You might have recently read the thought-provoking article on Elephant Journal, Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga?, featuring striking pictures of inmates practising yoga in jail by Robert Sturman. There is something incredibly fascinating in seeing those heavily tattooed men perform yoga poses gracefully, with this sense of restored dignity.
If you did read it and you’re teaching yoga, you might have also asked yourself if you would be prepared to embark on this kind of project. Before reading the article, I had wondered if yoga was taught in prisons and how deeply it affected this different breed of yogis; the ones to whom freedom has a whole different meaning.
Michael Stone – who I’m quoting abundantly lately, as I feel he gave us food for thought for the year ahead – envisages what prisons would be like if run like monasteries. Inmates would learn how to meditate and grow their own food. Meditation, he suggested, would help solving one of the major issues in jails: noise.
In the US, an initiative called the Prison Yoga Project, created 8 years ago, brings yoga and meditation to prisons and rehabilitation facilities. Also, the Prison Yoga Project organises a teacher training – in Austin, New York and San Francisco – aimed at working with incarcerated communities.
The testimonial page could at first sight read like any other endorsements to the benefits of yoga. These inmate letters, however, are written with an eloquence and filled with a poignant humanity that our conditioned minds wouldn’t easily associate with the prison environment. They describe the journeys of transformation and the confidence in a better life to come in unique voices:
‘With the barrage of negativity in prisons, they are unyielding breeding grounds for intense suffering, chaos, noise, overcrowding, violence, ineffective medical care and poor food. But occasionally, every so often, friendship, kindness, compassion and programs of meaningful substance come along. The Yoga program is a life-sustaining and meaningful one that I nurture and value because it is not only positive, it supports my growth and success as a young man. Yoga helps me navigate my life as a good and successful person. This practice is life-changing and will continue to enhance my life.’ – K.L.
”For those of us sentenced to a life term, time is inexorable. We are challenged to draw vitality and meaning from our circumstances. Yoga has helped me to understand that it is in quietness and stillness that time becomes an ally not a foe. It is in stillness that I realize the things that are important and those things that really do not matter.” – S.L.
Closer to home, the charity Freeing the Human Spirit based in Toronto is an organisation who teaches yoga to inmates as well as prison staff in Ontario, and also trains teachers willing to volunteer.
If you too are interested in taking part, you might want to contact Yoga Outreach in Vancouver, as they have several programs for teaching in correctional facilities and addiction centres.
Also, if you want to see more of the wonderful photographs by Robert Sturman, do visit his Facebook page and have a look at his various series on yogis behind bars: