How Prisoners Are Benefiting From Yoga

The other day, we shared a video of a practitioner who introduced mindfulness to female prisoners (if you missed it, you can check it out here).

We received a lot of thoughtful comments, and found out that even among our readers, there are practitioners introducing mindfulness in prisons.  Since so many people were interested, we thought we’d share another real-life story, this time from the prisoner’s point of view as well as the instructor’s.

San Quentin may be California’s oldest correctional facility, but in some ways, you might say it’s one of the most progressive.

About ten years ago, they brought in yoga instructor James Fox to teach a class for the inmates.

We had the opportunity to interview James and one of the inmates, Leonard Rubio, who was in his yoga class, to find out what benefits they saw from this program.

Check out the video to see how the program was received by the people at the prison, and how it changed their lives.

 

By showing prisoners how to apply mindfulness, they may be less likely to commit crimes in the future.  With this hope, James has worked with youth in juvenile halls as well as adults in prisons.

Imagine what our crime rate would be like if more people practiced mindfulness.  By having more programs like this in prisons, we might be able to help prepare prisoners for integration back into society, and make them less likely to commit crimes in the future.

How do you use mindfulness?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

 

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28 Comments

  1. Mary Hastings says:

    I see inmate patients in the medical clinic at our county jail and have printed off some introductory YOGA exercises for them. It makes total sense for inmates to practice yoga in their cells. They have less back pain, less muscle soreness, and better responses to life’s stress. Unfortunately there is not the opportunity for classes and formal instruction. My hope is that there would be a video I can introduce to be played on the jail TV system. Unfortunately, most commercially produced ones show attractive women and I don’t think this will be appropriate. So for now it is up to handouts and personal instruction I can give them in the clinic.

  2. Wow! I loved this! What a wonderful application – I had not thought about mindfulness with this group of people and it makes total sense. The implications long term are truly profound. How exciting!

  3. Sharon Parker says:

    Hearing from a practitioner who also happened to be in prison is inspiring. Bravo to Mr. Rubio for persevering and persisting, despite the incredulity of fellow inmates and prison staff. He is articulate and inspiring. Bravo to Mr. Fox for following his bliss. In the spirit of “be the change you want to see”, they are following their interests and changing lives — their own and others’.

  4. Lynne Holmes says:

    There’s a lovely documentary called The Dhamma Brothers about the introduction of Vipassana into a prison in the mid-west – can’t quite remember where. It would probably get into more prisons though if it were a more secular approach. Thank you for all your good work. Lynne UK

  5. Mudita Maclurcan says:

    Congratulations on your wonderful work.

    I also wanted to share what’s happening in this area in the lands South or “Downunder”, as they say. Yoga programs in male prisons and juvenile detention centres in NSW Australia and New Zealand have been going for about 5-6 years now. They have been so successful that the Juvenile Justice System has requested the program be extended and funding has been provided for the programs.
    In India this has been an integral part of some prisons for over twenty years with some interesting research on the beneficial outcomes – the details ellude me for the moment. Vipassana meditation had its’ beginnings in Indian prisons.

    May your work expand, hopefully in many States in the US and other countries.

    May this happen to you and may it spread to all States. There

  6. Lisa says:

    As a yoga teacher whom actually teaches in a prison, I would like to speak in a voice of gratitude to the wise words of Francesca. Most of these inmates are not different than you and I, they may have made some bad choices or had some unfortunate circumstances. I agreed to volunteer feeling that I had skills and talents that would serve this population. But what I have learned is that they have a lot to teach me. If I can help my students at the prison to gain life skills and a sense of self that they can take with them off the mat regardless of the length of their stay, then that’s all I can ask. What has been remarkable is the profound gratitude that they express before, during, and after class. I feel blessed to have this opportunity. Namaste.

  7. Gary Meltzer says:

    I am a volunteer for an organization called Freeing the Human Spirit which was founded by Sister Elaine Macinnis a Catholic Nun and a Zen Master. We offer yoga and meditation in federal and provincial prisons in Canada. Having had the opportunity to participate in these programs for a number of years has both shown me how much the people who participate in the classes appreciate them and how much they mean to the volunteers. I have seen first hand how all of us, prisoner and volunteer, have benifited from their existence.

    • Lyle Povah says:

      Awesome video! The world is changing. I’m just certified as a Kundalini Yoga Teacher and will now add a yoga program to the Drum Circle programs that I’ve been doing for a number of years in women’s and men’s prisons here in the province of British Columbia. Would love to share experiences or find out about other ‘yoga in prison’ resources.

  8. Margaret Main says:

    I totally agree about helping those who are considered “lesser” in society, to overcome past traumas and reach a stage whereby they can integrate back in society, maintain good personal relationships, realize satisfying employment, and experience joy in their lives, which have been bereft of joy. This email will be passed on to an organization I know whom I hope will make Yoga a priority. I have already received a positive response from them in answer to the previous email on female prisoners.

  9. Sara Cohen says:

    What an inspiring video! You might be interested in checking out Boulder Colorado’s prisondharmanetwork.org. The videos Doing Time Doing Vipassanna and Dhamma Brothers are both about bringing mindfulness to prisoners. Along the same theme is Colin Malone’s memoir Razor-Wire Dharma. It’s a riveting account of becoming a monk while in prison. Wow. More and more, I’m feeling that mindfulness is our only hope and I am using it with clients daily. Sara Cohen

  10. Donna Bunce says:

    I had never done yoga or qi gong or tai chi until 2 years ago. The practices teach me how to get back into connection with my breath and body so that I do not have to have such extreme responses of fight, flight, and freeze. High five to all teachers and to James and Leonard!!

  11. Elaine Dolan says:

    Wanted to do the Rolfing Series on prison inmates when I lived in Roseville, California and called to inquire about putting a program together to study whether it would decrease recidivism in domestic abuse cases. It never took off, probably due to an immediate and uninformed refusal. But I can see how yoga (self-rolfing, but slower) would have the same effect.

  12. Dawn Matejka says:

    May I add one more thought… While it is so very important to reach the person who has created the ‘storm’ with wrong choices (and I feel strongly that it is very important to assist them compassionately to find a better way to live and react to life) please do not forget the families. The effects of living in the midst of another’s ‘storm’ sometimes goes very deep and it’s effects can last a lifetime. Those caught up in another’s ‘storm’ may not know how to reach out for help. They have learned how to appear ‘normal’ and no one can guess what is behind a practiced smile or that sleepless nights are the norm as the ‘storm’ continues in one’s dreams.
    What is in place for the families that slip through the cracks of a child molestation that ‘could not be proven for lack of evidence’? As the family falls apart, it is only a miracle that the insidious effects of this betrayal don’t lead to a crime lured by the calming promise of substance abuse and consequent incarceration that would then name the inner turmoil felt on a daily basis by human beings that do not know how to be in the “eye of the storm”.
    Starting a mindfulness practice when children are young is a wonderful idea for the schools. Starting this practice to all involved with anyone who has a family member who is in their own out-of-control storm could save generations…

  13. francesca says:

    The thing that is sad is that it seems so unimaginable to people. In our country, we lock up LOTS of incredible people. Many of these are for nonviolent offenses, particularly substance abuse. This was fueled by the fear that was whipped into a frenzy during the War on Drugs in the ’80s. As psychologists and therapists, it should be more than apparent to you that most people who are abusing substances are among the most sensitive people that there are. They are unable to handle mind and emotions – something that is not taught generally, in our schools, though it should be. The daily maneuvering through life becomes unimaginable overwhelming for them, therefore self-medicating is the coping mechanism of choice. For thousands, as we know, it has landed them in facilities for 25 to life. These are not the drug kingpins – these are ‘ordinary’ people.

    I have taught in correctional facilities from probation school all the way to maximum security, on the Federal and State levels. I have taught men, women, boys and girls. I have taught gangbangers from East L.A. and women who just got ‘caught up in something’. I teach a workshop that combines breathing techniques (pranayama), yoga and meditation. It is ALWAYS well received and people do well. Just because people are incarcerated does not necessarily make them so ‘different’ than us that we should be started that they can ‘get’ yoga and meditaiton.

    Once people learn how they can quiet the mind and nervous system utilizing their breath and meditation, they are able to handle that which is going on around them, which in a correctional facility is a whirlwind of chaos. I teach them techniques that allow them to be the eye of the storm.

    Taking an attitude that people who are incarcerated are such weird, violent and incredible beings so different than the rest of us that we are completely startled and amazed that the same things which allow many of us to navigate our way through this world – yoga, pranayama, meditation – could actually work for them too, doesn’t serve them in any way. It, in fact, shows us that we need to observe our own judgments and what our perceptions are of people that we consider ‘other’ – which would be the incarcerated. These judgements also extend to those who are ex-offenders, trying to make their way back into ‘normal life’. I think that yoga/meditation-based programs should be taught in EVERY correctional facility in our country, it being that we incarcerate more people than any other known country, and that the MAJORITY of them will be, one day, return back to a community near you. Giving them the skills to help them while they are incarcerated will, ultimately, be of benefit for everyone.

