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Robbie Norris
Photo: Scott Elmquist

Richmond City Jail Yoga

After many years of experiencing remarkable healing effects of daily yoga practice, I felt compelled to share this direct method of self-rehabilitation with people most in need of transformation, and who have had no access to yoga. In April 2008 I began teaching inmates in the Richmond City Jail, where I now conduct classes three times a week and have taught over 1,500 hours. My motivation stems from the fact that once this practice is learned, it is a true path of self-study and self-rehabilitation. And it is free.

Back, L-R: Ron Silverman, Rev. Canon, Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, Robbie Norris, Colin McClees, Phillip Grayson. Front: Jason Greene, Faheem Marzuq

Inmates get constant encouragement from me to practice in their cells on the days class is not held, and those who do are experiencing notable transformations of body and attitude. My aim is to reduce what is an unfortunate pattern of recidivism for many inmates. If a person while incarcerated learns this yoga so that he can practice correctly on his own, and thus establishes a daily self-practice under difficult circumstances (50-100 people per tier with very little free space), there is a good chance that he will continue the discipline when he gets released. And if he continues to spend 90 minutes a day in meditative self-examination, the chances of his returning to jail will be slim. Additionally, there is no physical therapy (to my knowledge) as effective for long and short-term benefits.

The purpose of this page is to bring awareness of this yoga program to those on the outside who understand the discipline and transformation inherent in this practice, and who might be inspired to help particular students with employment opportunities and/or yoga studio tuition upon release. There are many intelligent and good people among the prison population, people who have made some bad decisions yet have enormous potential to contribute to society. They want to turn their lives around and could use help once their sentences have been served.

L-R: Faheem Marzuq, Phillip Grayson, Jason Greene, Colin McClees.

Sheriff C. T. Woody has made possible the ongoing opportunity to teach at the jail, and I am grateful.

I’m also thankful to Rev. Canon Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, Undersheriff and Executive Director of the Richmond Sheriff’s Chaplains, without whom the class would not exist. Dr. Pruitt is an extraordinarily effective motivator who helps to keep the class viable by continually recruiting new participants to make up for attrition caused by turnover the jail typically houses inmates for less than two years before they are either released or transferred to a long-term facility.

Dr. Pruitt finds money for yoga mats, has helped to organize and host a joint demonstration of 25 students of Jail Yoga and MCV Yoga for an audience of 100 inmates, and allows me occasionally to bring guest teachers to the jail.

L-R: Colin McClees, Jason Greene, Phillip Grayson, Robbie Norris.

In December 2009, one of my students, Jennifer Miller, began teaching the female inmates, each week driving over an hour from Batesville, VA to share her passion for the practice as a vehicle of rehabilitation.

Another yoga student, Eve C. Painter, president of Amelia Springs Water, inspired by the benefits observable in the inmates and by her own practice, has taken the photographs on this page.

Thanks to Peter Culley, filmmaker, and the lead architect for the recent work on the VMFA. He has created a remarkable two-minute movie/montage of city jail yoga (we are working on getting authorization to show it to the public via this page). I began teaching yoga to Peter in December 2008.

Thanks to Rolf Gates for donating 25 copies of his book, Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga (2002), and for visiting the jail to share his passion with the students.

Warm regards to Lino Miele, a world-renowned teacher and compiler of Astanga Yoga (1996), a seminal handbook on the practice, blessed by his teacher, the guru of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. In April 2010, Lino graciously accepted my invitation to lead a class while he was conducting a workshop at Ashtanga Yoga Richmond. His message to “swallow the pill of practice” was inspirational.

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