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!


  1. I'm enjoying your blog. I've been considering teaching yoga in a prison near me. Keep telling your story. Inspiring.

  2. Hi Daniel -- I hope you do it! -- I think you'll find that being able to help people in such a simple, pure way, is what is really inspiring. I enjoyed looking at your bio on your website, and hope we stay in touch. If I can help in any way with your consideration to teach in a prison, please contact me any time.

  3. Very interesting, Robbie! I can you see you put a lot of heart and passion not only in to teaching yoga but this blog as well! Keep it up.