MARSHAWN FELTUS, FOUNDER
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.