Two years ago, inmate Marshawn Feltus was teaching yoga to convicted felons on state-issued towels. Today – a free man – he’s opening the first yoga studio in Austin.
Feltus, 38, and his team of staff and volunteers introduced ACT Yoga to the community Saturday through a series of yoga workshops.
There were free sessions of workplace, couples, individual and family yoga, with the Saturday event kicking off with a healthy cooking demonstration.
The name of the studio – ACT Yoga – stands for awareness, change and triumph – three things Feltus said he believes in strongly.
Feltus said he discovered yoga while in prison for close to 19 years. A prison doctor gave him a pamphlet about therapy exercise after he tore muscles in his knee playing football in the prison yard at Illinois River Correctional Center.
But it wasn’t until he started running into a Polish inmate in the prison’s gym that he started to consider yoga.
The prisoners would see the inmate doing something in the yard they thought was martial arts, so they called him Buddha, said Feltus.
But it was yoga, and Buddha was petitioning the prison warden to let him start a yoga class.
“[Buddha] had to hound me for awhile to get me to attend. I took my first class with him and I was hooked – I could have married yoga,” said Feltus.
Soon Feltus began teaching yoga classes to up to 200 inmates at a time.
After getting out of prison, he started working at Bethel New Life where he went from a volunteer janitor to store manger of one of the organization’s retail stores.
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.
Feltus said he hopes ACT Yoga will provide a safe place for the neighborhood, just like it did for the prisoners of Illinois River Correctional Center.
“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 or gangs, said Feltus.
And he said he’s excited to bring that to the people of Austin – especially young black men – because he said he’s been where they are now.
Participants in Saturday’s workshop seemed excited, too.
Sixty-seven-year-old Harold Dillard said he has been practicing yoga at home for three or four years since retiring.
“I’m excited to have something so close in the community. It only took me 10 minutes to get here,” said Dillard.
Valencia Truitt learned about the workshop while at work at Swedish Covenant Hospital. She said some of her co-workers were talking about an article in “Yoga Chicago” that featured Feltus, and she thought Saturday’s workshop would be the perfect place to find out more.
“I truly believe in the black community there is not enough knowledge about what the benefits of yoga can be,” said Truitt.
Later, she let out an “ouch” during the workplace refresh session but was quick to tell everyone it was “a healthy ouch.”
Truitt said she was impressed with Feltus’ ability to explain the moves.
“If he’s going to always set it up like this, this could be my spot,” she said.
Feltus and his team are still working out membership pricing details for classes. Meanwhile, people can schedule personal sessions with the certified instructor for $10.
ACT Yoga is located at 1140 N. Lamon Ave. in Bethel New Life’s Chapel.
Click here to see more photos from Saturday’s event.