Yoga in Jail: Using Yoga as Rehab

The benefits of yoga and meditation on the mind, body and soul are being embraced in an unconventional setting: prison.

Prisons have long employed various methods of working with inmates to cope with unresolved trauma. Psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers and other cognitive behavioral therapists help inmates deal with issues like drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, witnessing crime, homelessness, discrimination and other forms of trauma, which often take place earlier in the individual’s life.

More recently, yoga and meditation have been introduced as another form of rehabilitation.

The Prison Yoga Project
Organizations like Prison Yoga Project, led by James Fox, are working with prisons to develop yoga programs to reconnect inmates to their bodies, senses, and emotions.

The Prison Yoga Project has implemented programs in two dozen facilities across America. Ultimately, inmates can develop behavioural tools and a sense of awareness in yoga classes, which can be applied to other aspects of their life. They also benefit from lower stress levels, pain relief, improved sleep and mental clarity.

Yoga Classes in Mexico City Youth Rehabilitation Centers
A Mexican youth rehabilitation centre has also incorporated yoga into the programs it offers to young offenders. These teenagers are facing charges for major crimes like homicide, kidnapping and extortion.

Classes are led by Fredy Alan Diaz, who was first introduced to yoga in 2002 when he himself was an inmate in prison. Diaz spent nearly seven years in jail after being caught with a gun and 18 kilograms of cocaine. “In prison, yoga was like a window for me, and as I practiced more and more, it became a door,” he says.

The Insight Prison Project in San Quentin State Prison
California’s San Quentin State Prison has offered yoga to its inmates since 2011. Participants say that it allows them to figuratively escape prison life, if only temporarily. The yoga classes offer a rare moment of calm and peace in the hectic prison environment.

These classes are run by the Insight Prison Project, a non-profit organization working with prisoners, parolees and crime survivors to shift harmful and destructive behavior. Through the 18 classes they offer at San Quentin State Prison, the Insight Prison Project reaches 250 individuals every week. Yoga is used to promote healing and integration through an emphasis on the mind/body connection, emotional intelligence and critical thinking.

The Challenges of Offering Yoga in Prison
Yoga classes are typically not funded by tax payers: the vast majority of the yoga programs provided to prison are done on a volunteer basis or are provided by non-profit organizations. Since the benefits of yoga are not easily measurable, some organizations have had to fight their way to stay in the system.

Sister Elaine MacInnes met resistance from the Canadian government when she first attempted to launch a yoga program in jail in 2001. She instead focused her efforts on a local level, and has successfully offered courses to hundreds of inmates.

Raising funds for these projects is not the easiest task. Many people are hesitant to donate their funds to what some interpret as a “perk” for prisoners (as coined by one politician). Defenders of the programs say that the benefits of activities like yoga in prison help inmates develop skills to re-integrate into society, preventing them from being sent back to jail.