Robert Sturman – Prison Yoga Project: Everybody has a story
“As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind that I would still be in prison.”
Do you ever catch yourself saying something like, “if that were me I would have never done that”? It’s so easy to be quick to judge without knowing the battle that person may be fighting.
I remember my first encounter of world-renowned photographer, Robert Sturman’s work: flipping through social media I saw a photo of a prisoner in a yoga pose behind bars, an image from the Prison Yoga Project, founded by James Fox. I could feel the sorrow, the remorse, the unfairness of life that was depicted in that picture. I instantly felt heavy in my heart because I could see myself in that prisoner. Not in committing a crime, but in the fact that my mind could be the deepest, darkest prison. Quote from an inmate, “Yoga is anger management, AA, all of those classes in one because it frees your mind and it’s medicine too because it helps you function and move better.”
It was nearly 13 years ago that I was saved by yoga. Like a fairytale, yoga swept me off my feet and loved me unconditionally. From being an orphan as a baby, to struggling all through school to fit in, to my father passing away at a small age and our family falling apart, my yoga practice is what continues to empower me through the emotional challenges of childhood, still haunting me as an adult. There are so many days when I still feel like that 10 year old who wants so badly to be the cool kid in school, or that 13 year old who thinks life is unfair because her dad passed away.
Sturman says, “We live in a world where the photograph is a tremendous influential communicator of ideas. The Prison Yoga Project was such a deep, profound body of work I knew that if I did this, if I told their stories through photography then the program would grow through social media. Photographs are power, they’re ideas. When you present an idea at first it can be abstract and sometimes shocking. It can be confusing to people but when they see photographs, they get it because if you see it enough the idea can be heard.”
As I continued to stare at the prison pictures, it was Sturman’s ability to depict emotions and an experience in an image that had me fall in love with his work. Sturman quotes, “You see thousands of pictures of men in prison but do you see pictures of them trying to be the best version of themselves? It’s the same energy that you may see of someone practicing on the beach in California, it’s still a longing to be better, a longing to be your best self.” And this is exactly what I saw in his storytelling through photography. Human beings just like you and me, striving to be good in life.
I’ve learned that when you are your most honest self with your own story, you discover what breaks your heart the most out in the world, and that is the source, the “why” behind how you will be of service out in life. So I asked Robert, “why prison yoga?” He replied, “I had achieved a significant amount of success from the Polaroid process and when it was dying I didn’t know where to turn with my photography career, my assistant of 6 years had passed away, and I was going through a divorce. Prison yoga was attractive to me because I felt imprisoned.”
On Sturman’s visit with Fox to the infamous San Quentin Prison, when they arrived an officer announced there was a guest photographer and they would each need to sign a form. The prisoners just looked at Sturman and smiled and signed. “A lot of people have questions and want to know exactly what they’re doing. Yoga is not necessarily the most masculine activity to do in a prison, and to others this may have looked like a girl thing. I was very touched because they had no reservations, the way they were being broke my heart, it was so beautiful”, says Sturman.
An inmate says, “Yoga has helped me lower my hypertension without medication. And when you’re less tense you’re gonna respond differently in situations and other people, you’re not gonna just automatically snap in situations, you’re going to be able to think about it. And also possible have empathy, thinking about somebody else and what they’re going through.”
“When I’m reflecting back to them their images in the camera, they light up. They see themselves, their potential, their goodness. I could feel that they appreciated being seen. After yoga they sit around together. Out in the prison they would never cross paths or races but in yoga they do, they’re buddies. One of the most fascinating things I witnessed in their yoga is during Savasana they all close their eyes! This is completely unheard of in the prison system because you’re always on guard. I learned that if someone from another gang walks through they have to attack them because that’s just what they do.”
I don’t know their stories and I didn’t ask because that’s not why I was there. It was a pure artist/model connection, nothing else, just yoga and them being themselves and having the opportunity to shine. The Warden said to me, ‘I notice the guys who do the yoga, make better choices.’
This work has showed me that I’m an artist and I also happen to practice yoga, which helps me to be a better human being. Yoga poses are so beautiful that if I can find these other subcultures that are practicing using these gorgeous asanas as the foundation to tell the story of them trying to be their best and reaching their full potential, that’s interesting to me. These are the game changers. When I can bridge a story that National Geographic would cover with my art and the foundation being these gorgeous asanas, it’s going to catch people’s attention and shed light on how yoga is healing the world.”
At this point in our interview, I was inspired beyond belief and knew more than ever that yoga was the answer. Yoga will change the world. If you practice yoga, you know that the moments on your mat can be the most cherished part of your day. You can show up frustrated, impatient, or judgmental and yoga doesn’t care. Yoga accepts you as you are. Inspiring words from an inmate, “I haven’t felt this relaxed since the last visit with my family and for something to compare to that there’s gotta be something right, something good.”
It was such a surreal experience to get to sit down and interview Robert Sturman. After watching from a far his miraculous ways of telling life through pictures, I was beyond honored to get to write an article about him. Thank you Robert for your heart to tell the truth in life through your brilliant work. Your ability to story tell and capture the Prison Yoga Project, has shined a spotlight on the program and illustrated how yoga will change the world.
“Yoga saved me, and continues to save me every time I come to my mat. I believe that yoga will change the world because it’s the physical practice that has us realize our yoga really happens off the mat. Yoga is how we treat others, how we love, our patience, acceptance, how we give, that is yoga.” Kim is a certified yoga teacher and Founder of The One Love Movement, a non-profit organization dedicated to reaching people through yoga and giving back to underserved women and kids. Kim was once an orphan as a baby which is why her work gives to communities she sees herself in. To learn more, go to: www.jointheonelovemovement.org