“America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace.” -Senator Jim Webb, Virginia (D)
The US has 4% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s imprisoned. Over 7 million adults are under correctional supervision. That’s 1 in 31 adults in prison, on parole, or probation. The majority are African American and Latino. Even as violent crime has recently declined, the prison population has dramatically increased. With an annual cost of almost $60 billion, we spend more on our prisons than we invest in education. The prison system is not only dysfunctional but also a dismal failure considering that the national recidivism rate is 60% (3 in 5 return to prison within 3 years of release).*
Ten years ago I embarked on a path to bring the transformative benefits of yoga to incarcerated youth and adults, not realizing the impact my efforts would have in empowering people to break free in this broken system.
I became a student of yoga in 1986, starting with Iyengar Yoga and then exploring Ashtanga Yoga. I experienced effects much deeper than the physical benefits, and I realized that it was quite compatible with my Vipassana meditation practice. By 1999, I wanted to teach and give back, sharing all the physical, emotional, and psychological benefits that I had experienced from my own practice. I had heard a lot about Erich Schiffman and enrolled in one of his teacher trainings. I was heavily impacted by something he said: “Don’t teach necessarily what others teachers are teaching. Find what it is that you have to offer and teach that.”
I contemplated teaching outside of a yoga studio. Near where I lived, there was a residential treatment program for 24 boys, called Full Circle. Most of the boys came from neglected or at-risk circumstances, or had been court-ordered into the program. I volunteered to teach these boys and discovered that yoga gave them the ability to self-soothe in a way that Ritalin and other meds failed. I taught there for about 5 years until the program lost its state funding and closed.
When I was able to set up a program in the Marin County Juvenile Hall, I grew clearer about the path that was opening up for my work with at-risk youth using mindfulness techniques. I kept taking various yoga and conflict resolution trainings that would give me practical skills to address negative behavioral patterns. I headed to Canada for one of the most influential trainings. Father Joe Pereira, a senior Iyengar Yoga trainer and Catholic priest from India, had established centers all over India to work with people with addictions and HIV, using yoga and Centering Prayer (a kind of Christian mindful meditation). I learned Father Joe’s successful protocol for working with addictions.
I was collecting self-transformative tools as part of my path into San Quentin, one of the most notorious and iconic prisons in our nation.
“Yoga and its emphasis on the power of a single breath has promoted for me a respect for life and a profound realization of the destructive force of violence.” – Life-Sentenced Prisoner/Student, San Quentin
In 2002, the Insight Prison Project asked me to establish a yoga program at San Quentin. Almost a decade later, I now have a long waiting list for my classes. I used to walk into the prison with my mat rolled under my arm and get whistled at. Many guards look upon prisoners with disdain and don’t support offering them programs. They have a term for outsiders like me who offer classes: hug-a-thuggers. But in private conversations, some guards admit that yoga appears to be really good for the prisoners, and that it would probably benefit them as well. They know something positive is going on when prisoners who go to yoga class are less prone to infractions and more serious about their recovery and rehabilitation. Some of the most committed practitioners are my life-sentenced guys. It comes as no surprise to me that research has shown that a prison yoga program profoundly impacts anxiety, stress, depression, violence and substance use.
The perception of practicing yoga has also changed among San Quentin inmates. While nine years ago it was whistles and catcalls, it’s now common for me to walk by somebody I don’t know and, even when I don’t have my mat, they’ll say, “Hey man, you’re the yogaman! I’ve heard about you.”
When I teach a new group of students, I introduce some yoga philosophy, but I don’t overload them with information. Just enough so they understand the real tradition behind this ancient practice and that it’s not a stretching class. Guys come in and they’re a little nervous. I tell them that when they cross the threshold of the door, they’re crossing to a different dimension. They’re moving from an externally-oriented reality to an internally-oriented one. We’re here on our own (no guards are in the room), and we’re not going to entertain any of the kind of nonsense that routinely happens with the general prison population. I’ve stepped out of my normal life and am moving into this dimension with them. Together we’re creating the opportunity to leave prison for the next 90 minutes.
Each class begins with a centering meditation. I teach that the foundation for our practice is being able to go inward and disconnect from the busyness of our thoughts, that focusing the mind on bodily sensations and breath will ground us in the present moment. Yoga is about realizing who you really are, aside from your persona. The guys get that. They are aware that they wear a mask to try to protect themselves—it’s part of the “convict code.” Over time, they realize that if you are deeply connected with yourself, with your energy, staying awake to yourself in the moment, other prisoners tend to leave you alone.
