Yoga Practice Can Improve Prisoner Well-Being and Improve Rehabilitation

Yoga Practice Can Improve Prisoner Well-Being and Improve Rehabilitation


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Inmates are more likely to be dealing with negative emotions—anxiety, fear, despair, anger, depression, and trauma—than a practitioner not behind bars. With a present reality that hinges on past events, as well as an environment of hostility and potential danger, yoga presents an opportunity to break through from the cycles of negative thoughts and emotions that further imprison the self. Yoga presents an opportunity for a form of freedom.” – Pauline Busson


Around 2 ¼ million people are incarcerated in the United States. Even though prisons 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. The lack of actual treatment for the prisoners leaves them ill equipped to engage positively in society either inside or outside of prison. Hence, there is a need for effective treatment programs that help the prisoners while in prison and prepares them for life outside the prison.


Contemplative practices are well suited to the prison environment. Mindfulness training teaches skills that may be very important for prisoners. In particular, it puts the practitioner in touch with their own bodies and feelings. It improves present moment awareness and helps to overcome rumination about the past and negative thinking about the future. It’s been shown to be useful in the treatment of the effects of trauma and attention deficit disorder. It also relieves stress and improves overall health and well-being. Finally, mindfulness training has been shown to be effective in treating depressionanxiety, and anger. It has also been shown to help overcome trauma in male prisoners.


Yoga practice, because of its mindfulness plus physical exercise characteristics, would seem to be ideal for the needs of an incarcerated population. Indeed, it has been shown to be beneficial for prisoners. In today’s Research News article “Yoga in Correctional Settings: A Randomized Controlled Study.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: ), Kerekes and colleagues recruited male and female prisoners in Sweden and randomly assigned them to either 10-weeks of yoga practice or a wait-list control. Yoga training occurred for 90 minutes once a week for 10 weeks. Control participants were encouraged to engage in another physical activity for 90 minutes once a week. At the end of the 10 weeks, the control participants practiced yoga for ten weeks. The prisoners were measured before and after training for perceived stress, prison aggression, positive and negative emotions, sleep quality, and psychiatric symptoms. They were also asked to perform a continuous performance task that measures attention, impulsivity, and vigilance.


They found that the group that practiced yoga had less perceived stress, better sleep quality, an increased psychological and emotional well-being, less aggressive, antisocial, and self-harm behaviors. Compared to the control group, the yoga group showed increased positive emotions, impulse control and attention, and decreased negative affect. Importantly, there was a significant decrease in anti-social behaviors of the prisoners practicing yoga.


Yoga practice was associated with significant improvements in the prisoners’ mental health and well-being. This is not surprising as yoga practice has been repeatedly shown to provide similar benefits to other, non-prisoner, participants. But the impact of these benefits are heightened in the high-stress prison environment. The results suggest that yoga practice not only makes prison life more tolerable and constructive, but also decreases the types of behaviors, anti-social behaviors, that resulted in their incarcerations in the first place. So, yoga practice while in prison may help to prepare the prisoners for successfully reengaging in life after prison and reduce recidivism.


So, improve improve prisoner well-being and rehabilitation with yoga.


“These boys came from neglectful and abusive backgrounds, most of them [were] on medication, a real mess. That was where I got it. I realized that working with their bodies was so much more effective than just working cognitively. I started to see yoga as complementary therapy. For healing to take place, the body has to be involved. The counselors were saying, “Wow, the boys are feeling more self-confidence and self-esteem after having done yoga for two or three months.” They were actually seeing changes in them.” – James Fox


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are also available on Google+ and on Twitter @MindfulResearch


Study Summary


Kerekes, N., Fielding, C., & Apelqvist, S. (2017). Yoga in Correctional Settings: A Randomized Controlled Study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 8, 204.




The effect of yoga in the reduction of depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, anger as well as in the increased ability of behavioral control has been shown. These effects of yoga are highly relevant for prison inmates who often have poor mental health and low impulse control. While it has been shown that yoga and meditation can be effective in improving subjective well-being, mental health, and executive functioning within prison populations, only a limited number of studies have proved this, using randomized controlled settings.


A total of 152 participants from nine Swedish correctional facilities were randomly assigned to a 10-week yoga group (one class a week; N = 77) or a control group (N = 75). Before and after the intervention period, participants answered questionnaires measuring stress, aggression, affective states, sleep quality, and psychological well-being and completed a computerized test measuring attention and impulsivity.


After the intervention period, significant improvements were found on 13 of the 16 variables within the yoga group (e.g., less perceived stress, better sleep quality, an increased psychological and emotional well-being, less aggressive, and antisocial behavior) and on two within the control group. Compared to the control group, yoga class participants reported significantly improved emotional well-being and less antisocial behavior after 10 weeks of yoga. They also showed improved performance on the computerized test that measures attention and impulse control.


It can be concluded that the yoga practiced in Swedish correctional facilities has positive effects on inmates’ well-being and on considerable risk factors associated with recidivism, such as impulsivity and antisocial behavior. Accordingly, the results show that yoga practice can play an important part in the rehabilitation of prison inmates.

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