    A yogic life is not just doing exercise on a mat . . . it is a way of life that honors ALL beings – even the incarcerated – and sees them with equal and respectful eyes.

    With respect,
    francesca a jackson, d.c.

    • Dawn Matejka says:

      Francesca, I respect your comments and encourage you to keep speaking out about those who fail in the eyes of others. I agree.
      Sincerely, Dawn

  14. Ted says:

    Yoga strengthens the body allowing one to carry more stress. Life is not without stress. Yoga is also an excellent practice of being mindful, listening to the instructions, paying attention to the movement of the mind, listening to the body, and connecting with the flow of the class whenever possible. Meditation is paying attention to the movement of the mind, body, and spirit while sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Mindfulness is remembering to do that, experiencing, reflecting and correcting without obsessing. A mindful instructor will demonstrate, instruct and share insights into the process of studying the mind, body, and spirit.

  15. Qigong has been offered at Folsom prison too.

  16. Thanks for posting this significant video. In his recent interview in your trauma series, Bessel van der Kolk cited Jon Kabat-Zinn as having said, to paraphrase, that anyone who teaches mindfulness to traumatized people without including yoga is guilty of malpractice. The inmates of maximum security prisons mostly have histories of severe trauma, according to research findings. So, this yoga in the prisons is highly appropriate. Along these lines, I encourage you to explore and feature the pioneering work of the Niroga Institute , founded and led by Bidyut K. Bose, PhD, (BK) that has been offering yoga classes to incarcerated and at-risk youth, and has been having independent researchers measure the outcomes. BK, a designated staff member, or I would be available to answer your questions or orient you to the relevant research literature. There are many engaging videos on the Niroga website as well.
    Your postings and webcasts provide a great service to many. Thanks.

  17. Marg says:

    Yoga is being offered at a male correctional institution in Florida through volunteer services. There is a waitiing list to be in the program. That waiting list does give an indication of how positively the program is being viewed and accepted by the inmates.

  18. Marcina says:

    Thank you for posting this. Theses programs are such a gift to everyone in our society. Another great film about this is Dhamma Brothers. I look forward to hearing and seeing more about these types of projects.

  19. This is exactly what should be taught in prisons. Most inmates suffer a history of trauma and what better way to slow down, notice and see what the mind body says to them without jumping to reaction to quell anxieties.

  20. I really enjoyed watching this inspirational video. As a yoga practitioner, I could really relate to what these two men were saying and I admire their courage and determination to bring yoga and practise it within a prison. I hope that your video will inspire yoga teachers in the UK to follow this example.
    Thank you.

  21. Carol lamb says:

    Thank you for this inspirational video. I have been involved in holistic therapies and self help teaching programmes for thirty years and am looking for opportunities to engage with prisoners in this country. Your experiences will hopefully help encourage the right people here to allow this.
    I was especialy impressed with the prisoner who spoke.

  22. Charlott says:

    Thank you. How wonderful to hear that Yoga is being practised in prison! Mindfulness is at the heart of creative reverie, which is to my view fundamental to both healing and learning. Using the expressive arts to focus on life issues brings on this natural mindfulness state, bridging the left and right hemispheres of the brain, integrating emotional responses and stimulating the brain. In school mindfulness is a popular subject, and I believe that teacher training will be changed radically in future because of its non judgemental approach – I see a great change coming when more and more people will be able to stay centred through chaos.

    • Lynne Holmes says:

      Hi Charlott,
      I’m interested to where you are in Devon as you say you’re interested in Mindfulness in schools.Lynne Devon

  23. Billy says:

    Thank you. Very inspiring and… also very normal. A word to the presentation itself: For me as a viewer I would have felt more what it is all about if the two persons would have talked facing each other and interviewed each other. With the same questions. Thank you for your important work .

  24. stacey livis says:

    I am teaching Mindfulness to staff in a youth justice custodial centre, the benefits have been amazing and the staff love it.

  25. Eva-Lena Kost Fehlman says:

    This is great! Thank you for sharing. It just reminded me of the picture that I saw from Turkey where the protesting people were doing yoga in the middle of all. How fantastic is this? Staying centered within chaos. A final result could be that chaos becomes centered instead of the other way around as it used to be. Then we all become one. Ok, I have great imagination but this is also my belief. Thank you again.

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