TEACHING YOGA IN PRISON:
5 REASON PRISONERS MIGHT BENEFIT FROM YOGA
When people describe what they get out of their yoga practice you often hear words like freedom, self-love, and forgiveness. Once yoga has changed your life, you’ll be looking around for ways to help other people implement this brilliant technology into their own. There are so many people in our society who could benefit from yoga, but one group of people is in particular need.
We all intellectually know how dehumanizing and limiting prisons can be for people, but the reality is much worse than we can imagine. Helping people suffering behind bars feel the liberation that yoga can offer is a transformative experience for both parties and will present unique challenges that can help you grow as a yogi and teacher.
Here are a few simple, but powerful ways that yoga can help your students behind bars.
1. PHYSICAL THERAPY
Many prisoners have sustained physical trauma, but prisons often lack the medical care and physical therapy these inmates need to recover and manage their pain. Pain killers are expensive and addictive, in fact they may not be an option at all for those in addiction recovery. Yoga increases your circulation, bringing blood flow to injured areas, helping people to recover more quickly, while simultaneously relaxing and strengthening muscles.
The elderly in the prison system are often overlooked, but yoga can provide an exercise that is easy on the joints and keeps the body flexible. For senior students, try poses like Legs Up the Wall or Rag Doll for relaxation and a gentle stretch. Encourage your students to bend their knees as much as they need or use props. If you can’t afford to or aren’t allowed to bring props into the prison, pillows, books, and tissue boxes can all be used instead.
Physical pain can be an incredible burden that we carry, leading to irritability and even depression. On that same vein, stress reduction is also an important part of pain relief. Pain and stress have a mutually reinforcing relationship. Pain causes stress and stress causes tension in your body, leading to more pain. Yoga helps to break this cycle, by releasing tension, increasing mobility in muscles and joints, and teaching tools to manage stress.
Yoga also makes us more aware of our bodies, helping us to pinpoint where pain is coming from, avoid behaviors that trigger the pain, and move in a way that brings healing. Yoga for pain relief is a great tool to teach your students because they can take their practice anywhere they go and use it anytime pain or stress starts to flare up. Plus it’s free!
2. MENTAL HEALTH
There’s no doubt that there is an epidemic of mental illness in prisons and few inmates are getting access to the mental health care that they need. Yoga is an inexpensive tool that can be introduced to inmates to help them manage their mental health. The endorphins released from exercise can make a huge impact on mental wellness alone.
A study by the University of Oxford found that prisoners who participate in a regular yoga program had lower rates of psychological distress and anxiety, better moods, and superior concentration. Less anxiety and psychological distress frees up energy that inmates can use on self improvement, whether it be through examining their past, taking courses, or applying for an appeal.
The lack of mental health care that is available for prisoners creates a cyclical paradigm of illness. The high rates of anxiety and stress cause insomnia, which leads to increased depression and triggers more anxiety as well as manic and psychotic behavior. You can help your students reduce their levels of stress and get better sleep by teaching alternate nostril breathing and yoga nidra. Encourage your students to experiment with these practices when they’re having trouble sleeping. If the lack of fresh air, good food, and stimulation has your students feeling depressed and lethargic, try Breath of Fire, while hip openers can help your students release repressed emotions. For students struggling with anxiety, teach them to do a body scan several times a day to identify where they’re physically holding tension.
Mindfulness is the practice of carefully and non-judgmentally noticing our thoughts, feelings, body, and the world around us. A consistent practice of mindfulness helps us to better understand our lives, because we are able to examine our situations from an open and somewhat emotionally detached point of view. The ability to assess one’s life through a mindful perspective is a powerful tool for anyone to have, but it is especially important for inmates.
Many individuals in prison feel a great deal of shame for their actions. A practice of mindfulness can help them to identify and hopefully break the patterns in their lives that led them to their behavior.
Through yoga and meditation we also become more aware of our relationships and the way our actions impact those around us. An intense ashtanga practice can be a great outlet for anger and frustration, while practicing Cooling Breath can help to diffuse high tension situations. During Savasana, encourage your students to reflect on the ways their actions have affected others. How is their relationship with the prison staff? How do they treat people on a day to day basis?
