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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 05:45 am

Yoga blossoms in Canton prison

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A yoga class at the Illinois River Correctional Center at Canton.
PHOTO COURTESY OF RICK FAHNESTOCK

Yoga is hardly the first thing that comes to mind as an activity for male prisoners. But two inmates who teach yoga classes at a state prison near Canton believe it is ideal for prison life.

“Yoga is my sunrise,” says Marshawn Feltus. “I want yoga every day.” Quite a few others at the Illinois River Correctional Center agree with him. More than 150 prisoners attend yoga classes at the medium security prison every week. It is the first prison in Illinois to include yoga in recreation activities, but it joins hundreds of prisons across the country that have incorporated it as an aid to rehabilitating prisoners.

 Cory Foster, a senior policy advisor with the Illinois Department of Corrections, says yoga provides prisoners with skills and mindsets that can ease their transition into the community and reduce the number of repeat offenders. In April the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet introduced a volunteer-run rehabilitation program that incorporates yoga techniques.

The classes at the Illinois River prison are unique in that they were initiated by an inmate. “I was doing yoga in my cell, and more and more guys kept asking me about it,” explains Bartosz Leszczynski. “I wanted to pass on the benefits to them.” Not only did yoga help him recover from a serious back injury (as a prisoner he wasn’t entitled to surgery), he says he’s become more in tune with himself and his surroundings. “It’s changed my life completely from five, six or seven years ago. It’s changed my whole perspective to where I don’t even feel like I’m in prison any more. What is prison? Is it a fence, a building? Or a state of mind?”

When classes began in January 2009, only five to ten men attended, using bath towels for mats — or nothing at all on the thin-carpeted floor. Other prisoners viewed yoga as effeminate and the students as “woosies.” “But a lot of the guys who were saying that are some of our best students now,” chuckles Leszczynski. “The stigma is gone.”

Rick Fahnestock, the recreation supervisor at the prison, says although the administration was initially shocked by Leszczynski’s proposal, the warden permitted some test runs of the class. “It took a while for the security and non-security people and the inmate population to get on board,” Fahnestock says, “but now it is completely accepted and we’ve got good participation.” Security staff have noticed the students are less angry and more cooperative, in part because students know they’ll be taken off the class roster if they cause problems.

“We are a peaceful group,” Feltus says. “We will do what’s required of us to continue the classes.” He began taking the classes because his body was “breaking down” from working out with weights. “The first session was so calming,” he says. “Bartosz comes across as so peaceful. I wanted what he had.”

When a work assignment prevented Leszcyzynski from teaching classes on weekdays, his cellmate and then Feltus took over for him. Now teaching five classes a week, Feltus believes yoga has had a profound effect on the students. “Once you peel back the layers of ego and deal with the heart of a prisoner, he evolves to something different.” Having served 18 years for first-degree murder, he adds that yoga has allowed him to work on himself and to accentuate his better inner qualities. “You have to have something to replace the behaviors, to erase that mental trail of what you’ve been doing to start fresh.”    

Leszczynski, who was imprisoned for home invasion, realizes how odd it sounds for convicted thieves, murderers and rapists to be working side by side on proper posture and breathing. “Yoga is the best classroom for everybody, no matter who you are. Whether you’re a saint or a sinner, no one makes any judgments.”

Karen Fitzgerald is a freelance writer living in Pleasant Plains. She can be reached at kmfitz3@yahoo.com.

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