I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since last winter when I first met James Fox and a group of us got acquainted with his experience and why it’s so important. Here is someone that speaks my language: an authentic yogi who knows the value of practical language that can get the message across to anyone. When using absolutes like “anyone”, that most certainly includes incarcerated men in the American prison system who have never experienced yoga. The added benefit here is that there is no dilly-dallying with the yoga that Fox teaches, which happens to be the only yoga there is. If you ever felt like you have been doing yoga for a certain amount of time, or have attended x number of classes but you still don’t quite get it, the lack of gray area in Fox’s approach guarantees you won’t be left in the dark.

To go along with the weekend-long workshop, we received four hand-outs, the first one setting the tone for what was to come. The heading reads, “Do not lose heart…”. By the end of the training, this first sheet of paper held the most significance. I was one of only 6 men attending. It was a packed house, packed with 25 women, some of whom also had experience teaching the incarcerated. There were many questions and many discussions about specifics, and after we used our brains to think it all through exhaustively, we were left with our intuition. When you are alone in a room full of men who operate mainly with a strong connection to the survival instinct, the animal nature of man, the part in direct opposition to the thinking, rational mind, it is your intuition and non-thinking gut feeling that ultimately will prevail in this work.

James Fox was very clear that he does what works for him. Another teacher may have a totally different way of approaching a class, and completely different things may work for different teachers. His way is not the only way, it is his way. Another person may be more successful getting to students through different intuitive action. The lesson is to be yourself, and intuitively do what you think is the best thing within the guidelines of what needs to be done.

One of the brick walls that people questioning what he does in prison constantly beat their heads up against is, “Why do these incarcerated people deserve to be taught yoga?”, and the answer is simple if you become aware of the world in which we live. If you realized that you or one of your friends and family could be incarcerated tomorrow, and that a majority of incarcerated prisoners will be released and in traffic with you, buying groceries with you, at the gym with you, even possibly doing yoga in a class with you, then you’d realize that prison is not some place we send bad people and forget about them forever. Prison is made up of people in our communities, and prisoners are released back into our communities. If you would prefer to have people in your community bringing the prison way of life to your everyday life, then by all means, oppose this work.

From an economic standpoint, more tax dollars go to running prisons than education. Prisons are number one on the list when dividing up state budgets, and paying into this broken system means your children don’t get the education they could get, and increases the likelihood that they will themselves become prisoners under the current system.

Men and women in prison are met with constant resistance. These are human beings that are being told every minute of every day that they are not worthy of being treated fairly. These people go into prison with addictions that continue within prison walls without difficulty. Whatever psychological and emotional issues were present before incarceration are still there and possibly amplified through constant stress and anxiety. If a prisoner has a health issue in prison, it is not going to be cured or treated properly, but most likely will get worse. The person who was in need of rehabilitation before prison becomes a person in greater need of rehabilitation in prison.

Enter Taoist Yoga. Taoist practices seek to exercise the path of least resistance. Tao means “the flow of the universe”, and the goal of Taoist Yoga is to bring the mind and body into harmony for self-healing and spiritual development. After explaining these principles, James Fox took us through two Taoist Yoga sessions over the weekend. The structure of the flow had us access our grounding energy by using the legs and feet primarily in the beginning, and ending with postures focused specifically on the torso and upper extremities. Further balance was infused by mixing yang and yin poses. The yang poses are considered assertive, and strength oriented, exercising muscles and bones, whereas the yin poses are receptive, targeting joints, ligaments, tendons, and connective tissue. The yin poses promote the flow of chi energy to the organs of the body.

Wording is very important in getting to individuals who, although coming in voluntarily, can be turned off very easily if the wrong sentiment is expressed. Phrases like “open your heart” are a no-no, and forget about anything in the realm of “feel the love” or similar phrases a yoga instructor may be caught saying in the free world. Instead, postures that are heart openers are a priority and explained simply and clearly with descriptions like “gently bring your shoulder blades together”.

