Thursday, February 5, 2015

From City Jail to City Yoga: The Strange Journey of Billy Scruggs

Instead of leaving jail with the usual mentality of wanting to stuff one’s starved senses with all manner of worldly pleasure, my awesome friend, Billy Scruggs, remains fully aware of how good it feels to be clean, clear, patient and focused — and is attending “90 meetings in 90 days” to be sure never to forget how chaotic and crazy it was to try to manage life as a heroin addict.  Billy developed his perspective during 33 months of incarceration in which he took full advantage of the rehabilitative and academic programs offered by the old Richmond City Jail.

So, since January 5th, I’ve seen a rare thing: a guy gets released from a long jail sentence and is immediately on track, continuing his recovery and rehabilitation with his priorities intact, supported by his foundational daily yoga practice.  Billy rises before the sun every morning for coffee and 10 sun salutations before riding his bike to the west end YMCA for a workout, and then heading to his father’s house -- where he just finished putting in a new bathroom from floor to ceiling.  And Billy bikes and buses downtown four to five times a week in freezing temperatures for a full practice at Richmond City Yoga.  

Billy Sun Salutation B

In Richmond, VA, we are lucky to have a sheriff with a good heart who does what he can to help the people in his charge.  I give my gratitude to Sheriff C.T. Woody, and Billy Scruggs feels it, too.  Betterment programs at the old Richmond City Jail flourished under Sheriff Woody, who allowed far more volunteers to offer counsel and services to help his inmates cope and grow, than did any of his predecessors.  

The Rev. Canon Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, Woody’s Chief of Chaplains (and a Colonel), has been in charge of implementing this vision for nearly a decade, overseeing 80 different volunteer chaplains.  I’m forever grateful to Father Pruitt for allowing me to start the yoga program.  When I approached him in April 2008, he knew nothing about this particular yoga practice, but as a seasoned Episcopal priest from Chicago who had run a church in Brooklyn, he understood my passion, and with no red tape save a background check and and my signature on a statement acknowledging that I could be killed or kidnapped, he let me begin.  As it turned out, Father Pruitt can speak more eloquently about yoga than I — and it’s always been endearing to hear him talk to visitors or inmates about the program.  Father Pruitt graciously allowed many visitors to the old “yoga chapel” over these last seven years, both to observe, and to practice with the inmates.  On two occasions when I was teaching yoga to medical students, he allowed me to bring the VCU/MCV med students in at the end of their semester to practice in tandem with the inmates.  He also let me bring internationally renowned Ashtanga Yoga teachers Eddie Stern and Lino Miele to conduct workshops.  And he stood up strong for me when Style Weekly Magazine and the NYT asked for access to do stories.

Two other people to whom I owe gratitude for their support of the yoga program in the old jail are Chap’s right hand man, Mike Kelley, who always did an excellent job of rounding up the students in time for my arrival; and the former Director of School, writing teacher (and if I may say, Zen poet), John Dooley, who retired in November after 36 years of service.

The Ashtanga Yoga program at the jail is unique:  all inmates in the program are at some stage of establishing the same specific 90-minute yoga practice that I have been practicing daily since 2001. 

With the transition to the new $135,000,000 Richmond City Justice Center, in October there was a shift in responsibilities.  Father Pruitt now oversees mainly religious initiatives and chaplaincy.  

Mike Kelley now runs the men’s recovery and betterment programs; and Shond Glover, the women’s.  Both report to Sarah Scarbrough, PhD, the new Director of Internal Programs for the Richmond City Justice Center.  Since the Ashtanga Yoga Program has been placed under Dr. Scarbrough, she has become increasingly supportive of it, and I am now fortunate to be teaching five times a week at the RCJC.  I look forward to enjoying excellent relationships with Dr. Scarbrough and Ms. Glover, as the yoga has always positively influenced those inmates who attend every class and practice between classes; and generally they become the best behaved and most promising students in other program areas as well.

Here is a statement Billy gave me two years ago:

February 26, 2013

After about 10 minutes of practicing in the sanctuary I am in a hyper-focused but relaxed state.  The deep inhales and exhales remind me of the rhythmic sound of waves crashing on a beach.  Breath by breath and pose to pose my mind, body and spirit intertwine in a euphoric harmony.

Unfortunately, a series of terrible decisions I made have landed me in Richmond City Jail.  As with anything, good or bad, there are always opportunities in every situation.  If I had never passed through this facility I seriously doubt I would have ever begun practicing yoga.

Since I have started practicing yoga I have noticed many differences in myself.  Of course physically I have noticed many benefits, whether it's more flexibility or a reduction in aches and pains.  I have also become more patient and in tune with my surroundings.  Thanks to my teacher, Robbie, yoga has made life less stressful as well as adding a positive light in my life in jail.  I look forward to my yoga practice knowing it will set the mood for a great day.