4. COMPASSION AND EMPATHY
Between the poor living conditions, isolation, and often tense relationships with prison staff, life for an inmate can begin to feel dehumanizing. In this state it’s also easy to dehumanize others which contributes to violence both in and out of prisons. When we are able to recognize the humanness and pain in others, hate becomes difficult to act on.
Of course, many inmates who have made mistakes in the past feel tortured by guilt. Yoga teaches that “compassion is not complete unless it includes yourself.” The practice of self-love and acceptance that can be cultivated by yoga helps individuals to see that there is no need to define themselves by their mistakes. It’s difficult for all of us to overcome the stories we believe about ourselves, but it’s especially hard for inmates because of the social stigmas that come with having spent time behind bars. Remind your students that self improvement is hard work, but the freedom that we can access when we step outside of our negative self talk makes it so worth it.
Most of the time when we think of prison yoga, we think of yoga for prisoners, but many people on staff in prisons feel burned out, frustrated, angry, and even dehumanized too. Consider offering yoga classes for prison staff as well. Imagine the amount of conflict they could help to de-escalate when armed with the proper yogic tools.
Spending time in prison can leave people feeling isolated, rejected, and angry which contributes to low self-esteem, while the loss of personal autonomy and status can be a huge blow to some people’s pride. Low self esteem can hold anyone back in their journey of self growth when we doubt our own abilities so much that we don’t even try. Low self-worth could be standing in the way of one of your students and making an appeal. After release, a lack of self-esteem can be a hindrance when trying to find a job or make amends with loved ones.
A dedicated yoga and mindfulness practice helps us to identify the voices in our minds. Once we recognize that the voice talking to us is our insecurity, it becomes easier to take risks and trust ourselves. Encourage your students to spend time identifying the things about themselves that they want to cultivate, and they parts of themselves they no longer want to indulge. If you have a student who is preparing for an interview or a court date, help them practice Tadasana and breathing exercises to calm nerves and stimulate confidence. Yoga poses that balance the solar plexus, like Warrior III or Child’s Pose, are also a great option.
Encourage your students who might be leaving prison soon to find a community of mindful yogis near them. This can help them to create a support network and continue their yoga journey. Remind your students that although attending classes is wonderful, being tight on money is no excuse to neglect your practice. Point them towards your favorite yoga videos online, help them to design a home practice, and share free yoga events nearby with them. For yogis looking for work after prison, there are even special yoga teacher trainings for people with a criminal past.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
There’s certainly a dearth of yoga instructors taking the time to share their talents in prisons. If you’re new to teaching yoga and are having trouble gaining experience, offering your time to a local prison is a great idea. Having experience teaching in prisons shows that you are a versatile and flexible instructor.
People know how difficult going into a prison and teaching can be. Teaching in prison shows your commitment to your values, belief in the practice, and willingness to try new or difficult things as an instructor. While teaching in prison you might face students who just don’t take yoga seriously. Not only will this help you learn how to keep students engaged, it will also challenge you to articulate the benefits of yoga in a compelling way.
There’s no question that teacher training is a powerful and challenging experience, so a few months after finishing training, a lot of yogis feel like they’ve hit a plateau in their practice. Teaching in prisons could be a transformative way to introduce more challenge into your practice and exercise that compassion muscle we so frequently let atrophy in day to day life.
Imagine being trapped in a cell all day. Many instructors report that their students in prison are some of the most open to the practice. If you’re interesting in sharing your passion with those behind bars reach out to one of the foundations listed below for direction, support, and special trainings. You can also directly contact your local prison. Prisons always need volunteers and are usually thrilled to hear from people willing to offer their time.
The cycle of recidivism is hard to break. Between social stigmas, poor support networks, and a lack of mental health awareness, it can seem like an impossibility to break the cycle of crime and imprisonment. For people behind bars, the mindfulness, compassion, and confidence they gain from yoga can go a long way towards adapting to life outside of prison. The sad truth is that some of your students may never see the outside world again. For these students, yoga may be one of their only opportunities to feel connection, excitement, and peace.
The benefits of yoga for prisoners are astounding. But as the teacher, you might be even more shocked by your own growth.
By Kosta Miachin
Kosta Miachin is the creator of VIKASA Yoga method – a unique, challenging and effective approach to yoga. He is also the founder of VIKASA Yoga Academy.