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Sweat and Surrender

A yoga teacher helps inmates at the Richmond City Jail find peace on the inside.



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MCCLEES SAYS YOGA will always be a part of his life. He may even teach it one day. But when inmates are released, they often find it difficult to continue.

Like McClees, Phillip Grayson, who served a year and a month for probation violation, found yoga to be his only escape from the constant stress of incarceration. Jail is "a crab pot," he says, packed with people crawling over top of each other. He describes days spent in constant vigilance to keep other inmates from stealing his possessions — things as small as a honey bun, or a packet of Top Ramen. "You spend most of your waking hours just planning on keeping what you've got," he says.

"And then the yoga comes in. And — wow," Grayson says. It made him feel human again.

Grayson's out now, living in a motel. His practice has lapsed, he acknowledges, but he wants to begin again. "It's really what I need," he says, "because some of my behavior is still problematic."

Bryan Ford and other students practice calm breathing and meditation. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bryan Ford and other students practice calm breathing and meditation.

Ronald Silverman became one of Norris' students while serving time for setting fire to a truck belonging to his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. ("That was a bad decision," he says.) Other inmates made fun of him for practicing and gave him "crazy looks," he says, but he ignored them. "Once I started, I knew it was going to be a lifetime thing for me," he says.

Silverman, 30, now has a 1-year-old daughter and a job at a downtown hotel. He still practices. "If I start my day off doing yoga," he says, "it kind of reminds me of what I'm trying to accomplish in life."

Other students take yoga with them when they're transferred from the jail to prison. In 2009 Bryan Shull was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and hit-and-run after striking and killing Tiara Rosa, 15, with his pickup truck on Walmsley Boulevard. Shull's serving a sentence of three years and 10 months in Indian Creek Correctional Center, where he practices yoga faithfully.

"He's on the last leg of his terrible journey. And I just see such a difference in him," says Wanda Williams, Shull's mother. "He's more at peace. There's no anger there. He's able to think through things better."

Practicing yoga gives prisoners a respite from endlessly thinking about their guilt and their problems, Norris says. Some people take issue with that — shouldn't inmates always be thinking about their crimes? But "if you're consumed with all that stuff," Norris says, "you can't get out of it."

Shull writes handwritten letters to Norris and his family, sent in envelopes he decorates with detailed colored-pencil drawings. He's "so proud of this yoga," Williams says — so much that he's asked the chaplain at Indian Creek if he could start a program for inmates there, with Norris' help.

Every inmate has his story of how yoga has changed his life. But it's not just the yoga. It's Robbie Norris.

When you're in jail, Grayson says, everyone around you is consumed with a "profound self-centeredness." And then Norris came, he says, and taught them for free.

Former student Ronald Silverman (right) and Norris in Abner Clay Park. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Former student Ronald Silverman (right) and Norris in Abner Clay Park.

When you're in jail, Silverman says, you learn not to count on people. But all the inmates count on Norris. The only time he didn't show up for class, Silverman says, is when his mother died.

When you're in jail, McClees says, it's hell. And then he met Norris, who exuded compassion, and wisdom, and tranquility. "Robbie brings an element of humanity that doesn't exist in this jail," he says.

AND SO THREE times a week, Norris' students come to the tiny, airless chapel on the first floor of the jail. Swiftly, they upend the wooden pews and stand them along the wall. They peel off their clownish blue-and-yellow jumpsuits and orange shoes. They wear only boxers, two pairs each, and plastic wrist cuffs labeled with their names and photos.

They roll out the mats — ones that Norris bought for cheap at Marshalls, printed with hibiscus flowers, martini glasses and cherries. They sit and listen to Norris speak.

"Did anyone practice yesterday?" he asks. One man raises his hand. The rest look down, look around. It's hard, they tell him. They're tired. There's no time. No space on the crowded tiers.

Norris tells his students a parable. A boy goes to school and learns his first lesson: how to write the numeral 1. The other children move on to other lessons, but the boy keeps practicing 1. "I have not yet learned it, I am learning it," he tells his parents and his teacher. Seeing their exasperation, the boy leaves home. After a long time, he returns.

"And when he saw the teacher he said to him, 'I think I have learned it. See if I have. Shall I write on this wall?' And when he made his sign," Norris says, "the wall split in two."

The lesson begins. S

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