Ruth Tracey, 23, had been a long-time shoplifter. On her last night in jail she gave me a remarkable letter (reproduced below) that shows how timely it was for her to receive instruction and encouragement in the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga.
Enthusiastic and grateful for being introduced to a happy way of life that actively discourages pretentiousness and promotes integrity, Ruth has been practicing daily since her September 5th release, and has memorized the full Primary Series.
Ruth Reviewing David Swenson's Practice Manual
Thank you to the anonymous donor, to The Community Foundation and to my inspiring friend, the scholar and yoga master Eddie Stern, for your meaningful support of my efforts. I’m very fortunate to be able to offer people their own specific daily practice of moving meditation synchronized with conscious, controlled breathing -- a practice of love, respect, gratitude, patience, and profound physical healing.
With the inception of the non-competitive, anonymously funded grant last September, I added two classes per week for the ladies of the Richmond City Jail, to the two men's classes I was already teaching. This joint effort between the donor, TCF, Eddie Stern and the Broome Street Temple board, has been helping me reach twice as many inmates with the same daily practice that has been enormously beneficial to me since I began learning it in 2001 -- and I am deeply grateful that the six-month, $12,500 grant supporting my teaching has been renewed for a third period.
Ruth "preparing" to practice in the home of my good friend Walter Coppedge
In jail, Ruth Tracey exuded an air of graceful, understated good humor -- never loud, and always the most attentive student. Everyone liked her, even though she never joined in the choir of resistance and disruption that is occasionally offered by the ladies. Influenced by Ruth's simple example, one of the most immaturely resistant young girls in the class has become -- in Ruth's absence-- one of the new class lynchpins.
I was surprised and moved when I read Ruth's letter, because it's unusual to see such thoughtful and engaging writing from a young inmate who has no formal education beyond high school. She hasn't attended university, but writes like a 23-year old with an English degree. In the last 25 days we’ve practiced together three times, and I’ve watched her through the practice once. I am thankful that the grant directly funds my thoroughly enjoyable teaching, and also that it indirectly makes it feasible for me to spend extra time, expense and effort staying connected to some of the better students who leave jail and still want to practice but have neither the money nor the confidence to head straight to a yoga studio. Absent the awesome support of this grant, I would likely have missed the opportunity to meet such a special person as Ruth at a critical time in her life.
Sometimes I have excellent students in jail who upon release promptly resume the lifestyle that brought them to jail in the first place. Over the last month, I have seen that Ruth is different. She's been honest and reliable, has donated items she had obtained through theft to charity, and has begun making restitution, sending weekly sums anonymously to the stores where she had stolen books. She has a healthy spiritual thirst and is currently reading Edwin Bryant’s translation of the Yoga Sutras.
In August, I received an unrequested, non-competitive $5,000 grant from Eddie Stern's Broome Street Temple, funded by the Libby and Lloyd Ann Charitable Fund of The Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia. This money was awarded in connection with the successful state of the Richmond City Jail yoga program, as an incentive to expand my efforts. Thank you very much, Libby and Lloyd Ann -- whoever you are! This is proving to be critical seed money in initiating my dream of opening a practice space downtown where I will invite the approximately 700 folks I've taught over the last five and a half years in jail, to come back to class and resume their practices -- and encourage them to bring their families, friends, and neighbors to come practice with them at low cost. The main focus of the new space will be conveying the Primary Series in a way that anyone who desires can learn and practice it independently or in community with others -- regardless of his or her fitness level, destructive habits or station in life. My hope is that over time the space will become a cultural melting pot that is also patronized by MCV students and faculty, Sheriff Department employees, college students, and whomever else wants to come. Ruth Tracey has offered to help me with whatever chores she can in connection with my endeavor, and I look forward to seeing her grow. I believe she is embarking on a very bright future of being a healing presence in the world.
To see Ruth's handwritten letter, click here for part one, and click here for part two.
I remember myself as a child between 4-6 years old always playing on the floor, putting myself in full lotus lifting myself off the ground swinging back and forth like an old country porch swing, attempting to walk around on my hands. Back then I had no knowledge of yoga, its uses or benefits. I was just a kid exploring my body’s flexibility, trying to make myself and my family laugh to escape the pressures of early childhood trauma. As I grew older and learned how to read, I took refuge in books, immersing myself in their stories so I wouldn’t have to face my reality, reading all day, and if it was a good book, all night, becoming a real introvert. The days of experimenting with the limits of my body’s flexibility were over.
Utthita Parsvakonasana B
Through the years that followed my interest in yoga waxed and waned, but I started doing a deeper reading on the subject. I was at a time in life where I was believing in all these philosophies, but practicing very few -- living life as a hypocrite. When I read that one of the 8 limbs [includes] non-stealing, I stopped “practicing” again feeling guilty because I was still addicted to stealing.
My experience has shown me that yoga is an extremely useful (I’d even go so far as to say necessary) tool in helping people in the jail/prison systems, mental institutions, those on the outskirts of society -- everyone really -- to become more whole beings, better mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends, citizens. It is especially useful in correctional institutions since the vast majority of the residents are products of an invisible negatively charged magnet a certain demographic calls the only life they’ve ever known. A perpetuation of feelings of despair, hopelessness, helplessness, pain, anger, resentment, and a whole host of negative attitudes about life passed from generation to generation creating their realities, keeping them moving in a downward spiral unable to evolve. Here the accessibility to yoga classes are most needed to help people learn how to connect to that stable center within themselves and make the necessary adjustments in viewpoints, outlook and character to completely change into better people for themselves and those around them.
Departing After a Happy Practice