The idea of teaching yoga in prison entered my mind for the first time in February 2013 when I was doing my yoga teacher training in Utah and one of my American colleagues mentioned The Dhamma Brothers to me, a documentary about a prison meditation program at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama, where 1,500 men, considered the state’s most dangerous prisoners, live behind high security towers and a double row of barbed and electrical wire fences. The film had a strong impact on me.
I was surprised by the fact that even though many of the inmates will never be released from prison, they are thirsty for meaningful social and emotional change, and that many find possible to live with a sense of inner peace and freedom within the harsh prison environment thanks to meditation and yoga.
When I returned to London I started to do research on the British prison system and the politics around it. The whole philosophy behind the concepts of crime, justice, punishment, compassion, forgiveness, health…became very recurrent in my thoughts. I realized I had found a real purpose for teaching yoga and to develop as a yoga teacher. Even though I have never been interested in becoming a full time yoga teacher or make my living on it I was determined to make it happen and I decided to attend one of the workshops run by The prison Phoenix Trust, a charity based in Oxford that since 1988 has been supporting inmates through yoga and meditation, providing tuition as well as posting reading and audio materials across UK and Irish prisons (currently they offer 150 weekly yoga classes in 90 prisons across the UK.) It was through them that in July 2013 I started to teach at HMP Holloway, the second largest female prison in Europe.
When they first called me to provide cover I didn’t hesitate for a second but at the same time I was very nervous not only because I had never been before inside a prison but also because I had no real experience teaching yoga. Sudden fears of being verbally abused also invaded me. Far from it, teaching yoga in prison has always been a pleasant and rewarding experience. Both the staff and the inmates lessons are well attended at Holloway and the PE team at the gym is friendly, young, very supportive and professional. Always within the prison regulations, they are flexible towards my teaching style: I always begin with breathing exercises and mediation in silence followed by a sequence of asanas designed to mainly open the hips and the chest accompanied by carefully chosen music.
The inmates, many of them with foreign accents just like mine, are always responsive and thankful. Given the environment and conditions in which they live (i.e. overcrowded cells, less than 1h per of fresh air per day, constant staff shortages, bullying, drugs, feelings of guilt, anger, lack of control over one’s circumstances, humiliation, depression, high rates of suicide and widespread self-inflicted harm), it is not a surprise that prisoners appreciate the benefits of a yoga class almost instantly.
These effects are visible in their body language as well as in the quality of their sleep. When they sit at the beginning of the class in meditation and when they flow from one asana to the next putting themselves fully in the breath, not visualizing anything, not trying to make anything happen, the normal activity of the mind (i.e. planning, worrying, re-living events) slows down or even halts, providing a sense of great relief.
But most importantly, as attention stays with the breath, an aspect of oneself that is buried beneath the normal activity of the mind comes to the foreground. They learn to detach from their emotions, to override impulsiveness, to pay attention, sustain the attention and make decisions.
With time I have got to know the women who attend the yoga lessons at Holloway and to remember their names and faces. At first I was surprised to see how eager they were after the class to come and talk to me openly about their life while they would help me to store the yoga mats. (I never ask them questions, of course, and we never discuss the reason why they are there.) I recently found out that one of the girls, Leanne, has come out of prison and has decided to continue with yoga lessons. At my last visit, I noticed that Irina, a regular to the class, was missing and felt very happy when the others confirmed she is now out too. I hope she is safe back home and continues with yoga, a practice that she enjoyed and in which she found herself in peace. It is quite satisfactory when you can see people’s health improve. This has a direct and positive impact in our community at the end of the day. A recent research conducted by Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry through a 10-week study involving 170 prisoners in seven prisons across the West Midlands has confirmed that weekly yoga sessions can provide a substantial improvement in the mental well being and outlook of inmates and for some, it might even prove to be life-changing. Bearing in mind that more than 70% of the prison population has two or more mental health disorders this is really great news. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Yoga will suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression, reduce reoffending rates and replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what it has become very clear is that Yoga has proved to be a cheap, simple and powerful remedy with multiple benefits for prisoners’ well being and a crucial step to meet one of the key aims of the prison service which is to reduce violence, improve staff/inmate relationships and to treat offenders with dignity and humanity.