If you ever thought practicing yoga was difficult, imagine participating in a practice while coping with substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, and the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression that come with prison life. Students enter the class coming from the impact of trauma, they are physically over-stimulated and mentally under-stimulated, they are hyper vigilant, and mental imbalances are very common. Knowing these things about your students dictates that the program must be straight and to the point, a fast track to enlightenment. It’s as if there is no time to waste because there is no telling what can happen when they leave you back into the unpredictable world of prison.

The strongest sell James Fox incorporates is the fact that volunteers can walk in to the room and leave prison behind. Once it is realized this is true, no prodding is necessary for students to give it their all. One has to resort to behavioral facades to survive in prison, but these behaviors have no place in James’ yoga class inside the walls of San Quentin. Firm boundaries are drawn and as long as respect in both directions is demonstrated, progress can be made. Outside of the constant noise there is a quiet place that can serve as the highest reference for peace and relaxation, something you can’t find inside a prison. Meditation before and after the asana practice is a must in James’ classes, and the concepts of OM and Namaste are explained clearly and practically, with great success.

The saving philosophical and instructional teachings expressed in Fox’s classes include the ultimate goal of self-realization, the 8 limbs of yoga, and mindfulness as the foundation for practice. Sound heavy? This is emergency room yoga, and I can’t help thinking that Fox’s classes are the perfect model for all classes in America, especially during this time when the yoga boom in the West is all about having a great ass and wearing the trendy outfits that “help” you “do yoga”.

Can a prisoner be self-realized? Let’s rephrase the question, and ask, can someone in prison discover who they truly are? Maybe not among the din of distraction that has to be dealt with, but definitely in a yoga class where spirituality is discovered by connecting the mind, the heart, and the body. I walked away from this workshop understanding that I can be an incarcerated individual at any time in this country, and so can everyone else that attended, Fox included. If a yoga practice is right for you outside of prison, then it is also right for those inside prison, and even more so. Do not lose heart…

I took a self defense class in which the goal was to become water. This is not what the instructors taught, but this was one of the passing ideas I was told while trying to “get it” and at the same time acknowledging that if this was a real fight I would have been killed more than 10 times over. The most you could become water, the more you will both survive attack from an aggressor and also be in the right position to subdue a would-be attacker by always being in the right place for the deadliest blow to execute and end the fight in an instant. Unhappiness is the same thing. It is a fight that you suddenly realize you are losing because instead of being water, you are rigid like a board and every punch and blow is rattling you to the core. This “you” that is solid when it hurts and like water when when you are never in any danger is your ego. If you can keep your ego loose, unattached, liquid, and flowing freely, nothing can hurt you.

I am surrounded by people in constant fear. Fear is good, because it tells you something about your relationship to your environment, which is important to survive. Fear should be viewed as a dashboard gauge or alert light that turns on just to make you aware of something to make the best possible next decisions. If it becomes more than that, it paralyzes and rules your habits and behaviors, ensuring that you will make only poor decisions. Improper reaction to fear can bring on aggression, just a defense mechanism to protect the ego that is stiff as a board. Some people have learned to manage their fears so there is a baseline operation within fear that looks normal, even seemingly happy, but the angriest people I know are reactive fearing people that are not comfortable with knowing happiness, but more comfortable with experiencing pleasure and contentment in short bursts. This gives the illusion of happiness while it could simply be a majority depressive state with exceptional moments of coming up for air; not true happiness, but an attempt at feeling satisfaction with pleasure, and pleasure is just a selfish bandage. I know a few people that are somehow living most of their waking hours without this baseline of fear, and the fearful around them try to convince with logic everyone else that fear is the way of life. It’s the way of life because you need to be serious, work hard, and make lots of sacrifices if you want your just rewards, right? Otherwise you’d just be a dreamer who lived in a fairy tale, not real life. Also, if the unhappy see you happy, they tend to feel jealousy.

