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Survival Yoga 

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Sunny Jacobs inhales, expanding her stomach until it looks like a bullfrog’s throat. The gathering of nuns — a couple of them dressed in black-and-white habits, the others in more modern ecclesiastical garb (double-knit polyester pants and floral short-sleeved tops) — inhale too.

“Now exhale, lift your legs and squeeze your buttocks,” the former death-row-inmate-turned-yoga-instructor commands. The nuns obediently expel great volumes of air and lift their legs. By the strain on their faces, it appears that the bottom squeezing is happening too. “Now kick,” Sunny says. The nuns kick. “Now stick out your tongues and roar like a lion.” The nuns at Mount St. Mary’s convent, on a hill high above the 405 freeway, roar and snarl with all the ferocity they can muster, as they have twice a month for the past several years during these decidedly unorthodox sessions.

It all began nearly five years ago, when Sister Kristin Cholewa decided to introduce some of the nuns to yoga as part of a program she’d launched to bring the outside world into the convent. Sister Kristin called around, got a referral and Sunny appeared. Petite, with silver-streaked brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a goofy, crooked smile, Sunny charmed the nuns the very first day and got them stretching in ways they had never imagined. That day, after class, Sunny told Sister Kristin her incredible story. How she had been imprisoned in Florida, convicted and sent to death row, along with her boyfriend, for killing two police officers. How she had been separated from her 9-year-old son and 10-month-old baby for 17 years. How she was then cleared of the crime and, in 1992, freed from prison. But not until many terrible things had happened, including the death-chamber execution of her boyfriend and the deaths of both her parents in an airplane crash. It’s the kind of story from which TV movies are made. And one was. In the Blink of an Eye starred Mimi Rogers as Sunny.

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But on that first day five years ago, as Sunny and Sister Kristin discussed her story, the two came to a realization — that Sunny’s life and the nuns’ lives were strikingly similar in one very important way: All had lived in isolation for a long time. Both Sunny and Sister Kristin recognized that removal from the larger society, whether voluntary or compulsory, had created a shared reality. “We were all struggling to figure things out about how we fit into the world,” Sunny said. “And we didn’t have a clue.”

The nun and the yoga teacher became fast friends — Sister Kristin made curtains for Sunny’s apartment and helped her find furniture. Sunny taught the nuns the intricacies of death-penalty injustice, and she taught them yoga. Throughout her years in prison, she told them, breathing and stretching had helped her find a sense of calm in her tiny cell. After her release, she decided to try helping others get free of whatever figurative prison might contain them. “I teach yoga for real people,” Sunny said. “It’s for all the old and tired people, people who are sick or injured, all the shut-ins and the elderly. I call it survival yoga.”

Deep into today’s class, the nuns follow Sunny’s example and stretch their arms out like wings. “Let’s blow out the dust,” Sunny says. “Let’s make a lot of noise. Let’s bring in some nice energy.” On Sunny’s instruction the nuns inhale the convent, L.A., the world, the universe. “We’re expanding ourselves,” Sunny reminds the nuns. “Without the breath it’s just mechanics, but with the breath — take a breath, and release — it’s a tool.”

Some of the nuns ascribe dramatic health improvements to the yoga Sunny has taught them. It has straightened their humps and loosened their hips. Regular eye exercises enhanced one sister’s vision. Another, for the first time, is able to lift herself out of her wheelchair with the strength of her arms. Others are now more open about their bodies. “We’re all doing so much better,” says Sister Kathleen, “thanks to the exercises this girl has given us.” The sisters follow Sunny’s regimen religiously — indeed, they seem to have no trouble reconciling the Eastern-based movements with their own beliefs. And Sunny is considerate of their orientation.

As class comes to a close, Sunny extends her arms overhead, palms together, and brings them slowly down to her heart, all the while leading the nuns in a chant she has devised to suit all parties: “Ommmmmmmm-ennnnnnnn.”

—Sara Catania

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