On a good day, prison life is bleak, at best. Shackles and walking in formation in a neon jumpsuit is humiliating, being addressed by a last name or a number issued by the state is dehumanizing. The food … is it even allowed to be called food? And then there's the ‘jail mentality' from fellow inmates which creates a permanent fog throughout the institution, threatening violence harassment, yielding deep-seated fear and stress.
When you are confined to a small cell or maybe a larger dayroom in general population, there is no actual space for any type of physical activity. Especially on a concrete floor… in flip flops. What happens then is the ankles become swollen, inmates get body sores and hemorrhoids. And of course, another by-product of sedentary lifestyle coupled with endless white bread, ramen, and honey buns is the real threat of obesity.
Wardens and administrators are not oblivious to these types of threats and health risks that cripple their populations, and many have been looking for safe and cost-effective ways to increase overall health and well being of inmates. Luckily, yoga has been one solution to all of these problems in many prisons nationwide.
How Yoga Helps...
• Relieve Stress: Emotional stability and worry-free happiness is a beautiful gift that can be reached through the simple practice of yoga. Healthcare costs are a huge portion of any prison's budget, and a little yoga can bring these costs down significantly. Less medication, less psych visits, less ER visits. Any yogi can tell you the state of bliss that awaits the body after an invigorating yoga practice. Even if it's temporary at first, yoga bliss in prison is like a rose blooming in the desert.
• Reduced Recidivism: with the right tools, thoughtfulness developed in yoga can be carried off the mat onto the yard and eventually on the streets. Level-headed solutions can break the pattern of compulsive and harmful behavior.
• 12 Steppers: Did you know 75-80% of Americans in the criminal justice system meet the criteria for a diagnosable substance use disorder? Yoga can be used to overcome self-destructive actions and addict thinking. Using yoga to achieve sustained recovery is most effective when used in conjunction with a 12-step program as opposed to replacing a recovery program completely.
• Spirituality: If your spiritual beliefs lie off the grid somewhere, you don't have many options for worship on the inside. Many prisons only offer Christian-based worship services, and yoga (although not ‘religious' in itself) provides a nice alternative for those seeking something a little different.
• Non-Violence: Once you begin respecting yourself, you cultivate empathy (sharing and feelings for others) which can lead to compassion and love. Thus, the circle of violence is broken. Ahimsa is a cardinal virtue of the yoga sutras. Not only are violent actions changed, positive self-talk and thoughts regarding others are developed as well.
• Get off the Sitz: Problems with sitting and laying around all day can be reversed with a spoonful of yoga. Get the circulation flowing, and problems like water weight and swollen ankles are solved medication-free!
• Feel Good/Look Good: still applies to those incarcerated. Yoga unites the body with the brain which, among prison inmates, usually go dissociated for their entire sentence. Learn to breathe and become one with the body, spirit, mind, and universe and the body will start to behave as the mind is strengthened. Plus, a little yoga will tone the muscles and even might help shed a few pounds.
• Escape: Many inmates only leave the walls via their dreams. Every waking moment is a nightmare. Meditation and mindfulness cultivated through yoga practice provides tools for healthy ways to deal with trauma, depression, anxiety, and stress that inmates can take with them off the mat. Even if it's once a week, yoga can be almost like a vacation when behind bars.
How to Get Involved?
The Prison Yoga Project is a non-profit that aims to bring yoga to U.S. prisons. The organizations train instructors to teach inmates, provide instructional and informative books (buy one online to help an inmate), and works to advise prison administrators on how to start their own yoga program. Quickly donate $10 to a menu of causes on their website. Or, call your local jail or prison and ask them if they have any such program. If they do, try to contact the person in charge. If not, ask them how you can bring yoga into the prison. There might be a lot of red tape you will inevitably have to hurdle over, but persistence is key when dealing with surly guards and prison administrators.