Judge Eleni Derke cuts an imposing figure, shrouded in her black robe and seated behind the elevated wood-paneled bench in the county courthouse in Jacksonville, Florida. From the jury box and lawyers’ tables, you can’t see what else she’s wearing: wildly patterned yoga pants.
More than 25 years ago, Derke discovered yoga. She was suffering from the searing abdominal pain of Crohn’s disease. Her doctor recommended surgery. Hoping to avoid it, she went to see a cousin who was a yoga master. He taught her the upside-down poses known as inversions. They are said to clear the body of toxins, though there’s no scientific evidence to support the claim. Derke’s symptoms quickly subsided. “Yoga saved my life.”
She trained as a yoga instructor, and if it’s not too hot, she holds free monthly classes on the courthouse lawn. When lawyers drone on at trial, she will order a break and lead jurors in standing stretches and breathing exercises. But she’s best known in legal circles as the judge who sentences offenders to take yoga behind bars.