Let me pose the question to you: Are you happy? Here’s the good news. I don’t want to know the answer, and I’m not asking the question for you to answer out loud for any other people to hear it. I’m asking because I think it’s important for you to hear yourself answer the question alone, and honestly, to yourself; because if you can’t be honest with yourself, who can you be honest with? So, are you happy? If you haven’t immediately answered with a “yes”, maybe even the first time I asked the question, there may be some things you need to think about before you even try to answer. Questions like, “What is it that makes you happy?”. The answer(s) to this question will lead you down the path of understanding why it may be taking you so long to answer the first question. If you quickly answered “no”, what are the reasons?

If you had to step back and try to tackle the second question before the first, and maybe even can’t answer that one immediately, there is a third question to help you to get to the truth about yourself and living in eternal, unshakeable happiness. “Is happiness dictated by things that are outside of yourself?”, and are these things that you began to list if you said “no” to the question of your happiness?

After all this, there is a simplicity to happiness, and it has to be within you, thriving without dependency on what can stimulate you from the outside world. If you need something to be happy, you’re already the parrot of the physical and material world, trapped in a cage of habit and behavior. It has to surprise you at every corner; it can’t be a laid plan or list that tells you when it’s coming. That’s the recipe for certain disappointment.

I’d like to start by writing that I’m not in the habit of writing long, winding, fragmented posts, and this one will be long, but still to the point, and it will end with a workout routine that is beneficial to anyone who wants to get in shape no matter what your personal beliefs are and what you choose to eat. However, if you want to shed the most fat in the shortest time and you are at a hight body fat percentage, or even can’t figure out how to lose that last five pounds of fat, this will do it. And, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with yoga, because yoga is not exercise, but yoga will enrich this undertaking just as it has mine.

The Rules: No sugar, no white bread, no juices unless watered down significantly, no soda, no sweetened iced teas, no pasta, no white rice, and small, dense meals that contained a combination of proteins, carbohydrates, and grains or vegetables. I’m not a person with a large frame, and even though there are and have been fatter people than I was, I definitely reached critical mass. I looked and felt like a swollen pickle. I went from a 210 pound fat guy to a 150 pound stick in no time. I was losing weight so fast people couldn’t keep up with recognizing me each time they saw me. I did it by exercising intensely in my home and keeping to a strict diet, and it had nothing to do with yoga. Well, almost, except for the fact that coincidentally I discovered yoga at the time that I decided to get in shape the real way, by putting my muscles under great stress and burning calories. I practiced yoga every morning soon after the sun rose, but only for under 30 minutes, which was enough. I wasn’t interested in hanging around and lollygagging, and that meant with my diet, with my exercise protocol, and my yoga experience.

If for some reason I didn’t exercise intensely with weights and my own bodyweight but instead just dieted and did yoga, the results wouldn’t be nearly as quick or dramatic. I lost over 25 pounds in the first month, and in the second month I had to buy a new wardrobe.

I ate only three meals a day, of a certain proportional composition, and drank only water or green tea, unsweetened. I would lift weights at least three times a week in my apartment and work intensely (little or no rest between sets). These simple rules put my body into a fat burning state in which I was burning more calories than I was taking in, and the fat I had stored all over my body was being used as fuel for my workouts. Ironically, I started this because I felt I had no energy. Changing these behavioral aspects actually accessed my fat energy stores and allowed me to break that lethargy barrier. In retrospect, I suspect I was becoming insulin resistant, also called metabolic syndrome, in my overweight and under active state because I felt like I was on the verge of a diabetic coma if I ate any simple carbohydrates as a meal.

To follow what I did exactly, it helps if you are not overly sensitive to caffeine because that allows you to get a sustained alertness and energy boost when you feel you need it, especially if you also suffer from metabolic syndrome. My caffeine intake was limited to the green tea I was drinking, which was subtle to me, and doubles of espresso that worked like magic as soon as I limited my diet and began losing weight. It helped having a home espresso machine, and two shots in the morning and another two in the afternoon did the trick.

