Founder: Marshawn Feltus
ACT Yoga will be awarded a $10,000 grant from Lululemon and its social-impact program, Here to Be, to help deepen its effect and reach.
At age 17, Marshawn Feltus thought his life was over. A native of Austin, one of the most violent neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side, he got into a street altercation and shot and killed another young man. “I was a knuckle-head kid defending territory and expressing my anger in a bravado way,” he says. “It was senseless violence.” Feltus was sentenced to 38 years in state prison. While he was incarcerated at Illinois River Correctional Center, another inmate persuaded him to try yoga. He reluctantly rolled out a bath towel (they didn’t have yoga mats) in an old chapel space, and within five minutes of his first yoga practice, he knew he had found an important tool. “I felt tension release in my muscles and my mental stress dissolving. It was instant for me.” Over time, he felt calmer, was sleeping better, and felt less agitated. A few months later, the instructor of the class stepped down and called on Feltus to replace him. Feltus led classes for two years—eventually teaching up to seven classes a week and instructing more than 800 fellow inmates. His program became the only organized activity at Illinois River without a single violent incident on its record. “My experience with yoga eventually took me past the physical asana into a conscious way of thinking about all aspects of my personal life and society,” he says. “I had a clearer perspective to examine the lessons I’d learned and my thoughts and goals.”
After serving 18 years and 9 months, Feltus was released (a result of Illinois’s former day-for-day structure, in which half the original sentence was served in prison with other time on parole). He returned to Austin with a new purpose: to bring the healing power of yoga to his community. He completed a local entrepreneurship program and a 200-hour teacher training at Chicago Yoga Center and opened Austin’s first yoga studio, within the Bethel New Life Community Center.
He calls his studio ACT Yoga—which stands for Awareness, Change, Triumph (an acronym he used in prison to encourage other inmates to enroll in the GED, college, and self-help programs). Now, by teaching yoga in jails, schools, community centers, and other institutions around Chicago, in addition to his studio, he spreads the practice that gave him a second chance at life.
Q & A
Yoga Journal: Can you describe ACT’s mission and how it helps your community?
Marshawn Feltus: The first component is to educate people on what yoga is and what it can do for them. It amazes me how so few people actually take the time to close their eyes and take a deep breath. The second component is to make yoga accessible. Our classes range from $8–$12. We don’t want our prices to mean people have to take things off their grocery lists.
YJ: How do you embody the yogic concept of seva, or “selfless service”?
MF: Yoga is multidimensional, and you have to look at what different people need. If you try to say, “We’ll do it our way and make everybody conform,” it doesn’t work. If you can tap into what individuals need, you have better buy-in. When I meet someone who’s never been on a yoga mat or seen the inside of a yoga studio, I try to get to know them, and then say something like, “You know, if your back is hurting, I know a few things for that.” They may never come in for a traditional class, but at least I’ve planted the seed.
YJ: What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to use the $10,000?
MF: This is a really key time for us to receive this award. The main plan is to train more yoga teachers from the community and to help more people. We’ll also be able to buy some props and pulley carts, which we need to transport our mats when we’re out doing pop-up yoga sessions on the street; we’ll fix our website, which is down because of malware; and we’ll be able to do wellness checks where we sit down and buy a meal for someone and have a conversation—that goes a long way.
See also 2017 Good Karma Awards: 9 Stories to Inspire Your Seva Practice