“Yoga isn’t just when you’re on the mat,” said Marissa Grott. “It’s a whole way of living.”
The Forest Park yoga instructor is currently sharing this way of life with inmates at Cook County Jail. She volunteers to teach weekly classes to women who are incarcerated at the facility.
“The response of the detainees is amazing,” Grott said, noting that yoga provides much-needed physical and spiritual exercises to help them cope with incarceration.
Inclusion and helping the less fortunate has been part of Grott’s DNA since she was growing up in Elmwood Park.
“My grandfather taught at a school in Cabrini-Green and brought students home for dinner,” she recalled. Her parents were also advocates for social activism and justice. Grott carried this spirit to Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, where it was not always well-received.
“I received a brilliant education there, but it was super-conservative,” Grott recalled. “I started a gay/straight forum on campus. It attracted liberal and gay students but also some haters. Luckily, some amazing professors supported me.”
While earning degrees in psychology and gender studies, Grott studied abroad in India. There she took yoga classes and underwent the training to become a teacher.
At DePaul University, she earned a degree in Leadership and Policy Studies. She later traveled to Hungary to teach English and came back to this area to work at Brookdale, a senior living facility in Oak Park (formerly Holly Court Terrace). There she met Richard Biggins and was impressed by how he picked up a wheelchair-bound friend every Friday night for seven years and took him to Goldyburgers. As a result she has become a staunch supporter of the nonprofit Biggins co-founded in Forest Park, Empowering Gardens.
Grott started her own business, Marissa Jayne Yoga, in 2012.
“I wanted yoga to be accessible to everyone, regardless of age or ability,” said Grott, who worked with special needs students and trauma victims. “I studied anatomy, so I could explain what was happening to the student’s body during class.” She believes many people live in “body denial” and lack awareness of the factors that influence wellness. Besides physical exercises, she teaches them mindfulness and meditation.
Grott conducts classes at four locations, including Pineapple Studio in Forest Park. She has called Forest Park home for six years now. “It’s affordable and accessible to trains,” she said. “I feel fellowship with the community.” And the village has the demographic and economic diversity she was seeking.
She volunteered at the St. John Lutheran food pantry and is doing fundraising for Empowering Gardens. She is writing grants for the nonprofit, as she previously did for Sarah’s Inn. In April 2017, she learned of an organization called Prison Yoga Chicago (PYC) and offered her services as a certified yoga teacher. They connected her with the Cook County Department of Corrections.
“I underwent a background check and fingerprinting and started shadowing another teacher.”
She began conducting classes in May at the Residential Treatment Unit (RTU) where she teaches yoga to 5-10 women per week. They range in age from 19-77. During the 60-minute sessions, Grott asks them what hurts. She gets lots of feedback about their needs.
“They benefit from yoga on a different level,” Grott said. “It’s a time for self-care and compassion for oneself. We do breath-work to release tension and lower anxiety.”
She hasn’t felt any anxiety about teaching at the jail.
“I never feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” she said. A female correctional officer mans a desk inside her class. “Some dim the lights and turn off the TV. They show respect for my classes.”
Each week, Grott has to pass through checkpoints and metal detectors. She carries Clorox wipes to clean the mats and foam blocks older inmates can use for support. She also distributes handouts to explain yoga and inform inmates of yoga classes outside the jail walls.
“I see detainees come and go,” she said. “Some come every week. I know what some are incarcerated for. They have low-, medium- and high-security levels in the RTU.”
Grott plans to continue her classes at the jail.
“It’s the most incredible experience I’ve ever had. They express their gratitude by crying sometimes.”