February 9, 2012

Goal of Life in Maximum Security: Meet your new teacher.

 Part 6 of the Prison Yoga Series

Goal of Life: Part 1

(reggae style)

Verse 1:

Updog, downdog, locust, cobra
I am doing Hatha Yoga
Move over
Ignorance and fear
Camel, bow, headstand
I’m nurturing the inner man
I’m no fan
Of homemade violence


I’m not trying to lose weight
Just craving peace like hell for heaven’s sake!


The goal is not to be remembered
Our self-image must be surrendered
The goal is to reunite
With all creation, with all of life.

Gino Sevacos, prisoner #K61708 at San Quentin State Prison, composed the song: ‘Goal of Life,’ the first half of which is printed above (and the second below).

Gino is a Bhakti yogi. He knows how to live in the present, and generates powerful positivity. Our talks and his letters leave me feeling uplifted and inspired. His unequivocal cheerfulness and sense of humor are rooted in gravitas.

Gino in center, front

I met Gino at the weekly advanced yoga class in the Maximum Security wing at San Quentin, which I visited as the writer of this and other stories about the prison. The class is taught by James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project. Gino’s mat was in the middle, between two opposing rows. His breathing and concentration were deep; his presence unmistakable. The class ended with a resounding Om. I asked if anyone wanted to share about what the yoga practice meant for them. Gino raised his hand:

 “For me it is a refuge. There is peace and fellowship here. If I feel tense when I come in, [being here] just kills it. I leave feeling peace and joy and a general sense of well-being. So I have a lot of gratitude for this place. A lot of gratitude.”

Gino’s gratitude, as I learned in our consequent conversations, is as boundless as it is pure. I found myself asking questions not so much as interviewer to interviewee, but student to teacher.

Anneke: “There seems to be a high degree of concentration that seems to be with you all the time. Do you feel that there is some greater purpose for you being in prison?”

Inmate practicing yoga in his cell - Photo by Robert Sturman

Gino:   “Yeah. Prison gives me the opportunity to work out my particular karma, and work towards true freedom. I wouldn’t have done the [spiritual] work that I do here on the outside. So I see it as an incredible blessing to be in a place where I can practice pretty much full time, and where there aren’t too many distractions.  The general community here is focused on [examining] feeling and self-help, and we’re also able to do yoga.”

A:        “Do you do yoga on your own as well?”

 G:  “Yeah, five times a week in my cell. [It’s amazing] to be able to do this with other practitioners, and [it gives me great] joy to know that we have this teaching here.”

A:        “Meditating with you guys was like sitting with monks.”

 Gino:  “That’s beautiful.”

A:        “I don’t feel that way in other yoga classes. The energy is different. In certain temples or ashrams you’re right in the stillness; all you have to do is absorb it. That’s what it was like at San Quentin.”

 G:  “That is so awesome!”

A:        “Gino, I understand you’re not interested in talking about the past, and how you ended up at San Quentin, but could you talk a little bit about some personal issues you may have had to deal with?

Gino in Ardha Matsyendrasana - Photo by Robert Sturman

G:        “(laughs). We’re here to learn things, and we have samskaras, that’s for sure! I came to prison and knew that I had a samskara of resentment.

“On the devotional path, I find that grace is proportional to effort. Since we live in the body and there is the sense of duality, there is a certain amount of effort that needs to be put forth in order to recognize the peace and the joy that are already inside. So it’s not something that I have to search for, but it’s like peeling layers from the mind. The samskaras suppress conciousness. I try to recognize them for what they are without judging or condemning, and am willing to put forth the effort and become more aware.”

A:        “So you became aware of your own tendency towards anger and observed it, and from that point you wanted to try to overcome that and not react?”

 G:        “Yeah, just being able to prick it through. [I try to] stay in the truth by reading the lessons from the Siddha Yoga Correspondence course, or be around people that are like-minded and positive.”

