“You may think that only you are a prisoner, but other people are also prisoners. You are in a small prison, but others are in the big prison outside. When will they be released? Think that you are a yogi and that you are pursuing your sadhana in this particular place and at this particular moment. Immediately you will experience great joy. If you change your understanding, you will be free in a minute.”- Baba Muktananda
Around 2 ¼ million people are incarcerated in the United States. Even though these are euphemistically labelled correctional facilities very little correction actually occurs. This is supported by the rates of recidivism. About three quarters of prisoners who are released commit crimes and are sent back to prison within 5-years. Hence there is a great need for better prison programs that can not only help the prisoner adjust to prison life but also to life after release.
Contemplative practices have recently been employed in prisons and have been found to improve prisoner well-being and behavior. LINK to Auty Yoga and Meditation Improves Well-Being in Prisoners. Yoga is a multifaceted practice containing physical, mindfulness, and spiritual components. As such, yoga would seem to be ideal for the needs of an incarcerated population. Indeed, it has been shown to be beneficial for prisoners. Unfortunately, all that can be said is that engaging in a yoga program produces better results than not. But there is little understanding of how yoga practice might work and the amount of yoga needed to produce the benefits.
In today’s Research News article “Preliminary Evidence That Yoga Practice Progressively Improves Mood and Decreases Stress in a Sample of UK Prisoners”
Bilderbeck and colleagues investigated the factors associated with the beneficial effects of yoga practice for prisoners. They found that the more yoga classes attended and the greater the amount of self-practice outside of classes the greater the improvement in the prisoners’ level of perceived stress and negative emotions. In other words, sustained, regular practice of yoga produced greater improvements in the prisoners.
Of course it is impossible to tell if the prisoners who obtained the greatest benefit were then the ones who would engage more reliably in the practice or that great amounts of practice produce greater benefit. It is also impossible to know if some other factor such as the impact of the social context or simply relief of the incredible boredom of prison life might have been responsible both for greater adherence and also to improvements in well-being. There is a need for research that controls and manipulates these factors to determine the actual causal connections.
There is also a need to follow up on prisoners who have practiced yoga in prison to determine the long-term impact on adjustment to life outside of prison and recidivism. Finally, there is a need to determine what facets of yoga practice are crucial for each benefit and which are unimportant.
Regardless, it is clear that practicing yoga is beneficial to the well-being of prisoners.
“Right, if you’re not careful, you could despair, but there is a support system, definitely in this prison, and it’s awesome just to be able to be part of a community where people do yoga and meditate – and I have the Siddha Yoga correspondence course. I use these things to take me out of my mind and more into the heart space.” – Gino Sevacos, prisoner at San Quentin State Prison,
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies