Friday, May 6, 2011

yoga in prisons- haley barber

Haley Barber

Yoga, culture, theory and practice


Laura Douglas

Yoga in Prisons


Yoga has many beneficial contributions for incarcerated criminals who reside in prisons. Through research, case studies, and experiments yoga instructors, gurus and professionals who work in prisons have documented strong evidence in the positive development of the practice of yoga in prisons which is honored for an increase in self awareness, empathy and a decrease in violent behavior. Different programs have the potential of helping incarcerated prisoners gain a personal commitment into the deep process of inner development which when utilized can engage a prisoner’s self awareness. This essay focuses of the benefits of yoga on the mind, body and spirit of incarcerated prisons. It is discussed that physical wellness, mental balance, and empathy for other people are some aspects that are some benefits of this eastern philosophy for a western penitentiary system.


Yoga is an ancient philosophy originating in India, and has been practiced as a way of life for yogi’s who are individuals who devote their entire lives to this philosophy. Recently, yoga has been adopted as an alternative approach to health within alternative medicine. Regular practice of yoga for 3–4 months has shown beneficial effects on individuals cross-culturally for their well being, depression, anxiety and many other benefits come out of this practice. (Rucker, 2005) In recent years a recent ‘trend’ of yoga has developed and a respect and appreciation for yoga has developed. This ancient philosophy has been integrated into our conventional society from celebrities to stay at-home moms and business professionals are all trying this ‘new’ sensation. Every individual who lives in this world needs to focus on mental clarity, living in the moment, focusing on breath, and time to understand their bodies, minds and souls. If any individual dedicated some time, thought and intention into the practice and education of this eastern philosophy, yoga can teach anyone how to deal with the stresses, illnesses, pain, motivation, and injuries.

As Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati says, “The diversity of the participants is enormous, from the illiterate to the academic, from those who have never heard of yoga before to the one who has read all the books of Sri Aurobindo.” (Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati, 1999) If yoga can help anyone, the benefits are enormously needed to help people who by society’s definition are lost, dysfunctional, troubled, and dangerous. Society has stereotyped people who become criminals to be defined by their actions, but through the practice of yoga can continue to offer a change of mind, body and spirit to the ones who have made immoral and illegal decisions that placed them in an institution that was originally designed to stabilize, correct and rehabilitate. Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati discusses that some prisoners are highly intelligent and many are weak people who got caught up in a life of crime. Some of the older men have spent most of their lives in and out of prisons or other institutions, but there is another population in the prisons that are younger and are open to the possibility of change and enlightenment and taking charge of their own life. There is a yogic theory that “the fearlessness and strength of sushumna activity underlies both great spiritual leaders and certain types of criminals, especially psychopaths (Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati)

Yoga is a combination of breath, postures, mantras, and can be assumed that a majority of incarcerated criminals struggle with mental stability including depression, anxiety and self control. Through this essay, we will discuss the effectiveness of yoga programs in prison highlighting the mind, body and spirit for incarcerated criminals, and will mention some specific studies and programs. Any physical and mental states which create obstacles in the path of yoga arise due to the mental and physical symptoms of emotional conditions. These obstacles, which include disease, dullness, doubt, procrastination, laziness, craving, errors of perception, instability, pain, depression, irregular breathing, which with the assistance of an effective and dedicated instructor will be removed in order to progress on the path of yoga. (Pandey, S; Kumar, A)

With the understanding that incarcerated criminals in a prison will be released, reformed, or transferred to another prison, the benefits are being recognized through programs all around the world in different prisons. The tension in the men, in their bodies and minds, means one has to work slowly and steadily, but because many of them are ill-educated and have been brought up with no idea of their inner worth and potential…” (Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati) A very important lesson prisons and the institutions should realize that people do not have to rely all the time on an external help of facilities or medicine, but they can bring about some changes from within you. “A man in prison, if he can turn his mind in the proper way, can use his time for spiritual pursuits.” (Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati) The goal of the various aspects of yoga can include deep relaxation, the awareness of breathing techniques, postures, concentration, and meditation which is guided by a professional yoga instructor. With an effective instruction, awareness of breath can develop a sense of self mastery which can bridge the gap between the inner and outer worlds by calming down the parts of the mind that are too noisy. Self-knowledge is gained by awareness, which is an on-going process wherein one learns to be a witness, of oneself and the world, and to discover the hidden relationship between body, mind, and spirit.



The western society has transformed the schemata of yoga towards a focus on the improvement and continual progress of the physical body. The modern perspective has both negative and positive results for the culture of yoga especially within the prison walls. Stereotypically there will be a population of criminals who will be attracted to this aspect of the yogic practice. Some men and women may have been incarcerated because of a lack of control of their physical body. “I told them that contrary to popular belief, yoga is neither a beauty cult nor a religion but rather a science, a methodology” (Rucker, 2005) Although the western culture has transformed the true wholesome meaning of yoga, yoga is not alone in developing a physical progress like the magazines and the celebrities tell us, but it takes the concentration and awareness to hold an ansana for a long period of time. Strength is not just gained by lifting weights at the gym as some prisoners are conventionally used to, but strength is developed by the power of breath and the control of each asana. As Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati discusses in his Yoga in Prisons there are men who work out regularly in a gym, are well trained, strong and competitive and they welcome the 'real' exercises and postures of the physical exercises. (Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati)

The many physical problems that are common in prisoners include: high levels of anxiety, stress, anger, fear, depression, frustration and insomnia, digestive disorders, high blood pressure, bowel disorders, ulcers, migraines, allergies, and back problems. (Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati). Many studies discuss the effects on the psychophysiological functioning of individuals who practice yoga.

The selected yogic practices have a favourable reconditioning effect on endocrine gland secretion reduction in sympathetic tone of the autonomic nervous system as well as in oxygen consumption and blood flow. Yogic practices recondition the whole body, especially the neuromuscular and neuroglandular systems, to enable it to withstand greater stress and strain. (Bhushan, L.I)

The different yogic practices have relaxing and rejuvenating effects on the body and brain. According to Bhishan there is a significant transformation of the brain waves, and regulation of the heart rate, breathing and oxygen consumption (Bhushan, L. I) As a result, yogic practices can be a benefit in managing disorders related to the body systems especially for incarcerated prisoners. Stereotypically if an individual is incarcerated they have lived a life of addiction, uncontrolled behavior, and unhealthy decisions which can manifests into physical pain.

Bhushan discusses a study that was conducted in 1993, for six months yogic practices were conducted on JCOs in the Defence force. The JCO’s reported to have “significant improvement in their body flexibility, concentration, memory, learning efficiency and psychomotor performance. The biochemical profile showed a relative hypo-metabolic state and reduced levels of stress hormones.” (Bhushan, L. I) Another example is of Mr. Bimal Narayan Adhikari of the Yerwada Prison who mentioned that previous to his yoga practice he was not finding food of the prison sufficient but “yogasanas brought about a radical change in his appetite, and he is now habituated to take only a minimal quantity of food and derives immense satisfaction from it.” (Ghantali Mitra Mandal) He also reported that no longer liked the drugs marijuana and hashish. Also in the same prison another yoga participant was cured of asthma by yoga exercises taught by Mr. Adhikari (Ghantali Mitra Mandal). Many other studies also discuss evidence that through the yogic practices there are significant improvements in the physical shape. Although yoga is not limited to the progress and healing of the physical body but includes the total person, conscious and subconscious. “In the same way yoga does not consider the body to be everything. Rather it considers the body to be a medium through which you can progress on the path of evolution in this world.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati)


Yoga also does not consider the mind as everything, but it accepts that by developing awareness and concentration you can awaken the dormant potential which can be used to develop and attain success in your life.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati) When one works on and practices more stability and control of the mind and emotions, then there is a less likely chance one will commit a crime, compared to someone who has no control over their body, mind or emotions. (Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati) Yoga is a tool that is used to reform the mental habits of prisoners. In the prison in Bihar the “feelings of revenge, hatred and guilt, were reduced substantially, and the prisoners were able to experience joy, happiness and contentment and to accept their conditions and their crime with a positive attitude and approach.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati) Yoga helps change the way your mind thinks and processes this life. Through my experience of chanting mantras, breathing exercises and holding different asanas the mind develops a different appreciation for its own power.

Yoga teaches the practitioner to quiet the mind through means of meditation. Through the practice of meditation awareness develops and the normal humanistic distractions will settle down. Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati mentions in The Application of Yoga in Managing Stress that Psychology says that activity and stimulation is the nature of the mind and through relaxation the agitated mind is calmed down through the practice of yoga nidra. Another aspect that can be developed through the yoga practice is concentration so we can learn to channel our inevitable wandering mind. For mental health it is necessary that we practice both relaxation and concentration. (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati) “Asanas relax the body and mind, and by meditation one attains relaxation and concentration and develops awareness.” (Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati)