Fellow Sangha members in the Maximum Security wing at San Quentin

“When I first came here I felt very sorry for myself, and [was stuck in the cycle of] blame and guilt. It was kind of overwhelming in the beginning, because, it all came to the surface and I think prison is a great setting to enable you to feel those things, because all the energies are condensed – all the negative energies are all concentrated in one little space. You have to be aware to some degree – you have to pray or meditate to break through all of that stuff.”

Sean: Buddhist, and participant in yoga class for life-sentenced men at San Quentin - Photo Robert Sturman

A:        “It seems that you very much need presence of mind to control your impulses or else you’d go under.”

 G:        “Right, if you’re not careful, you could despair, but there is a support system, definitely in this prison, and it’s awesome just to be able to be part of a community where people do yoga and meditate – and I have the SiddhaYoga correspondence course. I use these things to take me out of my mind and more into the heart space.”

A:        “So if I felt that I was sitting with monks, maybe that was not just my imagination?”

 G:        “No, some of those guys have been meditating and working on themselves for a long, long time.”

A:        “How long have you been here?”

 G:        “I’ve been down for fifteen years.”

“I knew that it was my calling to break through anxiety and fear. Fear is the sense of another – in other words not seeing sameness or oneness. The ego separates and divides. So the more I can feel myself to be part of other folks when I see them, try to see God or consciousness in their eyes, then I’m less likely to be afraid.”

“Before I came here I had my own preconceived notion about prison and prisoners, but soon after I arrived, I realized: “Hey, these guys are just like me!” People might express themselves in different ways, but we’re all just dealing with our stuff.”

A:        “I got a pretty good tour of the prison, and some people definitely belong here, you know.

 G:        “Yes.”

A:        “Some of the people here are definitely on a very low plane of consciousness. How do you overcome fear of someone who is crazy, or extremely volatile.”

Chakras: watercolor by Brette, San Quentin yoga student

G:        “What I notice is that the more I focus on the positive, the less I draw situations that create fear towards me. I kind of create it within, so if I’m afraid and not so much focused on what is good and maybe pure – and real – then I might attract situations that could be labeled as fearful, but if I stay focused on things that are positive, like the yoga, the meditation, the tennis, the physical exercise, the programs here, then fear or anxiety or anger will dissipate and I don’t attract negative situations or those people.

“I do have residual resentment or just confusion, sometimes. Things are going to come my way no matter what. The key is: Am I able to let go of it? The more quickly I let go of it, the more quickly I’ll understand who I am.  If I hold onto things, that’s when stress builds. So it’s really about letting go, learning the practice of letting go quickly so I don’t identify with anything that I perceive as negative, and then you get to the point where there really aren’t that many negatives, you know?” (laughs).


A:        “I understand that you’re to be released rather soon?”

 G:        “Well, I don’t know. It all depends on what happens with the Three Strikes.  I can’t really plan. If something happens this year, then yeah.”

A:        “In three strikes, the offenses can sometimes be ridiculous, and the results tragic.

 G:        “Thank you. (laughs). The funny thing is, I’m learning that I don’t suffer if I’m able to stay present. And yoga really helps me to do that. Whereas if I think about the future, I do suffer, because there is a question mark there. If I stay present, I feel like good things are going to happen, and I do really feel in my heart that I’ll be home, but I don’t want to live my life in hope, I want to live my life right now and try to fill up with my inner self as much as I can.”

Gino in Utkatasana - Photo by Robert Sturman

A:        “Everyone has to learn that. The future is vastly overrated, not as in making plans but to escape in a future where everything will be better.

 G:        “It’ s true, and I’ve been really able to put the practice of being present into experience here. If I don’t dwell on the past or the future, I’m really content. Not to say that I don’t have a bright future, because I believe that I do, but I’m going to try to be fulfilled, so I can take that with me when I leave. I guess it’s my job to continue to cultivate that consciousness. And the gift for me, of coming to prison, is learning contentment. Santosha. It’s such a beautiful gift.”

A:        “I would think when you first arrive here, you don’t feel content.

 G:        “I think a lot of us when we come to prison are kind of wrapped up in our own victim-consciousness and feel that things are happening to us.

A:        “And with three strikes, there’s often good reason to feel that way.”

