Statistics show that roughly 65 percent of inmates return to prison within the first three years after their release. Overcrowded prisons and a lack of rehabilitation services makes it difficult, if not impossible, for inmates to break cycles of addiction, crime, and violence. Fortunately, many prisons across the US are creating yoga programs to help inmates improve their health and deal with the stresses of prison life. It’s working—inmates who participate in yoga programs are finding greater success at recovering from substance abuse and patterns of violence.
Service-based yoga organizations like The Prison Yoga Project, Transformation Yoga Project, Shanthi Project, and The Art of Yoga Project teach yoga to at-risk populations as a way of influencing positive social and behavioral change. These organizations train yoga instructors on how to meet the needs of inmates who have suffered from different forms of severe trauma. Many inmates suffer from mental illnesses and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and many face health risks such as chronic viral infections and obesity. Yoga is taught as a mindfulness-based practice that develops a connection between physical and emotional behavior.
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The Prison Yoga Project, founded by James Fox more than a decade ago, has trained more than 350 yoga teacher volunteers and implemented yoga programs in fifty correctional facilities throughout the country. The program’s mission is to teach yoga with the intention of helping incarcerated men and women cultivate a connection between body, mind, and heart. They present yoga as a way of building a sense of self-compassion and empathy for others, which helps prevent future cycles of violence and addiction. Yoga is also helping inmates lose weight and cope with symptoms of chronic pain and stress-related diseases.
There hasn’t been a lot of research into the effects of yoga in prisons, but reports suggest that yoga can have a profound impact on the mental and emotional health of inmates. The journal Nursing Research reported that after twelve weeks of participating in a prison yoga program incarcerated women showed reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Testimonials from inmates who have joined such programs reveal that yoga has been transformational in helping them manage pain, anxiety, and addictive behaviors.
“We are challenged to draw vitality and meaning from our circumstances,” an inmate wrote. “Yoga and its emphasis on the power of a single breath promote a respect for life and a profound realization of the destructive force of violence.”
Volunteer teachers report that the experience has a transformative effect on them as well. In today’s world where yoga often appears to serve only the young, fit, and wealthy, teaching yoga to prisoners reminds some teachers of why they came to yoga in the first place. Teachers are discovering what it means to teach people in need and are reenergized by yoga’s power to unravel what’s at the core of each of us as individuals who have the capacity to love and help one another.
“I hope that yoga service as a separate and distinct practice becomes our collective social way of being—how we treat one another—under all circumstances,” said Michael Lear, a yoga teacher and activist who works with at-risk youth in prisons and juvenile justice centers.
The definition of yoga is translated from Sanskrit as union. Prison yoga programs seem to invoke the true embodiment of the word. Inmates are learning how to unify body and mind for healing and self-recovery. Correctional facilities are experiencing a greater sense of community through reduced hostility and violence, and yoga instructors are finding fulfillment in yoga as a form of service to others. This ancient practice has the potential to promote harmony and equanimity in ways we are just beginning to uncover.