Crime is a short cut to satisfy a craving, a short cut which goes beyond normal and legal means. Crime, delinquency and the different patterns of anti-social behaviour express tensions which arise from a deeply discontented mind, from a weak mind and from unbalanced emotions. A weak mind is one which lacks balance and a sense of proportion. No approach to the problem of delinquency and crime can be truly effective unless the basic weakness of mind is remedied. (Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati)

Just as the physical body grow stronger through the practice of the poses the ‘weak’ mind of the prisoners will grow and develop into a strong and controlled. Unfortunately what Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati considers ‘discontented mind’ is probably the cause of many prisoner’s incarceration. Prison should not be treated as an end to a life, but a beginning. Yoga gives many prisoners an opportunity to find it in themselves to take responsibility of their actions and a control of their actions.

One of the most important aspects of yoga for prisons is one of the yogic concepts of self-mastery. Self-mastery is “4000- year-old Vedic concept that refers specifically to growth in one’s capacity to: (1) discover all of the various dimensions of one’s own personhood—physical, mental, and spiritual; and (2) to use those various dimensions in a conscious, skillful way.” (Rucker, 2005) Self-discipline is the second essential element of self-mastery and it is the ability to do what one chooses to do and stems from habits that are practiced and refined (Rucker, 2005). Yoga practices self-discipline and that is a very important topic to be focused on because some prisoners may have not have any self discipline, and some may have an impressive amount but was used in a malicious way. In psychological terms, yoga helps one to achieve full potentiality. Through findings show improvement in cognitive abilities, concentration and memory on account of yogic practices (Bhushan, L.I). Self-discipline, concentration and control are all very important benefits of the yoga practice especially for incarcerated prisoners.


The greatest single resource for changing the ancient path of violence is just as ancient, the path of spirituality because it begins with an inward change, while at the same time simplifying external life. Spiritual practices—prayer, meditation, sacred reading, music, chanting, yoga and certain martial arts, hiking, walking, nurture a profound self-knowledge, which allows one’s actions in the world to become consistent with one’s inner change. (Parks, 2010). The active and passive action of these concerns addressed in inmate tolerance levels and immune systems, compromised inmate physical and emotional health, and increased incidents of aggression and violence. First, they help the inmate adjust to their environment. Second, they provide the inmates with the skills they will need to be successful upon release. (Rucker, 2005) “There is empirical support addressing the benefits of these programs. Inmates who spend less time in structured activities are more depressed, anxious, and stressed.” (Rucker, 2005) Changing deeply engrained habits such as the violent, habituation and addictive behavioral patterns of criminals is not an easy task, because one’s awareness must be developed.


Parkes, R. (2010). The Courage to Create: The role of Artictic and Spritual Activities in Prisons . The Howard Journal of criminal Justice , 97.

Lila, Rucker. (2005) Yoga and restorative justice in prison: An experience of "response-ability to harms". Contemporary Justice Review, p107-120.

Duncombe E,Komorosky D, Wong-Kim E,Turner W. Free Inside: A Program to Help Inmates Cope with Life in Prison at Maui. Community Correctional Center, University of Maine at Orono, School of Social Work California State University, East Bay.

Naveen KV, Telles S. (1997). Yoga for rehabilitation: An overview. Vivekananda Kendra Yoga Research Foundation 51, 4. P 4. Bangalore, India.

Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati (1999). Yoga for Prisoners. Yoga Manazine. Budapest,

Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati (1996). Teaching Yoga in Prisons. Yoga Manazine. Budapest,

Professor L.I. Bhushan (2003). Re-Emerging Yogic Science: Intrument of Individual and Societal Transformation. Yoga Manazine. Budapest, Hungary.

Pandey, S; Kumar, A (2003). Ashram Life and Emotional States. Yoga Manazine. Budapest, Hungary.

Ghantali Mitra Mandal (1983). Convicts Become Yoga Teachers. Yoga Manazine. Budapest,

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati (1997). The Application of Yoga in Managing Stress. Yoga Manazine. Budapest, Hungary.

1 comment:

  1. Haley, I am happy to read that you have also done your final paper on the effects of yoga in prisons, and how we both could go in different directions with the research and bring in our own perspectives. For example I learned from your essay a lot of the physical benefits I did not know about. And although we approached the research differently I like how we both focused on the concept of self-discipline. I like how you make a point that yoga is most benefits those who are deemed as most dysfunctional, going against a stereotype that yoga is only practiced as a trend. I love the quote that says fearlessness in yoga greatly helps everyone “especially psychopaths.” I think it shows that yoga can be a very serious way of rehabilitation instead of seen as only something to pass the time with.