Shakespeare And Yoga In Prisons…

Shakespeare And Yoga In Prisons

“I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world.” — Shakespeare 

        The three healing outlets that require nothing but a pencil and a floor are cathartic writing, dramatic arts, and the practice of asana coupled with meditation. Therefore, instead of us further criminalizing those behind bars, why not give them the tools to heal themselves? Buddha says, “We are everyone and everyone is us.” If for one day, we believed we were the weakest link on earth, or at least treated as a slave,  how would we want the collective to help us?  Buddhism and yoga teach us to realize the root of the problem, or suffering, and to not judge or cast blame on those, especially those that are incarcerated. How can we as a collective catalyze the process of healing for prisoners? We can show them some cost-effective tools to uplift their spirit, self-regulate their behavior, and perhaps show them the way to self-realization while serving time on earth. The prison rates in the US are the highest, even higher than China and Russia. The statistics show that about 725 people out of 100,000 are imprisoned and continue to grow exponentially. Surely, all these inmates are not evil at the root. In fact, statistics show that over 31 million have been arrested for drug offenses since the war on drugs began in the 1980’s.

        Stuffing people inside prisons is a US epidemic that is growing yearly with a focus on punishing, rather than rehabilitating. As yogis, there are ways we can help those locked up in jails, detention centers, and maximum security penitentiary’s. As yogis, we know the true meaning of feeling locked up in our ego, having an arrested consciousness, and the internal feeling of chained consciousness. As yogis and conscientious citizens, we inherently know, that the prison growth rate is a symbol of our nation’s need for power and money and that people can reach liberation behind bars. It is the collective consciousness as a whole that needs to be healed through our actions.

“As the ego grows~Repressing what the soul knows~All of us Regress.”

Cathartic Writing

           Cathartic writing has served as a healing modality since the beginning of time. Those detained that are innocent and guilty have relied on the pen to help them organize their life details, be creative, and release the underlying problems for their behavior. Now, imagine we are all actors? As Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”  We can choose to be the observer or actor in any given situation, instead of reacting. We all have the potential to reach pure consciousness, or realize or atman self within the matrix of the Brahman, instead of being confined to our ego-self throughout our lifetimes. Becoming the witness takes years of practice, but showing the inmates how to witness and observe, rather than playing the part of their ego-self is also a healing technique.

Shakespeare in Prisons

“Hell is Empty and all the Devils are here.” -Shakespeare

Shakespeare said,  “Make not your thoughts prisons.” Currently, Detroit Public Theatre is taking Shakespeare to maximum security prisons, specifically the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) is almost 25 years old, the oldest program of this type of work, in North America. SBB is available in correctional facilities in Kentucky and Michigan. The average recidivism rate of inmates in 60 percent. However, the rate of recidivism is significantly lower in those that participated in the SBB program, at 6%. SBB is a non-profit, 5013 organization that accepts donations.

Realizing the Tragedy of Life 

“A fallen ego is necessary for growth on earth, we are here to grow and learn, not be condemned.”

        Acting out scenarios and playing the part of one’s higher-self helps one purge their peeves and demons. Acting out tragedies as a practicing thespian gives the detainee a chance to be heard. Having a voice is one of the most empowering gifts an adult can have, regardless of being behind bars or not. The goal of yoga is to find moksha, which in English means liberation. Truth be told, we all have invisible bars preventing us from becoming our authentic selves each day. If we keep the yoga to ourselves, isn’t that a form of aparigraha, one of the yamas, or self-regulating behaviors in Ashtanga, or eight-limbed path of yoga, originally codified by Patanjali?

Humanitarian Efforts

       Robin Williams oldest son Zak is a trailblazer in this movement. He has dedicated his life to bringing education to incarcerated men and women. He is teaching incarcerated individuals at the San Quentin State prison, the same prison that birthed the Prison Yoga Project founded by James Fox. Zak is specifically teaching financial literacy to prisoners as his mission, helping the confined to make smart informed decisions with their financial resources.

