Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

On Duval County Courthouse Lawn, Yoga Instructor Is the Judge

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

On Duval County Courthouse Lawn, Yoga Instructor Is the Judge

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel

One day a month, the judge wears yoga clothes under her black robes, making for an easy transition when she heads to her open-air yoga studio: the big grassy lawn in front of the Duval County Courthouse.

There, outside a building that's a monument to human folly and vice, County Judge Eleni Derke leads a yoga class that's hoping to achieve a few moments of peace, of relaxation.

It's held the last Friday of every month at noon. It's free, open to anyone, though for now it's heavy on those in the legal profession.

And boy, do they need it. Though those in the law, often stressed and overworked, aren't always the most willing converts.

"It's kind of hard to convince people to do it," Derke observed, "and that it's good for you."

She knows she needs it, she said. Every day in the courtroom, handling misdemeanors, she hears little but excuses. It's draining.

"Just hearing these excuses, day in and day out," she said. "I'll walk out, do (yoga), come back a different person altogether."

The people who share her courtroom tease her about it.

Bailiff Jason Archur said during lengthy trials she'll sometimes tell jurors to stand up in the jury box to stretch and take some deep breaths. He laughed. She's the boss, and they have to do what she tells them.

Derke mock-protested. It's for their own good. "Poor guys. Did you ever sit in one of those chairs? It's so uncomfortable."

Yoga changed her life, she said. After she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, which affects the digestive tract, she took it up at the urging of a cousin. It can help you, she was told. Indeed. The Crohn's, she says, is now in remission.

She's been teaching yoga since 2014 and has completed 700 hours of training.

Derke, who was first elected judge in 1994, was born and raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, in a Greek Cypriot family.

In 1974, when she was 12, they traveled to the United States for a 10-day trip as her older sister settled in at Ohio State University.

They didn't make it home: During their vacation, Turkey invaded the northern part of the island and the residents of her beachfront hometown of Famagusta fled, grabbing what few belongings they could.

Her family, stuck in America, had two suitcases between four people. Then one of the suitcases was lost, so they had even less. As they rebuilt their lives, the only remnant she had of her childhood was a baby photo, which had earlier been sent to a relative in the U.S.

She's been back to Cyprus three times, but wasn't able to go home. Forty-three years later her neighborhood - which was the modern resort part of town - is still depopulated, ringed by barbed wire, with buildings pocked by broken windows, weeds growing in the streets.

Her family's home, she presumes, is just as they left it when they went on vacation. …

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