Yoga Behind Bars
Yoga (n.): a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation.
How was your last yoga class experience? Did it smell like lavender or sage and was taught by someone with a similar name? There were probably clean floors and squishy yoga mats of varying colors and mandalas on the walls for the instructor to use for orientation during the flow. We are so lucky to get to have such a luxurious experience during our mindfulness practice. However, when practicing in a different space that is not so “zen” you can still receive the return on investment that you invest into your yoga practice — even if that place is a jail cell.
Why Practice Yoga in Jail?
Yoga is available to anyone who is willing to take the time to devote to a mindfulness practice — all it requires is your body, mind, and will (and sometimes a mat). However, some populations may have never been exposed to yoga and would highly benefit from its effects, such as incarcerated inmates. As of March 2018, the American criminal justice system holds nearly 2.3 million people, a population that has found themselves there largely in part to violence and drugs. Although they are confined to a prison or jail, yoga can help them to attain personal liberation, as mentioned in the Merriam-Webster’s definition of yoga.
The practice of yoga has been helping millions of people around the world to calm their minds, become in tune with their bodies and nourish their souls. The benefits of yoga have been studied by numerous researchers and scientists, showing the positive effects it can have on our overall health and well-being. It has been recognized by Harvard University as an action that can be taken towards preventative healthcare and potentially lower your risk of certain afflictions such as high blood pressure, excessive blood sugar levels and chronic illness.
Furthermore, according to Regis College back pain is the leading cause of disability to those over the age of 45. Implementing a regular yoga practice can help to both treat and prevent chronic body pain, and aids in strengthening the back to lower the risk of injury. Health professionals have attributed many cases of convicted criminals to be a result of untreated or undiagnosed mental illness. James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project, believes that the greatest rewards for many inmates are emotional and psychological. He started his practice at the residential treatment facility for boys in Bolinas, California, because he believed he could make a positive impact using yoga as therapy. The results reflected well upon his therapy, so much so that he began to move into larger facilities — hoping to bring the power of asana to a larger audience.
How Mindfulness Works Behind Bars
Fox feels that the practice held in prisons is weighted more heavily in mindfulness practices — both as a means to feel empowered over their own thoughts and to gain a feeling of self-control in an environment where they are otherwise not in control a large part of the time.
Prisons are homes to many men and women who have experienced trauma and continue to experience trauma in the unpredictability that occurs day-to-day in the jail system. There are consistent violent outbreaks, loud noises 24 hours a day and very little privacy. Yoga serves as a tool to ground down and focus on their breath work in times of chaos, a tool they may have not otherwise been given up to that point in their lives.
The body holds memories, pain, and trauma in the joints as well as in the brain. Practicing yoga enables you to mend those traumas and allows you the time to process your thoughts. Giving the gift of yoga is the gift that keeps on giving, even outside the walls of a jail cell. It is James Fox’s hope that the inmates will take their practice with them when they re-enter society. Gaining a bigger perspective on how to disengage and how to interrupt reactive behavior is an asset that anyone in or out of the justice system can value.
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