Former inmate brings yoga to Chicago’s West Side

August 30, 2013

Katie Kather

(WBEZ/Katie Kather)
Marshawn Feltus teaching yoga to inmates at the Illinois River Correctional Center. Two years later, he’s bringing the peaceful practice to the often violent West Side of Chicago.

A man who spent nearly half of his life in prison for murder is opening a yoga studio in one of Chicago’s more violent West Side neighborhoods.

Marshawn Feltus hopes his new yoga studio will bring peace to the troubled streets of Austin.

On a summer day, Feltus walked past boarded-up buildings and groups of people clustered on front stoops and street corners.

He and two staff members wore matching t-shirts and carried yoga mats.

They regularly recruit people this way for their yoga studio -- the first in Austin.

The first group he approached just blankly stared at him from the front porch they were sitting on, but he pulled a teenage boy aside and started talking to him.

Feltus told his story to everyone he ran into along Chicago Avenue that day. Within a few minutes of recruiting, he had a six-foot-tall former inmate reaching high into the air and breathing deeply.

He says he knows what young people on the streets are going through because he was a gang member 20 years ago -- in the same neighborhood.

Feltus was in a gang, and what started out as an argument and fistfight over territory, ended with him seeking retaliation.

He shot a guy twice and killed him.

“The crime I committed was some of the most senseless violence -- much of what you see today,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons he recruits on the streets of Austin.
“I have a specific and a personal mission for the young black males -- to show them there’s more to their lives than just hanging out on the street corner,” said Feltus.

But Feltus didn’t make that connection right away. He spent the first half of his sentence the same way he lived on the street -- being angry and getting into fights, he said.

About halfway through his sentence, two things changed, said Feltus.

He found new meaning in a faith he grew up with, even though he can’t point to a specific instance, he said.

“It was an accumulation. It happened in bits and pieces,” said Feltus.

Around the same time, he said he and the other prisoners started watching another inmate stretching in the yard. They tried to guess what he was doing.

“We called him Buddha. We actually thought he was really weird at first. He’d be out in the yard doing these strange poses,” said Feltus.

Buddha, whose real name is Bartosz Leszczynski, invited Feltus to his prison yoga classes, but Feltus wasn’t exactly looking to change his ways.

But Buddha was persistent.

“Finally, I went to my first yoga class in prison and I could have married yoga,” he said.

He said the soothing practice was different than anything he had ever done.

Soon after, Buddha was transferred to another prison and asked Feltus to take over his class.

Feltus would teach anywhere between 20 to 200 inmates at a time. They would use state-issued towels instead of yoga mats.

A noted psychiatry and violence prevention expert sees the value in the practice.

Dr. Carl Bell thinks Feltus can reach young people on the West Side through mastering an art that teaches discipline and breath control.

“You have a model that works to help you calm down and relax, you’ve got a skill which gives you a sense of power over your own body. So, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” said Bell.

After being released from prison two years ago, Feltus worked at Bethel New Life on North Lamon Avenue, where he went from a volunteer janitor to store manger of one of the community center’s retail stores. 

But yoga was his passion and within two years of being released from prison, he completed an entrepreneurship training program at Bethel while taking classes to become a certified yoga instructor.

He graduated from the entrepreneurship training program a day after he was laid off at Bethel due to restructuring, he said.

But that only gave him more time to focus on starting his own yoga studio.

He held the first class earlier this month at Bethel, in a chapel with stained glass windows.

Feltus taught the group of six students from a stage overlooking them.

Two long-time Austin residents, Deloris Bingham and Sarah Evans, practiced yoga next to each other.

After class, the women talked about what having a yoga studio in their own community means to them.

Bingham said she hopes the studio succeeds because she hopes it will help return the neighborhood to what it was.

“When I was raising my children when I first got the home, about 30 years ago, it was nothing like this, no shooting everyday, are you serious? Killing kids and stuff -- they don’t care,” said Bingham.

Evans said she thinks yoga can help stop the violence she sees in parts of her neighborhood.

“When you take time to focus on yourself, you don’t have time for all this craziness out here, yoga promotes peace within. And when you got peace within, you got peace without,” said Evans. 

Feltus said he hopes ACT Yoga -- which stands for awareness, change and triumph -- will provide a safe place for the neighborhood and a different way to deal with aggression, just like it did for the prisoners he taught. 

“When we made the call to breathe in, you exhale and let it all go. When you come to yoga, that’s what you are,” he said.

When doing yoga with the prisoners, all their differences dissolved -- there was no race and no gangs, said Feltus.

And he said he’s excited to bring that to people in the Austin community, especially young black men, because he said he’s been where they are now. 

“I don’t feel like I’ll be able to go out and save the world, but if I could just grab me a few guys every day or every week and get them to see it -- that’s my contribution,” he said.

Katie Kather is an arts and culture reporting intern at WBEZ. Follow her @ktkather.