The routine: upon waking, the first thing to do was yoga, before eating, even drinking in the morning. This would raise the metabolism and leave me in a very hungry state, ready for breakfast. If on a rare occasion I didn’t break a sweat doing yoga, I would do another 20-30 minute session so that I did.

The meals: this part is easy because it didn’t change. Do you like pizza? Well, if you do, you’re in luck , because this is the pizza diet. There is a pizza place that may be in your area that delivers to your home and you can even order online so they never screw it up. Let’s call it Father Jonathan’s Pizza. I would order the extra-large size because they cut that pie into 12 slices, not 8, so you’re also eating less pizza, which is good. No deep dish or similar crusts, just a regular amount of dough. My special variety of pizza was a veggie pie with cheese, sweet peppers, tomato slices, and black olives. A whole pie would last 4 days since you only ate three slices per day, one per meal(this diet turns out to be economical). But that’s not even close to done. You can’t eat pizza all day. On each slice, I put crushed red pepper(I like spicy foods), something called Hot Pepper Ketchup(to add moistness to the whole affair) and one can of 365 brand Albacore Tuna in spring water and no salt (this is the cheapest highest quality tuna I could find–Bumble Bee and the like are atrocious). That’s it. Slice of pizza, one butter knife’s worth of Hot Pepper Ketchup, crushed red pepper (maybe some dried garlic powder), and one can of high quality tuna. I would have either water or brewed green tea on hand to drink. The meals eventually changed by removing the pizza and switching to wild and brown rice varieties in small quantities to replace the same amount of carbohydrate bulk to balance out the tuna. To prepare the rice I would simply boil one bag for about 50 minutes and it would last me a week. Before eating I would pour a little organic cold-pressed flax oil onto the rice, then crushed red pepper, then a spicy tomato pasta sauce that contained no sugar. Consequently, when I made this change, I was also eating the breakfast meal more as a real breakfast by changing it to two eggs, a 4 oz. cut of wild caught Alaskan salmon, and a piece of whole grain bread with 2% milk fat cottage cheese. If I was hungry between these meals, I’d eat some baby cut carrots, about 5 raw almonds, and a small can of V8 juice.

The fat-burning workout: let’s face it, if you’re serious about getting healthy you have to do the work. If you’re not a wuss, you’ll be able to do this. If you are a wuss, you won’t. Did you hear me? If you try this and decide you can’t do it with that little voice inside your head, then you are a wuss and should probably take a less aggressive and longer route to getting healthy and losing weight. It’s all up to you. Why do I write it like that? Because the things that I do now, five years later, are way more intense and more difficult than this fat burning workout. But if you’re out of shape, it’s what you need and it won’t be easy. These exercises are compound movements. This is your cardio and your anaerobic weight training all at once. It is like putting your body under 2-3 times more
stress than doing one movement focused on one muscle group. This will shred you and sculpt your body like you wouldn’t believe.

Movement 1: Forward Lunge with biceps curl and shoulder shrug.

Grab a pair of dumbbells that you are comfortable with. You will be doing two sets of this exercise. On the second set, I would increase the weight slightly. To start, I grabbed 15-pound dumbbells.

Stand straight up with your feet hip-width apart, looking forward, with the weights hanging at your sides with your arms straight. Lunge forward with your right foot, not too far, and after making contact with the ground, lower into the lunge straight down while curling the weights up toward your chest, ending the motion just above your forward thigh. Reverse the motion of the lunge and the biceps curl until you are back to starting position, then shrug your shoulders with the weight. Repeat all of the above with the left foot lunging forward. Congratulations, you have just performed one rep. Do this 15 times. Breathe, drink water, take a minute or two. This is intense. Then either grab a heavier weight (I used 20-pound dumbbells) or use the same weight and do another set. You’re done with the first exercise.

Movement 2: Shoulder press with triceps extension.

