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Yoga teacher provides popular classes for inmates

Sherman’s armed with faith that there is good in everyone

Diane Sherman, yoga teacher and Bay Area transplant, teaches yoga to offenders at Airway Heights Corrections Center.  (Colin Mulvany)
Diane Sherman, yoga teacher and Bay Area transplant, teaches yoga to offenders at Airway Heights Corrections Center. (Colin Mulvany)

Diane Sherman teaches yoga to male offenders at Airway Heights Corrections Center.

But that’s only one reason her life is interesting.

Here’s another: She and her husband, Erez Batat, are relative newcomers to Spokane. And they made a purposeful choice to live here.

They are a chamber-of-commerce dream. Well-educated, entrepreneurial, cool-looking.

When you hear Sherman’s story, you’ll understand why she’s not afraid to teach yoga to inmates, and why Spokane was the place where she felt destined to do it.

• • •  

Sherman, 48, spent her early years surrounded by grown-ups and big words. Her father was a Los Angeles Times bureau chief. Her mom worked for Time-Life.

When she was 6, her father died of a heart attack.

“It was a pretty intense initiation into grief,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of my life working on it.”

Her mother remarried a physicist whose work meant many moves – from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and ultimately to the Bay Area in California.

After high school, Sherman enrolled at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., thinking she would be a journalist, too. She loved to write.

But soon she realized: “It didn’t work to stay in the who, what, where, how and why.”

She ended up with an art history degree from UCLA, then worked in investment banking in San Francisco.

“It was the 1980s, a crazy time,” she said. “I resisted it (finance) the whole time. I got a master’s in arts and consciousness while working at the investment bank.”

On Feb. 19, 1999, Sherman’s life changed in an instant.

“I was crossing the street with my (then) boyfriend. I was in my favorite brown velvet dress. It was Ash Wednesday. We were talking about breaking up when this car came and hit both of us.

“He flew over the top, and I rolled out 40 feet. And it was literally – excuse how I am going to say it – like I got puked into another reality.”

Her boyfriend suffered minor injuries. Sherman’s left leg was mangled. A titanium rod and two screws were placed in it. She and the boyfriend parted ways.

“I moved back in with my parents,” Sherman said.

The experience sent her on the yogic path.

“It was completely transformational,” she said. “I would go to yoga with a cane. I couldn’t bend the knee, because I have this titanium rod.

“It was a really long journey of healing and it continues, but we all have limitations of living in a body.”

Open hearts

At Airway Heights Corrections Center – where about 1,500 medium security offenders live out their court sentences for offenses ranging from drug dealing to murder – Sherman’s titanium rod sets to screeching the security screening machine.

Every Monday, Sherman teaches a beginning yoga class, followed by an advanced class.

She does this as a volunteer in the facility’s community involvement program, which offers about a dozen ongoing classes on a variety of topics.

One recent Monday, the 5-foot, 4-inch Sherman walked through the screeching machine, then into the prison yard to her classroom, dressed in black yoga pants, a black swingy dance skirt and a tiger-striped top.

She was trailed by a reporter, photographer and prison officials, including Risa Klemme, public information officer.

“Ninety-five percent of our offenders will be back out in the community at some point,” Klemme said.

“We know that yoga is a stress reliever. It (teaches) them healthy lifestyle changes that would be beneficial to them when they leave. Plus, this is a volunteer program that is not a cost to the taxpayer.”

Dozens of men walked through the yard as Sherman approached the classroom building, but she didn’t look nervous. She looked exhilarated.

In the brightly painted classroom, 12 men – wearing sweat pants, T-shirts and socks – cleared away chairs, placed yoga mats on the floor.

“We’re working on our foundations,” she said, as the class began. “Where do your feet meet the ground? Where do your hands meet the ground?

“Sit with, ‘How can I be kind to myself? Listen to your body.’ ”

Sherman had command of her class in the way of the best teachers, when the transmission of knowledge transcends time, place and the students’ backstories.

“Open up the hearts!” she told the men.

She moved among them, demonstrating the correct poses, without touching the men but by standing or bending parallel to them.

“I had been thinking about working in prisons for about 10 years,” Sherman explained in an interview before the class.

But in California, she and her husband lived in inner-city Oakland, where street crime was common. She couldn’t see going from tough streets to an even tougher prison environment.

After her move to a quiet north Spokane neighborhood – and after settling in at Harmony Yoga, where she teaches classes – Sherman mentioned her prison teaching desire to Alison Rubin, Harmony Yoga director.

“Two days after I mentioned it, she forwarded an e-mail from (community involvement program coordinator) Molly Peringer at Airway Heights, who wanted to start a yoga class.

“It felt like the colliding of (Molly’s) vision for Airway Heights, and my vision of wanting to offer this as a karma yoga – the yoga you are acting out in the world to share your talents.”

Talk about karma

In September 2006, Sherman and Erez Batat met at a consciousness and business workshop in San Francisco.

Batat, 35, grew up in Jerusalem, but was working in software for a company later acquired by Hewlett Packard.

They married nine months after meeting. For their two-year anniversary, in May 2009, Batat planned a trip to Sandpoint and Nelson, B.C.

The couple had been talking about a move out of the “busy-fast-crowded” Bay Area. They contemplated Ashland or Bend, Ore., or Boulder, Colo., towns known for their beauty and artistic opportunities.

“It was a big surprise to find such a cute town,” Batat said of Spokane. “We saw the falls. We stayed at the Davenport. I said, ‘Let’s consider this town.’ ”

They researched housing prices.

“We were like, ‘Wow, look what you can get!’ It’s shocking,” Sherman said.

By December 2009, they had settled into their home near Corbin Park. Batat’s job with Hewlett Packard allows him to work anywhere he wishes, as long as there are good computer connections.

“Our friends were like, ‘Oh my God, why are you moving to Spokane?’ And that’s what I didn’t like about the Bay Area,” Sherman said.

“(People) there felt like there was nothing outside of the Bay Area and New York.”

Freedom is the watchword for Sherman’s new life in Spokane.

She had a fulfilling but demanding yoga practice in Oakland and Berkeley. The Spokane move freed up more time for writing. She journals about the yoga-in-prison experience on her website, and she’s finishing a poetry manuscript.

In Spokane, Sherman engages in a “wilder West” side of herself. She’s learned to shoot a gun. She rides motorcycles with her husband.

Sherman believes all of us are imprisoned by something – fears, judgments, resentments and “habitual thoughts or ways of viewing the world,” as she puts it.

She is not afraid to teach yoga to offenders in a classroom where the prison guards are down the hall, but not in the room.

“If we believe in the good in people, they will bring it forth,” she said. “I’m offering them a space to bring it forth.”

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