 G:        “Yeah, there’s a tendency to kind of feel sorry for ourselves without realizing what is going on, so I thought if I can get beyond that, and just see the blessings, I won’t lose anything [by being here] – if anything I’ve gained something! I’m not going to lie and say that we all don’t want to be outside, because we do. That’s human nature, I would love to be out there, and walk along the beach or eat some good healthy vegetarian food.

Photo by Robert Sturman


Besides the Siddha Yoga Correspondence Course, Gino attends a weekly mindful meditation class taught at San Quentin by Jacques Verduin, and he participates in Byron Katie’s ‘The Work’ a group sponsored by the Insight Prison Project.

G:        “I also do a twelve-step program here, because it’s based on truth and devotion. My practice always encompasses anything that is devotional in nature.”

A:        “You’re a Bhakti yogi.”

 G:        “Yeah, very much.”

A:        “That is wonderful.”

 G:        “Yeah, and I’ve discovered that the energy of devotion is the same as the energy of gratitude.”

A:        “Gratitude for everything?”

 G:        “Yeah, it’s so wonderful and awesome to feel that, no matter where you’re at.”

A:        “It’s not always easy.”

 G:        “No, no, it’s not. It takes effort. A lot of effort. But the effort is matched with the grace.”

A:        So what would you say to people on the outside, who often, like myself, have a very hard time feeling grateful for things?”

 G:        “What really works well in the practice I do is close my eyes, and almost pray, feeling gratitude for everything that I can recall; everything that is given to me. I write down all the things I can be grateful for each day so I don’t forget. Even here in a place like this it is easy to find gratitude for many things, like having yard every day, for having programs so we can rehabilitate ourselves, for having many like-minded people I can talk to, for getting three meals a day, for the sunshine…”

A:        Do you know, I saw one of the most amazing sunsets over the yard.

 G:        “Did you really?”

A:        “I did.”

 G:        “There it is, right there! A lot of times, I’ll stop and say within me, ‘Thank you, God, that I have… whatever it is that I have.’ There is so much!”


Foreground: Stephan Liebb in savasana, James Fox with chimes - Photo Robert Sturman


James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project who teaches the yoga classes at San Quentin, began to train Gino and Stephan Liebb to teach. Starting this month, Gino will co-teach the weekly beginner’s yoga class in the chapel of the Maximum Security Unit.


Mariah Rooney raising funds in San Francisco for Gino's Teacher Training

James Fox started a fund to pay for a Yoga Teacher Training RYT-200 course for Gino and Stephan Liebb, to help them get started as yoga teachers once they are released. Mariah Rooney, teacher at Core Power Yoga in Berkeley and Yoga Journal employee, has been raising money by doing the Iron Girl Triathlon and ‘Yoga Between 2 Meters’ (on PARK-ing day) in the Mission District in San Francisco. Mariah raised $1100 so far and is getting geared up for the next triathlon: Her goal is to raise $8000. As of yet, Gino is unaware of these efforts made on his behalf, but I asked him if he would like to teach yoga once he gets out.


Gino: “I would definitely be open to it. I don’t know what I’ll find on my path, but whatever is meant to come my way, I’ll happily embrace it.”


Goal Of Life: Part 2


Verse 2:

Control the breath with pranayama
Tame the senses – pratyahara
Live for NOW
Not for tomorrow
Yoga becomes a Broadway show
If we don’t drop the ego
And see the Lord
In everyone we know



Phony baloney Yoga is a joke
Without love for God it’s Holy Smoke!



The goal is not to be remembered
Our self-image must be surrendered
The goal is to reunite
With all creation, with all of life.


(instrumental bridge)

(repeat chorus)

This is part 6 of the Prison Yoga Series. Read Part 1: ‘Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga’ with photos by Robert Sturman; Part 2: ‘Serve Where it Matters: Yoga and Meditation to Incarcerated and at-risk Youth, with list of training programs, Part 3: Interviews with San Quentin prisoners with photos by Robert Sturman; Part 4: Lily Bechtel’s Prison Yoga article, and Part 5: Yoga class at San Quentin with photos by Robert Sturman.


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