A path of transformationCheap and simple, yoga helps inmates manage the stresses of prison life
Behind San Quentin’s baseball field, in a doublewide trailer surrounded by barbed wire, a dozen inmates sprawl out on yoga mats. Filling inside the bungalow are men, young and old, of different races, religions and worlds.
Eyes shut, they take one deep breath together. After a few moments of stretching and balancing themselves, they begin to heal not just their bodies but also their minds. As the tensions — physical and emotional — subside, they reflect on their personal histories: memories of trauma, substance abuse, and violence.
All thanks to James Fox, who has launched a nationwide Prison Yoga Project — a movement that has since spawned 11 chapters and 10 affiliate organizations that have spread across more than 135 jails and prisons in 24 states.
Currently, 16,000 incarcerated people turn to Fox and the insights in his book, Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery (2009). Many more can expect to join Fox’s movement, which aims to establish yoga in all U.S. jail and prisons.
“There’s a desire by yoga teachers to be of service. Part of the DNA of yoga is karma yoga — service,” said Fox, who draws from years of experience in restorative justice and violence-prevention. He argues that yoga sparks increased self-awareness, which can transform a prisoner and prepare them for successful re-entry.
An Oxford University study confirms Fox’s own findings: inmates in a 10-week yoga program performed better on a computer test of their impulse control, had more positive moods and were less stressed — perhaps because yoga is an “alternative way of being with yourself and the world,” as Fox wrote.
“It represents a personal support system that if practiced regularly can provide you with an ongoing sense of balance, connectedness and inner peace,” Fox said. “To heal the pain and suffering in the world requires us to heal our own pain and suffering, so we no longer unconsciously inflict pain and suffering on others.”
Yoga isn’t meant to invalidate the importance of other mental health services in prison, but it offers a relatively cheap and simple option that can do wonders for prisoners’ well-being and slacken some of the effects of mental health problems that come with incarceration.
With yoga, all you need is time and space.