       PoetsIn, a registered charity in the United Kingdom works as an outreach to prisoners and those with mental illness’. The adults in custody share their poetry with private groups and the groups give the inmate feedback on his or her journey, thus satisfying their need for affiliation, and treating the prisoners with dignity. The civilians of PoetsIn play a big part in acting as liaisons between the prison and the public group. This group demonstrates inclusivity instead of exclusivity in that anyone and everyone may write poetry for their collections, to include inmates and those affected by mental illness. PoetsIn recently won an award for being one of the most influential mental health workshops in England. Additionally, they were awarded non-profit of the year in the UK. They have a public social media group open to citizens across the globe. Everyone contributes their poetry and is accepted.

Currently, there are several organizations that are growing and expanding, most notably, Yoga Behind Bars (YBB) and Prison Yoga Project (PYP). Besides working as non-profits teaching yoga, both organizations, provide teacher training nationwide and globally. They teach trauma-informed yoga to Registered Yoga Teachers (RYT) or will teach someone with an equivalent of experience to an RYT. PYP also allows one to order a handbook written by James Fox on how to practice yoga and the meaning of the ancient yoga practice. The book can be sent to an anonymous Prisoner. Some of these prisoners are shut down from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and going into a class with physicality, perpetuates there PTSD. PYP and YBB are both west coasts based, but PYP travels and teaches the PYP program.

Next year PYP will be in Michigan for the first time. They will explain the difference between federal, state, and local jurisdictions, the basics of the Immigration Detention Center, and the differences between the adult and youth systems. Some members and affiliates of PYP have collaborated on a book entitled “Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System.” The more programs such as these that grow in each state in the country and globally, the more access and chance the collective prisoners have to reach a taste of liberation. Hopefully, the programs will grow exponentially at the same rate the prison population is expanding. There are specific ways to provide yoga instruction that is appropriate for a criminal justice system. There are ways to teach the maximum security prisoners, the females and males that are gender specific.  Learning from teachers that have been teaching in prisons for decades is the best approach if one chooses to go teach behind bars. Teaching trauma-informed yoga is key for both the student and teacher. Once the PYP training is complete, the individual will receive a PYP credential in addition to the RYT credential and have the resources to start teaching at-risk communities, to include inmates.

      The recidivism rate is lower for inmates associated with yoga and meditation. Mindfulness experiences over a long period of time allow the inmate to experience healing. The trauma-informed yoga to include breathwork, asana, and meditation, teaches the detained self-control, self-regulation that most of them never learned as a child. Many inmates that experienced the PYP training have maintained a daily practice, become yoga teachers themselves, and continue to share the gift of yoga to their new community. If we want anything to be ubiquitous on this planet, why not the gifts of writing and yoga?

Service or Seva

             We all have a trifecta of healing modalities to choose from each day. As the Yoga Sutras say in Book 4, Yoga Sutra 30, there are three types of Karma, the Karma we accrued from past life actions, and past actions  (Sanjita karma), the Karma we accrue in this lifetime, Prarabda karma and the Karma we accrue for the next lifetime, Agami karma. Prarabda is the amount reserved for one to experience in this lifetime and agami is the new karma we create. Showing inmates that they can change the results of their destiny and wellbeing in this lifetime and the next is a highly effective model for behavioral changes. We can give them the setting to potentially grow and relieve stress, instead of reliving it. Combining education, acting, and meditation techniques, to those that don’t have the tools to cope, self-regulate, and evolve is not going to hurt anyone, but help make this prison we all live in more breathable and peaceful.

        Some prisoners don’t know they’re making bad choices.  They are in flight or fight mode from experiencing interpersonal trauma since youth. Showing them how to make new choices, as players in this great play of life, not only will enlighten their lives but uplift ours. Therefore, liberating others coupled with liberating ourselves, uplifts the vibration of humanity. It may be our civic duty or dharma, to show those enslaved that there is another way through the ancient secrets of yoga, acting, and writing, as a karmic nudge to catalyze their soul evolution, whether it’s realized in this lifetime or the next.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings be free and happy, without exception

“Wearing my hat of dharma, Striving to beat this wheel of karma, Imprints mark; each year a coil, A once dirty life; now made of freshly nourished soil.”


“Illusions wind around a spool

We’re all pre-strung

We are here to fine tune

Our instruments

Access our chords

Sewn strings untangle

Unravel again until Deep wounds are sutured

With a shared thread,



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Brieanne Tanner

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Brieanne has been practicing yoga diligently for 13 years. She’s been a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance since 2010…

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