Below, in a letter to a judge, I stated that I would trust Billy Scruggs with my own affairs.  I had forgotten I'd written that until I looked back at this letter today.  Thank you, Billy, for helping me continue to feel, a year and a half later, the same way.

Richmond, VA 23220

July 18, 2013

To:  Judge Beverly Snukals

Re:  William Joseph Scruggs

Your Honor,

This letter is on behalf of Billy Scruggs, currently incarcerated in the Richmond City Jail.  

Having taught some 700 Ashtanga Yoga classes in the jail, including no less than 55 classes attended by Mr. Scruggs, I emphasize to you that I have found Billy to be an unusually polite, trustworthy, and dedicated student.  He has the best attendance record of any student I’ve taught in the jail, missing just one class during eight months of twice-weekly classes.  In fact, I would put Billy in the top 1% of the nearly 800 students I have taught during the last five years at Richmond City Jail.

While I am not privy to Billy’s legal history -- knowing only that he has (at least) charges of breaking and entering without use of a gun -- I warrant that I have seen only thorough and consistent kindness from Billy since the moment I met him – and I have now been in his direct presence in very close quarters for more than 100 hours.

I can’t imagine how further incarcerating this man at a cost of $25,000 per year would do any good for the Commonwealth or Billy or anyone.  He is in his prime and has so much to offer the world.  Whatever he has done -- perhaps under the influence of addiction --  I see a dedicated student of a serious daily yoga practice, who has shown the discipline and humility to learn and practice the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga (on his own in very poor conditions on days class is not held), and who has attended every class with an excellent attitude.  Without hesitation, I would trust Billy with my own affairs.

I sincerely hope you will look into this young man’s eyes and believe what you see:  there is no malice, no resentment; he is not a complainer; but he needs another chance to live up to his potential.  Please do not contribute further to the degrading institutionalization of this man.


Robert P. Norris

Richmond City Yoga, opened just over a year ago, is becoming a cultural melting pot.  We have university students, teachers, professors, writers, artists, poets, musicians, farmers, nurses, doctors, businesspeople, tradespeople, lawyers, jail deputies, local yoga teachers, gentry, and ex-cons all practicing independently at their own pace, together in the same room.  People who come to RCY know my intention to provide a welcoming practice environment for ex-cons and drug addicts — and they all embrace and support the vision.  It’s a serious yoga practice for people with great appetites for transformation — which includes drug addicts.  The overall effects of consistent yoga practice are far better than that of drugs, and incompatible with their use.  My message to the inmates is pretty simple: you can’t be a junky or a crackhead, or someone who sells drugs to them, and have a long-term daily Ashtanga Yoga Practice.  It’s a difficult practice to learn, but once established, the benefits are so profound one does not want to lose this method of daily, healing, patient and arduous self-examination.

In this one-minute clip, Billy Scruggs arrives for practice on Saturday morning, where students age 4-80 are already practicing.  Well, first, you have to see the 4-year old student arrive :-)

Elsa and Norah arriving. Logan sports his tat.
 arriving on his bike. The lady in black is Doris Clevenger, who just turned 80.

Like former inmate Logan (who is doing great!) told me the other day, “There’s nothing else I’ve ever experienced that gives you so many benefits compared to the amount of time you put into it.”  And Logan has experienced more drugs both legally, under the supervision of psychiatrists, and illegally — and more therapy — than just about anyone I’ve met.  Now, he feels better than ever;  yoga, meditation, meetings, and a steady job are providing him a balanced, stable and happy existence that I am pleased to see him embrace.

It’s helpful to 24-year old Logan to see 35-year old Billy’s dedication.  It’s always good to get corroboration, even though the yoga is so good that, I remember thinking after a few months of practice, “I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I’m going to follow this path where it leads.”  

Here is an email Billy sent me the other day, verbatim:

