Yoga is a wonderful practice that has brought me health, wellness, and peace beyond my dreams. But for those who are behind bars, the benefits of yoga are seemingly endless. Yoga brings spiritual rehabilitation, exercise, and a release from the boredom of daily life to inmates.
The first time I heard of yoga in prison was in Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black where yoga is taught by Yoga Jones (played by Constance Shulman). In the show Yoga Jones leads a yoga class for the inmates who, as you can probably imagine, need a little relaxation.
As it turns out, prison yoga doesn’t just happen in Orange is the New Black. Yoga is being taught in prisons around the country, and the benefits could be profound.
A study released in Nursing Research in 2010 found a significant decrease in depression among incarcerated women who practiced Iyengar Yoga.
Beyond that, an Oxford University study suggests yoga can improve mood and mental wellbeing among prisoners, and may also have an effect on impulse control. The Oxford University study, which was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, is only a preliminary study, but indicates yoga can be an affordable way for inmates to achieve mental stability and inner peace.
Prison Yoga Groups
According to James Fox, the founder of the Prison Yoga Project, “most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma, chronic interpersonal trauma experienced early in life such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime – including murder. We call this ‘original pain.'”
Traditionally, original pain has been treated by cognitive behavioral therapists, but more recently it has been discovered yoga and mindfulness meditation may have more of an impact on complex trauma at a lower cost.
The Prison Yoga Project was designed to help meet that need by bringing hatha yoga and meditation to prisons and rehabilitation facilities while also training teachers how to teach yoga in these complex situations. Thanks to the Prison Yoga Project’s teacher training, yoga is being taught in prisons around the country and in Puerto Rico.
Liberation Prison Yoga was started in 2014 and is focused on teaching yoga to prisoners in New York. Founder, Anneke Lucas, was the director of the Prison Yoga Project New York, and is credited with creating 18 prison yoga programs in just 3 years. Lucas survived sex-trafficking, extreme violence, and torture as a child. Her inspiring recovery through yoga, meditation, and psycho-therapy makes her uniquely qualified to work with the traumatized populations that are found in prisons.
In Texas, lawyer turned yogi Jim Freeman travels to prisons from his Austin home to teach yoga to convicts. Freeman is certified at the 300-hour level in Dharma Yoga, and through Conviction Yoga, he teaches inmates a blend of hatha and vinyasa yoga. But like the Prison Yoga Project and Liberation Prison Yoga, Freeman also teaches mindfulness meditation.
Thanks to prison yoga organizations, inmates are taught, quite literally, how to mediate and embrace yoga in the confines of their cell. I look forward to seeing more prison yoga organizations develop. Maybe, just maybe, through mindfulness and yoga there will be a decrease in crime within prisons, and we will see fewer and fewer repeat offenders.
Image by the Prison Yoga Project.