Grab the same dumbbells you started the first set with and stand with your feet hip or shoulder width apart. Lift the weight from your sides into a shoulder press. This is a light weight but you will be doing compound movements and lots of reps, so it will feel difficult later; concentrate on the movement of the weight, don’t rush through it. Immediately at the top of the press, come back down to the tops of your shoulders and position the weights in front of your chest as you bend at the waist only, keeping your back straight. Once your torso is parallel with the ground, extend your hands with the weights behind you by straightening your elbows and contracting your triceps. Bend back up at the waist while positioning the weight back to your shoulders and prepare to repeat the exercise. This is one rep. Do it 15 times. Grab the heavier weight when you’re ready and do another set. Congratulations, you’ve just done the first four sets of the fat-burning workout. The rest is easy, trust me. On all movements, inhale as you prepare for the movement, and exhale as you push the weight through the movement.

Movement 3: Close-grip or shoulder-width chin-ups.

When I was about 210 pounds, I couldn’t even do one chin-up. Remember, this workout was at home, so I had no cable lat-pulldown machines to set at 90 pounds to do these. Instead, I put my 5-foot bar across the top of my stairway so that when I stepped down a few steps the bar was above me and I could grab it and hang on it. I would give myself a slight jump up to assist me with the chin-up, and I would use my weight to come down slowly back to hanging position. I only helped myself enough for my muscles to be able to get my heavy body up there. Do something like this if you have to. If you go to a gym, use the assisted chin-up machine or a cable lat pulldown machine. Do 15 chin-ups and don’t rest in between. Eventually I was able to do 15 on my own, then 20, then 25, and more. Do two sets of 15 chin-ups.

Movement 4: Dumbbell squats.

Grab dumbbells that you can handle holding at your sides while standing, and inhale, drop your hips down behind you while bending at the knees as if you were sitting back into a chair that isn’t there. Exhale while coming back up, keeping the weight at your sides without bending your arms or swinging them forward or back. Do this 15 times. At home, I did this with 40-pound dumbbells to start, then I would put together the weight-adjustable dumbbells with a higher weight. Do what you think you can handle. These days I might try this with 65 to 85 pound dumbbells. Do two sets. Congratulations, you’ve just done 8 sets of the fat-burning workout.

Movement 5: Bench press.

You need a bench and a barbell to do this. Luckily, I had this at home, nothing fancy, and not as heavy-duty as the ones in the gyms. I would do one set with 135 pounds, and another set with 155 pounds. Do however much you think you can do 15 reps of and do it twice. Increase the weight of the second set by 10-20 pounds if you’d like. Congratulations, you’ve just done 10 sets of the fat-burning workout.

Movement 6: Bicycle crunches.

Lie on your back, and do stomach crunches while holding your legs up in front of you and rotating your feet as if you were spinning an imaginary bicycle crankset. Keep your arms up behind your head and rotate your spine slightly with each crunch so you alternate reaching your elbows toward your knees. Do 15 or more crunches, preferably to failure. Do two sets.

Movement 7: The Superman.

I didn’t understand this exercise for a while but did it anyway. I understood eventually that it helps with your posture. Lie on your stomach looking forward with your hands in front of you the same way Superman would fly in the comics and movies. Lift one arm off the ground as well as the opposite leg and hold for five seconds. Then lift the other arm and opposite leg and hold for 5 seconds. Do that 15 times. Do two sets. Congratulations, you just completed the fat-burning workout.

This workout can take anywhere from 40 minutes to one hour. If you’re able to do it quicker, that means you are using lighter weights. Your body will be in delicious pain for at least two days if you did it right. Do yoga on the pain days. Do the workout again on the non-pain days. Watch the fat disappear and the body become a hard, chiseled figure.

I went down to 150 pounds, which I felt was too light for me. Since then, I’ve somehow managed to get back up to 180 pounds and not gain any fat in the process. That means this is not a fad diet, but a lifestyle diet that works in the short run and continues to work in the long run. There it is. You now have the knowledge. Do something with it.