    Less than a month ago I was released from the Richmond City Justice Center after serving thirty three months for a burglary I committed while strung out on heroin.  Me being the wonderful criminal I am just walked into some random house to hopefully find some pain pills.  Little did I know I was breaking into a police officer's house.  The alarm started blaring, I freaked out and took off on my neon green bicycle.  I told you, awesome criminal.  So neighbors saw me flee the scene and of course reported it to the police. I was arrested shortly afterwards.  Thus I began my incarceration, time of reflection and rebuilding process.
     One of the most profound changes in my life occurred when I was introduced to Ashtanga Yoga in the city jail by a volunteer named Robbie Norris.  Of course being an ignorant western male I had many ideas and misconceptions about yoga.  It didn't take long for my opinion to change.  At first, like many people I think, my approach to yoga was that of a exercise of fitness activity.  Plus, the yoga participants got off the tier to go practice for an hour and a half.  My primary motives at the time were probably not the purest but thankfully I was exposed to this wonderful, life changing practice.
     After the first practice I felt sore and amazing.  Imagine twelve to fourteen men in a small chapel practicing yoga, needless to say there was some striving and stretching that was more out of a competitive mindset than one of a meditative practice.  This was the so called epiphany for myself.  When i finally focused on my breathing and gazing points and practicing daily, my life seemed to improve.  Forget physical part for a moment, I was exercising spiritually.  Mindfulness, awareness and compassion all became second nature.  Who knew? All of you yogis keeping this wonderful secret for thousands of years, shame on you!
     Having a daily practice has really helped me keep a level head, especially while incarcerated.  While incarcerated and now I would begin my day with a practice, even if it was just sun salutations A and B's, a few standing poses and a head stand.  Robbie, our fearless and dedicated instructor, would come twice a week and lead a full practice.  It took a month or two to learn the full practice, but even now after two years of practicing I still mess up the sequence sometimes.  There is no better feeling than waking up and enjoying some yoga and coffee to start your day.  I always feel balanced and prepared for whatever lies ahead after a practice. 
     If you would have told me I would go to jail and learn yoga I would have laughed in your face.  During my incarceration I was presented with some opportunities that have saved my life and made me human again.  Along with the yoga I was actively involved in a drug treatment/behavior modification program, a handful of creative writing and religious studies classes as well some spirituality mixed in there.  One of the classes I took was focused on the tradition of Buddhism and it history.  Of course we discussed Hinduism's traditions as well and I was lucky enough to have a deeper understanding of the yoga.  Quite a beautiful thing when you can see the simplicity and pureness of it all.
    As I write this I am looking forward to a full practice tonight after work.  There are so many things to be grateful for but one at the top of my list is having a studio to go practice in and an instructor who truly sees the therapeutic value of yoga and give his knowledge to those who could utilize it.  My yoga practice is such a integral part of my life now that I can't imagine going on without it.

At Richmond City Yoga, I give one month of unlimited classes to any former inmate who has participated in the Richmond City Jail Yoga Program.  If they take true advantage of the studio, and  come to practice at least three times a week during this first month, I give them a high quality yoga mat generously donated by David Swenson, one of the world’s top yoga teachers and author of the excellent and accessible Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual (2007).

I’m very pleased that Billy Scruggs has fully utilized his free month, and I look forward to giving him his new yoga mat at tonight's Led Primary Series class.  

If you would like to communicate with Billy Scruggs or Logan, or sponsor either of them for a month of yoga ($100), please email me at

Billy Scruggs is a skilled tile setter and carpenter.  I have one good job lined up for him already.  Please consider discussing your home repair needs with Billy.

Billy has also started a blog -- -- which will provide resources to help inmates, upon release, assimilate back into society.  

All of us offer deep gratitude to Eddie Stern of Ashtanga Yoga New YorkEddie Stern is the fiscal sponsor and the main advisor for the Richmond City Justice Center Yoga Program -- as well as for my own exploration of yoga. 

Thank you, David Swenson, of Ashtanga Yoga Productions, for your wonderful generosity in sending supplies over the years.

Thank you to Lisa O'Mara and Susan Hallett of the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia, and to the anonymous donor, for supporting the jail yoga.    Many thanks to Bobbie Allen and Steven Cahn of, who have been very generous over the years in mentioning my work; Steve and Bobbie do fantastic work with their daily blog focusing on Ashtanga Yoga news and archives.


  1. Thank you so very much for your kind words and support you displayed on your blog. The totality of the piece you wrote was touching and humbling to say the least. I have such respect for you, your instruction and Ashtanga yoga.
    Also, my eyes may have become a little sweaty(teary) at the gifts people so graciously donated so I can continue my practice for many months to come. I know my sweetheart cousin Mel sponsored me for one month as well as my always positive aunt Betsy, but one person remainsnd anonymous, which is killing me because I cannot properly thank them. Thank you all so very much to take time and resources out of your lives to enhance the betterment of mine. Regardless, the love and support shown by such actions gives me so much hope and I look forward to doing the same for someone else as soon as I am able.
    Thank all of you again for all the sincere kindness and encouragement with the yoga practice and life in general. Remember, like I always tell Robbie, stop thinking and talking and just practice. It is universally uniform but your practice is yours alone.

  2. Thanks, Robbie, for sharing this wonderful story about someone who is willing to self-examine and explore alternatives to healing and wholeness. And for the information about the great programs and people at RCJC and those who support it, including you! Way to go Billy! PS, The little cutie pie is adorable :) Best wishes!