Finding Dharma Behind Bars

Imagine a room full of people all practicing pranayama (deep breathing) as they stretch languidly into downward dog. The vibe in the room is serene, each individual focusing in on his or her own body and linking each movement to the breath. Now, imagine that these peaceful yoga practitioners are also inmates in a state penitentiary.

Using yoga as a healing or inspirational practice is nothing new. However, using yoga as a tool to rehabilitate criminals is a relatively new, and perhaps overdue, development. In India, an innovative program brings prison inmates and yoga teachers-in-training together, to the benefit of all involved. Similar volunteer programs are available in the United States (in fact, yoga has a 25-year history in this country’s prison system), but the Indian program has one unique difference: it is federally funded, and the teachers are given lodging and pay for their services.

The program involves a yearlong contract between the state of Bihar and the Bihar Yoga Vidyalaya (the first officially recognized yoga university in India), deploying 26 students from the school to various prisons in the area. Ultimately, the hope is that inmates will learn enough from the university students to be able to teach the classes themselves, thus making the prison yoga program completely self-sufficient.

Officials expect that the prison staff will also benefit from the new yoga classes, creating more of a communal atmosphere in the correctional facility, where tension can easily arise. If guard and prisoner can practice yoga together in a safe space, it makes sense that these potentially volatile relationships will be positively affected in a myriad of ways.

Interviewed for an article in The Times of India, the vice chancellor of Bihar Yoga Vidalaya, Swami Shankaranad Saraswati, explained that “Yoga has the potential of molding human psyche…the regular classes for inmates will certainly help them lead a better life once they have completed their term in jails.”

This sentiment is certainly echoed in the halls of Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional facility and South Dakota’s Pennington County Jail, women’s prisons that have seen impressive results from their volunteer yoga programs. With prison administrators boasting happier, calmer inmates and less stress and tension in their cellblocks, it’s a wonder that all state correctional departments haven’t followed suit and initiated yoga programs of their own.

Why does yoga have such a potent impact, in comparison to other physical activities such as softball or aerobics class? The soul-nurturing, non-competitive nature of yoga practice might be one reason. But we must also consider the mind-body element of yoga: when the practice is taught in a manner which emphasizes meditation, stress relief, and a general respect for the body and what it can do, there’s no limit to who yoga can help.

Studies have shown that yoga can aid in depression, anxiety, addiction, and many physical ailments. Simply connecting to one’s breath while focusing on physical strength and balance can help heal emotional pain, giving another option for rehabilitation in the prison system, along with traditional talk therapy. Inmates who learn the power of deep abdominal breathing can use this calming technique during stressful times such as court appearances, prison skirmishes, or when the understandable claustrophobia of being locked up gets overwhelming.

Perhaps a quote from a story on the Pennington Country’s prison yoga program says it best (Rapid City Journal, 3/24/07): according to Lt. Greg Overholt, who oversees volunteer programs at the jail, “We were having issues in the women’s cell block with animosity and arguing…We started the (meditation) program, and within 10 days the stress level in that cell block had gone down to almost zero.”

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