Yoga vs. Fashion & Style

Thanksgiving dinner (one at my Mom’s, one at my Dad’s) was met with quite a few comments regarding Deb Schoeneman’s NYT article about… well, frankly I don’t really know what her article was about. In an email to me she said it was a ‘humor essay’. In all fairness, my sister Kara did find it very amusing that people apparently said my name in “hushed and reverent tones” – while I do what, she wondered? Quote Beavis and Butthead?

My friend Margaret Loeb, who is working on a longer response based on her training as a psychologist, sent some thoughts to me as well. I particularly liked her response to Ms Schoeneman’s quip that “It [Ashtanga Yoga] is widely believed to have been created for adolescent boys and tends to attract former drug addicts and Type A personalities…”:

In a world with ADD and sensory dis-integration as not only discreet pathologies but symptoms of an over stimulating culture, Ashtanga yoga offers brilliant tools to gain mastery, focus and mental stability.  The fact that the achievement would suit young boys, former addicts and type A personalities is not testimony to its failure but rather to its success.   There is in fact abundant evidence that yoga reduces anxiety, improves cardiac functioning, posture and mental focus. For many people who do yoga, without it they would be more likely to use drugs, more likely to need therapy, more likely to have difficulty managing their emotions.  The physical benefits of yoga are a bonus. 

Steve Cahn has several posts regarding the article on his very enjoyable Confluence Countdown blog, and Jason at Leaping Lanka has some good points to make too.

Me, I don’t have much to say. The article will be forgotten by, oh, today. I do feel though that these types of articles are indicative of a larger problem in American yoga.  Although it has been wonderful to see the amount of coverage given to Yoga by mainstream publications like the Times, these attentions have tended to be distracted by a perennial problem: the incommensurability between insider and outsider perspectives -subjective and objective views.

Swami Sivananda said, “Be good, do good” (not necessarily “Look good”). That summed up yoga for him, and very nicely at that. Plus, easier said than done. Some social service can go a long way in getting us over ourselves. Adding additional fitness routines alongside yoga can be useful, but fitness alone should not be the barometer by which we measure our success in yoga. If it is, then we are missing the inner aspects of what a deliberate, focused practice can bring us. Everyone comes to yoga for a different reason, and we have to accept those reasons as being equally valid, whether it is for fitness or as a quest for liberation. Yoga as well has a life span – for some its usefulness persists for decades; others feel that they have done enough after a few months. What we should not do, however, is forget the highly philosophical and time-tested tradition that yoga has come from – by white-washing its power of transformation and purification in the Fashion & Style section.

So, when Robbie Norris, who has been teaching yoga for free in the Richmond City Jail for three and a half years, sent me this letter from Bryan Shull, one of his students serving time, I thought, man, this guy has landed himself in prison, but now he is working on himself, and has tapped into what yoga is truly about. In LA and in NY, we are in a different type of prison – of glamour, of beauty, of overwork, of struggling to succeed. We don’t need to do yoga to help us reach those ephemeral goals, we need it to help us see that they are ephemeral.

There is no exercise allowed inside of the prison, only out in the yard. Bryan has no yoga mat, so he is making do on the bare ground, whatever the weather may be, going through the primary series on his own, the best he can.

Here is Bryan’s envelope:

















And here is his letter:

Dear Robbie,

First as usual please let me apologize for having taken so long to write.

This may sound crazy but with work picking up and me having to start spending some time on my reentry stuff, I’ve been busy and my time is pretty much cramped. But that’s a good thing!

For so many reasons, I simply can’t list them all, obviously its [Ashtanga Yoga] put me in a better state of mind. Which in turn has even though I might not get to practice everyday made them [my practice] way more appreciated.

And more deliberate – like if they let me outside I’m doing a full practice, period. Whether it be in the cold or damp, I’m doing it somehow. And enjoying it so very much. After loading pellets and cleaning toilets it’s such a release and feels so good after work.

I have to be a little more patient with myself but I don’t seem to be losing ground surprisingly. Maybe just a touch if I have to take two days in a row like I did last weekend as I had to work Saturday during rec and Sunday I had a visit. But not much and this may sound funny but I enjoy gaining it back. And it’s neat how much respect I’ve earned from people, certain guards will let me out or whatever and try and help. It’s not much spoken but its even from a lot of the inmates, I hear little things and its cool stuff.

Something new is lately people from the [AA] meetings in here working on their step work or guys I go to church with or just folks wanting to chill or stretch out in their own way, will show up at what’s become ‘yoga corner.’

Long story short I’m really enjoying my practice every time I get to. And each one for its own merits. A particularly good one a week or so ago, two big birds were tumbling together way up in the sky. I never stopped but at the end I always walk a couple of laps and this guy we call the bird man asked me if I saw them and I said I did and how cool it was being outside and being a part of nature.

Another cool practice I had not too far back – a younger guy I talk to a lot at meetings came over and sat down a ways away and just sat there awhile. After I was finished he moved around a little and said man I prayed a little, meditated and then took a small nap. I was like, well that’s cool. He said, I’d of said hello to you but figured it would be more of a gesture not to bother you and just peacefully do my own thing. And I said thank you, you didn’t bother me a bit. We made a couple of laps and talked. I’m just thankful I get to practice when I do and for the positive feed back or none at all.

And [thankful] for my health being good enough to continue. But most of all for the all time you’ve shared with me to help me get this far. I feel like I’m rounding a corner in more ways than one.

Thank you and Happy Holidays,


Letters to Bryan can be sent to:

Bryan C Shull


HCC PO – 129

Haynesville VA 22472