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.