her balance; now she can stand on one foot for ten breaths while lifting the other knee almost to the height of her waist.

Initially, Doris was confused by the effort it took her to breathe with her mouth closed in a conscious, regulated manner while moving her body in synchronization with inhales and exhales.  A non-athlete, she had also never consciously practiced anything involving body-awareness.

So, during the introductory lesson, when I saw how foreign this whole effort was to Doris, and I saw how limited was her mind-body coordination – I knew Ashtanga Yoga could profoundly change her life if she would practice on her own according to my instructions.  Pattabhi Jois’s mantra that Ashtanga Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory, holds true with my students: the instruction I give them is the 1%.  It is important.  But the student practicing 5-6 days a week on her own (just ten minutes at first) is the 99%.  Self-practice is the magic ingredient.

Although Doris was somewhat clueless and uncoordinated in that first lesson, I held hope that she was at the beginning of a wonderful adventure – and what a compelling idea for a 76-year old person!  I had hope because I saw an attractive, disciplined, intelligent and considerate person who was not daunted by my insistence that it would be a waste of her money and our time were we to continue -- unless she could promise to practice every day on her own (for just 10 minutes) until the next lesson, even if she felt confused while doing so. 

It seemed to me Doris had not spent much time focusing on herself during her 76 years.  She had tended well to her children and her home and her job as a schoolteacher; she had enjoyed her primary role of being the competent, supportive wife of her successful scientist husband (now eight years deceased).  This was the perfect time for Doris to focus on herself, not with psychological or intellectual analysis, but with a time-tested and healing process – Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series -- that naturally cultivates awareness, joy, humor, elegance and patience; a process of carefully exploring one's own mind-body connection in a loving, accepting and non-judgmental manner, absent any oppressive goals

It is so important for older people to practice yoga.  

A person in their 70s or 80s who suffers a bad fall and breaks his or her hip, may never recover; the strain on the whole body can cause a chain reaction of ill effects, and sometimes, this hip fracture can lead to death. Yoga improves balance, decreasing the likelihood of falling. And if one who has a daily yoga practice does take a tumble, the likelihood of debilitating (or terminal) injury is mitigated by three things:  first, if one practices balancing and movement/coordination exercises daily, and is very accustomed to moving down to the floor and getting back up (thousands of times per year in Ashtanga Yoga), one has an improved chance of -- consciously or unconsciously -- positioning one’s body to enjoy a safer landing.  Second, daily yoga strengthens one’s muscles and bones, and makes everything a little less brittle, decreasing the likelihood of serious injury when body meets ground.  Third, if one is injured, he or she already has an established rehabilitation program in place -- the yoga practice, which he or she can now modify however needed in order patiently to promote healing.

Doris practicing Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation A

Doris Clevenger has such a lovely practice now, of meditative bending, breathing and balancing.  She practices Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series.  It has taken her 11 months to memorize and accrue the stamina to practice all the way through the Standing poses with awareness and equanimity – five to six days a week on her own.  And during the lessons, we now go all the way through Navasana, modifying as necessary.  Doris is developing keen awareness of how safely to explore her edges with the understanding that positive change favors the very patient, and that 77-year old bodies don’t get strong and flexible overnight.  I do not think Doris’s success in yoga would have been possible in a group setting – at least with me as the teacher.  People with seriously limiting conditions require (I entirely believe) 100% individualized attention.  Only in this way can I meet the student exactly where they are at all times; properly supervise their progress; and make sure they are not striving or hurting themselves. 

There is no medicine or external therapy or medical knowledge or technology that could have been applied to Doris to reveal the balance, strength, flexibility, patience, and (if I may say) increased laughter that she now enjoys after 11 months of yoga.  Only yoga, to my knowledge, has such dramatic effects.  And only for people who are willing to practice consistently, without struggling against nature to meet artificial milestones.  Dailiness is where all the subtle beauty of discovery happens. 

Simple common sense informs an intelligent person:  enjoying a “moving meditation” on the state of one’s mind-body from the tips of one’s toes to the top of one’s head, every day, is a wise and healthy endeavor. 

“All parts of the body which have a function if used in moderation and exercised in labors in which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy, well-developed and age more slowly; but if unused and left idle they become liable to disease, defective in growth and age quickly.”
   ~ Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, ca. 400 B.C. 
The fact that Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series is a specific and fundamental practice brilliantly conceived to be deeply engaging, makes it become a source of joy in life rather than a boring exercise performed mainly out of a disciplined desire to stay in shape.  It took Doris several months to get comfortable with the method of practice, and the gross patterns and sequencing in the practice, and now she is beginning to realize the deeper levels of awareness the practice enables.  The paradox is that once the practice is established, it becomes natural to let go of goals and just enjoy the process; and if one practices faithfully without anticipating rewards, the benefits are extraordinary. 

