The ancient practice of yoga is being practiced in San Quentin and numerous other prisons to help prisoners cope with physical and mental issues.
James Fox, a certified yoga instructor, introduced a yoga program to San Quentin in 2002. Since then, he has taught more than 1,000 classes at the prison and exposed several hundred inmates to the potential benefits of the practice.
He and Jacques Verduin have begun conducting daylong mindfulness trainings in California state prisons that include periods of both yoga and seated meditation. Participants adhere to a vow of silence during these seven-hour retreats to facilitate concentration, insight and introspection. A retreat was held in the San Quentin Gym in July for more than 60 inmates. Another retreat is scheduled for early December.
“I want tooffer men the opportunity to leave prison during the 60-90 minutes we are together, at least in their minds,” said Fox.
Fox established the Prison Yoga Project in 2009 with the mission of spreading the practice of yoga to prisons worldwide. His yoga manual, “Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery,” has been sent to thousands of prisoners throughout the U.S.
Yoga is a self-awareness or mindfulness practice that involves paying attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience without judgment or evaluation, disengaging with the mind’s preoccupation with thinking and directing one’s focus or concentration inward to sensations in the body. The physical practice of yoga is called Hatha Yoga, which involves uniting the concentration of the mind and conscious breathing with physical postures and exercises.
He said his classes can be quite challenging physically “because there needs to be a purification aspect to the practice.” He added his main aim is to provide students with an experience of feeling deeply grounded, centered and balanced.
Scientific research has shown yoga to be beneficial for reducing stress and aiding sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, compulsive behavior, addiction recovery, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I want to offer yoga as a skill for developing self-discipline, insight and impulse control, so men can effectively address problematic emotions like violence, depression and despair and as an aid for addiction recovery,” says Fox.
In 2010 he began training yoga teachers who are interested in teaching in prisons, rehabilitation and re-entry facilities. He has trained more than 200 teachers and has established chapters in New York, Maryland, Texas and Arizona. He plans to set up chapters in Chicago and Los Angeles in 2013.
In January 2010 Fox addressed an international conference on yoga for social transformation in India, speaking about his experience of teaching yoga at San Quentin. In 2011 he helped establish a yoga program for prisons in Norway, and he returned there for a subsequent visit in June 2012. As a result of his trip, he has trained more than 40 Norwegian yoga teachers and weekly classes are now offered in five Norwegian prisons with plans to add two more prisons by year’s end.
Fox said while introducing Norwegian prisoners to yoga, “Some of the prison staff actually joined right in doing yoga with the prisoners. It is reflective of the social and psychological training they receive.”
Yoga classes are now being offered at Rikers Island Jail in New York, New York State Prison, Bayview; Maryland State Prison, Jessup; Arizona State Prison, Ely; and jails in Austin, Texas.