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Meet The Prison Yoga Master Doing 18 Years For Robbing Banks

In the macho culture of prison, it takes a special type of inmate to lead yoga classes

Jan 04, 2016 at 3:28 PM ET

Prison isn’t the ideal place to do yoga. With all the gangbangers, drug dealers and mafiosi fueling a testosterone-driven nether zone, practicing the fine art of body mechanics is seen as, well, feminine. In prison, it’s go hard or else. Pumping iron and banging out endless burpees is the regimented norm. If you want to prove your manhood, or keep it, yoga isn’t the solution.

But at every institution I was at, over my 21 years of incarceration in federal prison, there was always a group of prisoners that did yoga. Regardless of the implications and consequences.

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“We were lucky if we had five to 10 dudes in the yoga car,” says Judge, a 36-year-old dreadlocked and tattooed hippie doing 18 years for robbing banks. (Note: Judge requested his real name not be used.) “I did yoga on the street and when I got locked up I kept doing it. Jogging, doing yoga, playing guitar and smoking weed is what I do. The penitentiary can’t stop nothing.”

Every group and subgroup has a car in the penitentiary. It’s race-based, mostly, but lines can be drawn up based on everything from hometown to gang affiliation. Pick a prison and you might find a car for the Bloods, Aryans, New Yorkers, Latin Kings and most any other crew you can imagine. It just depends on what institution you’re at and the demographics inside.

“I’m from Pittsburgh, so I’ve always been in the East Coast car on whatever yard I was at,” says Judge. “I also go hard for the Grateful Dead and yoga and I’ve been running the yoga car at a bunch of different prisons.”

I met Judge at Federal Correctional Institution Gilmer in West Virginia back in 2004. Up until then I had never done yoga. I played sports, I lifted weights, I did pull-ups. That’s what convicts do. But yoga? Hell no. Judge would change all that.

I’d developed a bad case of sciatica taking hits in the prison basketball, football and soccer leagues. I prided myself on holding my own and getting banged up was the price. Judge would see me in pain all the time when we practiced in a prison metal band together. Sometimes I could barely bend over and pick up the guitar.

“You should try yoga,” said Judge.

“Yoga,” I said. “You must be fucking crazy. I’m not doing that gay shit.”

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But Judge told me he did it in his cell every morning and every night. He swore by it. He told me it would work wonders for my back. My sciatica was so bad I was willing to try anything. The Motrin that the medical department handed out wasn’t doing shit. Thanks to Judge’s urging, I decided then and there that the chance of being called a queer was worth it if yoga could fix my back. We met the next morning.

“You were stiff as a board when you started doing yoga,” Judge remembers. “You took some shit from your homeboys too. But it wasn’t long before we had a whole group of guys coming out and doing yoga on the yard with us.”

Eventually, there was enough interest that Judge went to the recreation cops and got an official class going. We put up flyers and everything. The prison even ordered us yoga mats. Before that we were just using towels.

Going to the yoga class every day become a release. A break from the daily BS you have to put up with on the inside.

The other prisoners in the class with us were Denny, a redneck from West Virginia who liked to blow things up and had a 40-something year sentence; Christian, a Colombian cocaine dealer doing 20 years; Dorsey, a North Carolina bank robber doing 15 years; and Mustafa, an African-American Muslim doing 30 years. Quite the little crew.

Sometimes, prisoners would peek in on what we were doing in the room. We’d usually get a “What the fuck,” especially if we were in a pose with our asses straight up in the air. But, once the other prisoners got used to it, they just started calling us the yoga car. It was just what we did.

And since everything in prison is based off strength, Judge made sure everyone knew what was up. He could handstand walk up and down the basketball court. He’d bet other inmates that he could grab a hold of the metal pole that supported the baskets and suspend himself sideways. No one ever won by betting against him.

Judge got mad respect for himself and the car just by showing off the benefits of doing yoga.

“They used to ask me if I was a gymnast or something,” Judge says. “These dudes were phenomenal athletes, fast and strong, but they weren’t flexible and didn’t have the core strength I had. I would get some of them to come and try yoga a few times, but a lot of times when they found out how hard it was they never came back. Or they couldn’t take their homeboys clowning them.”

Most of us could never handle the poses that Judge could do, but we gained some flexibility and, true to his word, Judge’s yoga routines fixed my sciatica. I’m out now,  but Judge is still inside.

“I got a couple of years left, but I’m still holding down the yoga car,” Judge says. “I live by it. Dudes always wanna make fun of me doing yoga and try to make jokes until I show them all the stuff that I can do that they can’t. Then they shut the fuck up real quick. Or they come holler at me later and ask me if I’ll teach them.”

There’s a lot of ignorance in prison and people always make fun of stuff they don’t understand. It takes a brave man to do yoga in prison, but once it’s established how hard it is, most prisoners will give the respect that’s due. If they don’t, Judge has an answer for that, too.

“I’ve been doing time too long for some sucker ass motherfucker to try me just because I do yoga. Ain’t nothing soft about this hippie,” Judge says. “If dude is making too much noise I’ll see him in the bathroom and then we’ll see what’s up when I shank his ass with my bone crusher.”

It’s still prison. Any slight must be answered. Yoga practitioner or not. At least when you do yoga you can meditate on it afterwards.