I know the yoga is making a positive impact in a person’s life when I arrive to a lesson and inquire whether they’ve been able to practice consistently since our last lesson, and hear, as is usually the case with Doris, “Every day!”


In the video above, Doris is practicing Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation A.  When we began in May 2011, she couldn’t begin even to do Sun Salutation A.  Just to stand in Samasthitih and inhale as she raised her arms and put her hands flush together above her head while gazing up – was not initially a simple task for Doris.  She did semblances of the nine parts of sun salutation A until it came together.  A younger person might take Upward Dog for granted, but it can be a scary movement to a 76-year old who has never moved in that manner.  Just to slowly relax enough to explore the position took some weeks. 

It’s been fun teaching Doris, and always a treat for me to see little improvements in grace, strength and flexibility when I come for the lessons – improvements that have nothing to do with being instructed, and everything to do with her daily practice between lessons. 

While Doris now enjoys her lovely meditative sun salutations, still she does not do the push-up, and still she cannot step from downward dog all the way up to her hands.  She may eventually gain the strength and flexibility to do these things, but just doing them the way she is currently, and going to “plank” instead of chaturanga, is wonderful and maybe quite enough for a 77-year old.  And it is also safe for her body.

Even after practicing about 250 times over these last 11 months, Doris would likely find group led classes unsatisfactory.  She needs to move very carefully at her own pace in order to maximize safety, my highest concern.  From the outset, I have impressed upon Doris to do nothing that hurts and to tell me every time she has any pain.  I can imagine her now enjoying a Mysore class, but I don’t think she could have successfully learned the yoga Mysore-style in the beginning.  She needed exclusive attention.

Sun salutation B was so difficult for Doris that we had to skip it initially.  It is much easier to do light semblances of the Standing poses than it is to modify sun salutation B.  So every couple of weeks we would try sun salutation B, and it took about six months before she could do five sun salutation B during our lessons, and begin doing one or two in her self-practices.  Now she does all 10 sun salutations in a row daily on her own, followed by 20 minutes of Standing poses.  Instead of being out of breath and exhausted, she feels happy and energized and breathes smoothly throughout!

Doris practicing Ashtanga Yoga Sun Salutation B

Doris Clevenger was referred to me by her financial planner, Elizabeth King -- what a great example of a holistic financial planner who really cares about her clients!

I asked Doris to write something about her yoga experience.  She gave me two handwritten statements, which I have combined and transcribed below.  To see her handwritten statements, click here.


"When I went for my last physical, I told my doctor that I felt kind of stiff as I moved around.  She laughed and said, “That’s what we call the Tin-Man Syndrome,” from the Wizard of Oz, I guess.

We agreed that I needed to find an exercise program.  

I have never had the pleasure of learning a lifetime sport and have avoided exercise because it seemed so boring.  Although, previously I had taken water aerobics classes for seven years, which I quit due to boredom and lack of any progress.

After  many years of trying and giving up various exercise classes at several different fitness centers, someone suggested that I might like to take private yoga lessons.

Well, maybe.

So I began to work privately with Robbie in the spring of 2011, not knowing just how it would work out.  What a difference it has made!

Everything about yoga was totally new – the stretching, the bending, and then quickly dropping to the mat; look up, look down, and so on; all performed with regular, even breathing.

And the language!  There was no way I could explain my questions without pointing to a picture that showed the position I was questioning.

But we progressed.

I found it difficult to learn the sequence of positions, but I mastered them.  I had to apply serious mental effort.  Plus there were physical challenges of course.

About four or five months along, I had a breakthrough.  I realized that I enjoyed doing my 30-minute practice each morning.  It had become a time that I welcomed.

(That was a big change for me.  What was at first a self-imposed discipline had become a pleasurable routine.)

For these 30 minutes my mind was clear of all extraneous thoughts.  This was time of my very own, not intruded upon by anything.

Balance has been my biggest challenge, but even that has visibly improved with practice.

I have gained confidence in what my body can do as I stretched more, cleared my mind, and breathed evenly.

The pull of my muscles as I stretch tells me this is a good thing, working against stiffness and towards flexibility.

I no longer need to do exercises specifically for my neck.  And I no longer have stiffness in my upper back and shoulder which needs relief by an occasional massage.

This routine has met my needs and is just what I was looking for."