We do a warm-up, beginning to coordinate moving with our breath. What I do next depends on whether I’m working with beginners or experienced students. I lead my regular guys through a rigorous practice for the purification benefits. Many of these guys carry considerable emotional baggage and/or are working with addictions. The reality is you can get any drug you want in prison. So I need to be cautious, particularly with beginners. Intense asana practice—too much, too soon—can have detrimental effects. It can also promote a dissociation from the personal sensitivity and self awareness that I am trying to encourage. I don’t want to contribute to furthering physical or psychological trauma.
Before living inside prison walls, these guys typically were leading lives full of pain and suffering. They want to learn how to alleviate the pain. Yoga can help them to reverse their negative behavioral patterns. When they experience pain, instead of using drugs or becoming violent, they can learn to ‘sit in the fire’—to be with the physical or emotional discomfort, interrupt the habitual knee-jerk reactions, and consciously breathe through it or, as some of the guys are fond of saying, “hit the pause button.”
I end each class with “Namaste” and let them know that the literal meaning is “I bow to you.” Symbolically, we bow to one another, recognizing the soul in each, acknowledging our interconnectedness. I’ve never had anybody refuse to say it. In fact, if I forget, someone will speak up and say, “Hey, wait a minute!” because class is not complete until we say “Namaste.”
Being in that space, practicing together is powerful and transformative in many respects. The code that most prisoners live by is an extension of the masculine roles they were taught growing up, how they were conditioned about what it means to be a man: you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to be in charge. Sensitivity is equated with weakness. Feelings are for women. It’s OK to express happiness or anger, but it’s not OK to feel fear or sadness. This gets exaggerated in prison. Races are kept separate. There is a hyper-vigilance due to the constant potential for chaos, violence and unpredictability. When you’re on the yard, prisoner politics dictate that you only socialize with your own race. If you fraternize with other races, you can get taught a painful lesson. And there are inmates with a level of consciousness who feel it’s their duty to enforce this segregation.
Yoga class is intimate even just from the standpoint of taking off your socks. Exposing your bare feet can be a big deal. You may be an African American next to a Caucasian or a Latino. But once practice begins and we drop in, separation dissolves. We become a community, a sangha, with a totally different value system based on inner-connectedness that results in intra-connectedness.
Many outsiders have asked me whether I fear for my safety when inside San Quentin. There have only been a couple of times over the years where I have felt threatened. I’m not fearful by nature, but I am vigilant. When you walk into a prison, it’s important that a sixth sense kicks in. When I walk on the yard and I’m surrounded by a sea of inmates I don’t know, I stay awake and energetically aware. This is a very practical yogic practice. It’s not like you routinely see a lot of violence, but you remain aware in certain circumstances that at any given moment the shit could hit the fan. It’s best to expect the unexpected.
There have been a couple of times when I’ve had to deal with a guy threatening me. In both cases all eyes were on me. Fortunately, I was able to remain centered, relying primarily on my intuition rather than reacting to my thoughts. That gave me the upper hand on my fear and ended up serving as an important teaching moment. But when I reflected on it afterward, I could feel the fear and debriefed with one of my buddies who also teaches in the prison.
“I am very thankful for people like you who play an active role in prisoners’ rehabilitation and recovery, which improves our chances of getting out and staying out upon release. The truth is the system is broken and we are not getting the rehabilitation we need to make it in the free world. Some of us see that we need to take our rehabilitation into our own hands if we’re going to make it.” Prisoner, Mule Creek State Prison, California
The primary reason why the re-incarceration rate is so high in this country (60%) is that prisoners are not taught the social/behavioral skills or offered the kinds of programs needed for them to successfully re-enter society. Since the late 1970’s, the main focus of prisons has been punishment, not rehabilitation. It’s hard to believe, but you would be hard-pressed to find a meaningful violence-prevention class in a federal or state penitentiary. And ‘we the people’ are footing the bill to keep these folks imprisoned. It costs on average $46,000 a year to keep an adult incarcerated in California and about the same for New York State.
