Prisoners are spiritual people. While they may not be peace-sign flashing, gong-ringing, John Lennon sunglass-wearing individuals, they do contain a spiritual side. Every human on this planet is spiritual, in a sense, because our energy is recycled (at least according to Albert Einstein) and we are all part of the Earth, even if some people have not discovered their connection yet. Prisoners are no exception, and with a little time and effort, they have the ability to experience peace and tranquility, regardless of their past. Over the last few decades, yoga, an ancient practice of poses, breath control, and meditation, has been implemented into many penitentiaries as a form of rehabilitation. The evidence that yoga stabilizes the inmates’ stress levels and tempers, as well as reduces the likelihood of reincarcerations, is very prominent. However, since these programs are unconventional, there is a stigma behind it, and the practice is seen as “strange” and “useless” in its context. Many institutions refuse to reap the benefits of yoga in prisons because of this, which leaves the future a mystery. Although, with more explanation and promotion of these studies, the right people will be persuaded and yoga will be used as a diversionary method in many prisons in the years to come.
To properly advocate for the discredited practice one must first overcome the stigma surrounding it. In her article “Beyond Narcissism: Towards an Analysis of the Public, Political and Collective Forms of Contemporary Spirituality”, author Anna Clot-Garrell describes how the “stereotypical portraits of holistic spirituality have usually depicted its followers as narcissistic individuals” (Clot-Garrel, 2019). To combat this stereotype, she, with the help of others, put together an experiment consisting of yoga classes at three different Catalan prison locations from 2013 to 2015. Different methods of data collection were used including peer observation, surveys, and in-depth interviews to understand the inmates’ true judgements of yoga before and after the programs (Clott-Garrel, 2019).
The idea was to minimize the scrutiny by bringing yoga off it’s pedestal of narcissism, and create a public, communal environment of bettering oneself. These researchers determined that when brought out of the private sphere yoga is encased in, the participants’ opinions changed drastically and the classes were collectively sought after by the population of the experiment. Clot-Garrel concluded that “nowadays” (many years after the experiment), “almost all penitentiary institutions in Catalonia offer yoga classes for inmates, in addition to other spiritual practices such as meditation or reiki. This provision is not exclusive to Catalan prisons but represents a general trend identifiable in several countries ranging from Switzerland, to the United States, Mexico and India” (Clot-Garrel). This demonstrates how, if given a chance, yoga can be an effective medium to diminish the stigmatization of spirituality, and create a desire for self-improvement and tranquility, even for prison inmates.
While these findings are a significant milestone for the yoga in prisons movement, it’s difficult to foresee the future on a national scale. The problems of practicality like cost and time restraints are still hindering the spread of this rehabilitation device. In order to promote yoga in prisons and spark change in the legal system, word must get out about how simple and cost-effective it is to establish these programs in penitentiaries. There are several nonprofit organizations helping to advertise these practices such as PrisonYogaProject, YogaBehindBars, PrisonYogaAndMeditation, and WorldPrem. PrisonYogaProject alone has provided over 75 different prison locations across the United States with yoga courses, and has sent over 33,000 complimentary copies of their book “Yoga: a Path for Healing and Recovery” to incarcerated persons (PrisonYogaProject). This organization is an example of the potential popularity of the yoga in prisons initiative.
Furthermore, inmate M.V. of the RJ Donovan State Prison in San Diego, CA, can attest to the healing and transcendental properties of yoga. He/she is an active participant in yoga classes and told PrisonYogaProject officials that “being a lifer at times becomes a bit rough… yoga gives me a mirror that I can see my reflection in all day, every day, to feel and live. I cleanse myself, I heal myself. I put myself together to become whole. It’s different from the ego…The renewal is exactly what yoga seeks, evolution, knowing that change is possible in a way that is organic” (PrisonYogaProject). While M.V. is a ’lifer’ and therefore cannot be included as an example of reduction of recidivism, he/she demonstrates how these programs can have an everlasting effect on an inmate of any sentence or situation, no matter how useless it may seem at first glance. More so, these nonprofits show how yoga programs do not need to take an economical toll on the legal system, and these concerns are obsolete.
Another feared complication of functionality for yoga in prisons is the time requirement. Most prisons around the world are already dead set on a strict schedule of roll-call, meal time, telephone calls, and retiring/sleeping time, which may convey the impression that yoga simply won’t fit into the lives of the inmates. A document outlining the standard recreational time policies prisons are to adhere to, “Correctional Recreation: An Overview” by author Michael Ryan Alexander, refutes this idea. Alexander emphasizes the importance of recreational time for prisoners, and states that the rulings of the U.S. legal system have “resulted in a general standard that inmates are entitled to five hours of recreation per week” (Alexander, 2017). This is required in every prison in the United States. It may not seem like a big time frame, but if the stigma around yoga vanishes altogether, most prisoners would opt to spend their time relaxing and healing instead of lollygagging around the prison doing their usual activities.
Overall, the future of yoga in prisons is straightforward and the implementation of more programs is achievable. The only obstacles to overcome are the judgements of prison officials; to combat the preconceived notion that yoga is only for eccentric, bohemian people to practice in their private lives. Studies show that yoga does in fact reduce recidivism at impressive rates, it’s just a matter of wardens and officials understanding and complying with the data. It’s unrealistic to predict yoga will be used in every prison institution worldwide, but as for the United States, the facts are all laid out and it’s up to them to make the next move to better their institutions. If this is achieved, yoga will have a substantial effect on not only the prisoners themselves, but the penitentiaries in general by lowering rates of recidivism and, by correlation, helping the country stay safe.
Clot-Garrell, A., & Griera, M. (2019, October 16). Beyond narcissism: Towards an analysis of the public, political and collective forms of contemporary spirituality. MDPI. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/10/579.
Prison yoga project. Prison Yoga Project. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2021, from https://prisonyoga.org/.
Alexander, M. R. (2017). Correctional Recreation: An Overview. DigitalCommons.MurrayState.Edu. Retrieved November 3, 2021, from https://digitalcommons.murraystate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=bis437.