Live Be Yoga: How Yoga Offered a Former Inmate a Second Chance to Serve His Community

Before he was incarcerated, Marshawn Feltus had never stepped foot on a yoga mat. Now he runs his own studio and teaches yoga on Chicago's West Side. Here, the LBY team sits down with him to share the incredible story of how the practice turned his life around—so he could help others do the same.
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Marshawn Feltus, yoga teacher and founder of ACT Yoga

Marshawn Feltus, yoga teacher and founder of ACT Yoga in Chicago, sits down with the Live Be Yoga ambassadors after class.

Live Be Yoga ambassadors Jeremy Falk and Aris Seaberg are on a road trip across the country to share real talk with master teachers, explore innovative classes, and so much more—all to illuminate what's in store for the future of yoga. Follow the tour and get the latest stories @livebeyoga on Instagram and Facebook.

Growing up in Chicago, with some of the highest murder rates in the nation, criminal violence was an inescapable part of childhood for Marshawn Feltus. Though street gangs offered the promise of survival, they nearly stole his entire life away. 

Just before his 18th birthday, an altercation he recalls as “senseless street violence” escalated into a fatal shooting and landed Feltus a 38-year prison sentence at Illinois River Correctional Center. Instead of becoming a tragic statistic in the vicious industrial prison complex, we found Feltus inside Bethel New Life community center on the West Side of Chicago, teaching one his soulful hatha yoga classes to a diverse range of students, and we were honored to hear the story of how he got there.

Like a lot of men in prison, Feltus spent as much time as he could lifting weights. All that began to change when a new inmate began teaching himself yoga by reading books his family sent him so he could treat an injury. He was soon dubbed Buddha and later successfully petitioned the prison to allow him to teach yoga classes. He tried persistently and unsuccessfully to recruit Feltus into the program, but Feltus turned down numerous invitations. “In my mind, it’s just not what dudes did,” he admits. “I thought yoga was for skinny white women, like I thought basketball and football were for the brothers.”

Eventually Buddha wore him down, and Feltus put his weights aside and stepped onto a yoga mat for the first time. “Honest to God, my first yoga class, I was hooked,” he said. “We did Eagle arms and I just fell in love right there. If yoga were a woman, I would have married her right there. That’s how great breathing and stretching felt.” Feltus ecstatically shared his experience with other inmates for weeks until the next class. After he practiced a few more times, Feltus noticed his temper had subsided, and he watched himself become less reactive. He even began sleeping through the whole night—a big deal in the big house.

When the benefits of yoga started to spread around the prison, the classes grew in size, frequency, and popularity. “It started to gain respect from everybody.” Eventually, Feltus came to assist in teaching and running the program. At its peak, they taught 250 inmates per class, which made up roughly 15-20 percent of the population at Illinois River. Normally, with traction like that, there are bound to be problems; in all the other large classes or events, there were always breakout fights or incidents. Yet as the yoga program kept growing, Feltus says they never had an incident or issues with the inmates, which would have resulted in the program’s termination. “We made sure that among us we had that level of respect.” As true yogis, Feltus proudly recalls, “we were self-regulated.”

When Feltus was released, he had been in prison for 19 years—longer than he had been alive when we was sentenced. His early-release conditions kept him on house arrest for a year, and although he completed a number of self-help programs in prison, finding a job out in the world was disheartening. He was turned away from businesses despite “Help Wanted” signs hanging in their windows, an all-too-common story for former inmates trying to find their way again. Eventually he started working odd jobs at a local community center, but whenever he could, he would bring people together to practice yoga.

Realizing he had a gift and a passion of inspiring others, Feltus completed his 200-hour teacher training at Chicago Yoga Center and then pursued other courses in entrepreneurship and business to bring his future to life. He soon launched ACT (Awareness Change Triumph) Yoga, the first yoga studio in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, to a grateful audience of hundreds. His impact has since expanded exponentially; he’s now taught at churches, colleges, elementary schools, community centers, prisons, and various other programs around the city.

Feltus’ story is proof that prison yoga programs can not only create peace within the prison—theirs was the only program without violent incident—but can inspire people to turn their lives around to reintegrate into society successfully and be of service to others in profound ways. “Within me there’s forever a smoldering flame for all the atoning and apologies I have to give for the viciousness and vileness of the act that I committed against somebody else. That’s part of why I choose to be a servant,” he says. “That’s why I choose to have as much impact in my community and my life as I possibly can.”

How Yoga Could Transform the Prison System and Communities

As our tour continues to look toward the future of yoga, after sitting down with Feltus, it’s clear that prison is a place where yoga can make an impact and then ripple out tremendous benefits to communities. If you're interested in supporting or teaching in this space, learn more about yoga in prisons or check out Prison Yoga Project, where Feltus recently completed another training.

We’re especially grateful to our sponsors at Nirvana Bars for fueling our journey so that we’re able to share this important work. 

See also Inside the 'Peace House' That Is Healing a Chicago Neighborhood Traumatized by Violence