Jean Trounstine : Yoga Behind Bars

Image from the Prison Yoga Project.

Yoga behind bars

With over 2.2 million behind bars, can the ancient practice help break the cycle of recidivism and improve overall quality of life for prisoners? Here’s why prisons are willing to give yoga a shot.

By Jean Trounstine | The Rag Blog | February 6, 2013

Now that yoga is the big thing in fitness — with hot yoga, power yoga, rejuvenating yoga, and all sorts of other varieties — it is no surprise that the practice has catapulted past ashrams and wellness centers into gyms. But it might be a surprise to some that yoga has made it into prisons.

A recent article by Mary Polon in The New York Times points out “When many states have cut… programs for inmates, citing cost and political pressures, some wardens looking for a low-cost, low-risk way for inmates to reflect on their crimes, improve their fitness and cope with the stress of overcrowded prison life are turning to yoga.” You only need loose fitting clothing and mats. Particularly cheap if your teachers are volunteers.

The picture above is from one program in California where there are 20 or so yoga programs flourishing in prisons across the state. In Texas, Inside Mediation offers programs behind bars, and Geoff O’Meara, Community Yoga’s Prison Program Director, has taken yoga to incarcerated populations. While yoga programs have not yet been tracked state-wide or nationally; more and more are bound to crop up. Research studies are showing that those who take yoga classes are less likely to return to prison.

Men and women behind bars say that they are getting in on the practice as a way to learn patience, quiet their minds, and deal with the stresses of isolation. “For those of us sentenced to a life term,” wrote S.L., “time is inexorable. We are challenged to draw vitality and meaning from our circumstances. Yoga has helped me to understand that it is in quietness and stillness that time becomes an ally not a foe.”

In one male program, says the Times, prisoners helped each other do handstands. “Then, after 90 minutes of class, one hit the light switch. In the pitch-black room, the men lay on their backs,” and the teacher “led them in breathing exercises.”

Most people don’t realize how radical this is inside a prison. Turning lights out in a group of prisoners requires courage and trust on the part of the incarcerated. There is so much fear behind bars, often resulting in “You have to watch your back.” These fears, of course, are not unfounded. In addition, many prisoners are terrified to close their eyes at night, worrying that something could happen to them. Getting to a deep level of quiet and calm can be a great success, and a source of finding true moments of freedom, however brief.

When I taught at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts where I directed eight plays in 10 years, I often did breathing and meditation exercises with the women before rehearsals. Good teachers must make their students feel that they are watching out for them, that they are safe. At times, some women insisted on having their eyes open. It took a lot for them to breathe slowly, to not be afraid; others broke out into laughter. But ultimately, as trust got deeper, they did get wonderful benefits from relaxation, which is essentially a kind of meditation in stillness.

Meditation has also gained some new-found cred in prison. Meditation can help with anger, taking responsibility for one’s life, and as I learned in Sunday School, a willingness to listen to one’s own “still small voice.” A good NPR show on meditation in prison can be found here.

According to a 2011 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, states’ spending on corrections has “quadrupled during the past two decades, to $52 billion a year.” Prisons are more willing to try programs that seem a little off the beaten path as long as they have a track record, especially as they want to improve recidivism rates and to save money.

While yoga and meditation can’t help a prisoner find a job, get a college degree, or take away stigma in our society when he returns, they are great tools for a better quality of life.

[Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books and many articles, professor at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, and a prison activist. For 10 years, she worked at Framingham Women’s Prison and directed eight plays, publishing Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison about that work. She blogs for Boston Magazine and takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at where she blogs weekly at “Justice with Jean.” Find her contributions to The Rag Blog here.]

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