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 Cor­rec­tion 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 day­for-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. 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.

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