After teaching at San Quentin for several years and being involved in providing other restorative justice practices for prisoners, I formally established the Prison Yoga Project (PYP) in 2009. The mission of PYP is to spread the practice of yoga and mindfulness meditation to prisons worldwide. As the first step toward that goal, I wrote and self-published (with initial financial support from the Give Back Yoga Foundation) Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery, an instruction manual that was expressly written to be used by prisoners as a self-guide. It is a practical tool to assist incarcerated men and women with their own healing. Instruction starts at the very beginning: how to breathe to calm the fight-or-flight response, meditation for reflecting on difficulties, dozens of illustrated poses, and artwork by my San Quentin students.
One of PYP’s biggest expenses is to print and distribute the book for free to receptive prisoners. The response has been overwhelming when I promote the book. If I were to put a regular notice in a quarterly newsletter that reaches 40,000 prisoners, I could easily be sending out 10,000 copies a year. From one announcement in late 2009, I sent out 4,500 books. It’s a wonderful problem but I haven’t been able to develop the organization or the resources to handle the volume I can easily create.
Prisoners who receive my book share what they learn with others. I get amazing feedback from men and women at different prisons, who say, “We’ve formed a yoga group using your book as a guide.” There is an obvious demand and hunger for this information that assists prisoners in their self-rehabilitation. Here is a practical solution to impact the recidivism problem, and the prisoners are spreading it themselves!
I had a student at San Quentin who got transferred to another California State prison and started to do his practice on the yard. Quite a bold move for a new arrival. He drew attention from other prisoners who said, “What’s that that you are doing?” He began to teach a few of them, and then he got sponsored by a recreation supervisor at the prison to lead classes in a unit.
The impact of the book is magnified greatly by trained yoga teachers who can go into prisons to facilitate classes, so I now travel frequently to train teachers and promote yoga programs to various prisons. As a result, there are some possibilities developing in the New York metro area, and I’d like to establish PYP chapters in both Chicago and Los Angeles in 2012. I frequently receive requests from yoga teachers, therapists and social activists in various states, as well as Canada and foreign locales (I was recently contacted by a doctor who works in a prison in Haiti) seeking help to start yoga programs in prisons.
In addition to continuing to send my book to prisoners, training yoga teachers and advocating for yoga and meditation programs in prisons, I have several other objectives for PYP. I would like to be able to provide scholarships for prisoners I consider good teacher prospects and are interested in becoming certified yoga instructors after release. I am also interested in collaborating with other experienced prisoner-rehabilitation specialists to deliver mindfulness-based tools for self-transformation. This includes completing a self-guided manual/workbook for prisoners that teaches emotional literacy and violence prevention skills.
Sometimes I joke with my students that spending as much time as I do with them was not in my 10-year plan. And occasionally people ask me, “How can you spend that much time in such an oppressive place?” Well, I answered a calling, and this has become my life’s work. I pray for the kind of financial support that will allow me to devote all my energy to it.
I see both the need and the benefits every day. These tools are practical, cost-effective and wanted by many prisoners who are ready to take responsibility for transforming their own lives. Whether or not release from prison is an option for them, they are learning to free themselves from a cycle of despair and suffering—learning to leave prison before they get out.
* Source of statistics: Pew Charitable Trust.
James Fox, MA, the Founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project prisonyoga.com is a certified Hatha Yoga instructor with more than 25 years of yoga experience. He has studied Iyengar, Ashtanga and Taoist (Yin) Yoga. In addition to offering weekly yoga classes to San Quentin inmates since 2002, he has also been involved in offender accountability, violence prevention and emotional literacy work with prisoners. James has also taught yoga and mindfulness practices to at-risk youth in juvenile detention, at a residential treatment facility for boys, and for inner-city community programs. He created a yoga curriculum for the Peacebuilders Initiative, a weeklong, summer intensive for youth held annually in Chicago, that he taught from 2003-2007. In 2011, James presented at the International Conference on Yoga for Health and Social Transformation in India, and conducted PYP Teacher Trainings in several U.S. cities and in Norway. James will co-present a workshop on teaching mindfulness-based practices to incarcerated youth and adults with Mary Lynn Fitton (The Art of Yoga Project), at the first annual Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute, May 18-20, 2012. HYPERLINK “http://www.yogaservicecouncil.org/”www.yogaservicecouncil.org
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You can donate a book to a prisoner who has requested a copy, buy a book for yourself, or do both: HYPERLINK “http://www.prisonyoga.com/”www.prisonyoga.com
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