James Sanders Yoga

Teaching Yoga in Prison

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Teaching Yoga in Prison: A Path to Rehabilitation

Some of you may know that I teach yoga in prison to the incarcerated. Once a week, I’m at San Quentin, and a few times a month, I lead classes at the Marin Juvenile Detention Center. These environments are undeniably bleak, but there is an authenticity and sincerity in the yoga practice there.

Around 95% of people in prison will eventually get out. Bringing yoga to incarcerated people has a powerful rehabilitative effect. Many inmates come from difficult backgrounds filled with trauma and disruption. In such environments, they often miss out on developing essential coping skills for a healthy and happy life. They might live in a constant state of fight or flight due to high levels of stress hormones in their bodies. This constant vigilance leads to a tumultuous existence, where fighting, hiding, accusing, and fearing become woven into every relationship and interaction, creating a toxic daily life. This is where yoga’s healing power begins to work its magic.

Yoga and other somatic practices stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” state. Like any other skill, with time and practice, we can strengthen our ability to shift from the fight-or-flight response to the healing rest-and-digest state. Yoga offers a path for those locked in eternal defense, guiding them toward a more balanced and clear-headed connection with the world.

Research shows that yoga can lower cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone, helping practitioners manage stress more effectively. Regular yoga, including breathing exercises and meditation, fosters a sense of calm and balance, which is crucial in navigating stressful environments. Upon release, former inmates face many stressors, such as finding employment and housing, and rebuilding family connections. Skills to manage stress help them build a healthier life while causing less harm to themselves and others.

Another important aspect of teaching yoga in prison is the idea of sangha, a Sanskrit word for community. Generally, members of a sangha are connected by a spiritual path, but in the case of yoga in prison, it means a group practicing together. This type of community sets an example of surrounding oneself with people on a healthy path, who genuinely want each other to do well. For those from abusive backgrounds, foster care, or with drug-addicted parents, this might be their first experience of being surrounded by supportive people.

Sometimes, people question why yoga should be offered in prison. They argue that inmates are there to be punished for their crimes. Why should prison be like a spa when law-abiding citizens don’t get such luxuries for free? To this, I have a couple of responses. First, inmates are being punished. They are denied all the things most of us enjoy in life. They are held in a place where almost everything humans enjoy is off-limits for years, sometimes decades. Yoga classes don’t change that.

Secondly, we need more rehabilitation in prisons. When inmates get out, they need skills to create a life that doesn’t involve harming themselves or others. This means internal resources to cope with life’s difficulties, not just job skills. Without coping skills, many will resort to drugs and alcohol to manage stress and pain, leading to more crime and harm. Yoga can be a valuable rehabilitation path. Somatic practice bypasses the brain and trains the body directly to be resilient and return to a peaceful state. It creates a small space between action and reaction, just enough to switch from an instinctual, harmful reaction to a thoughtful response.

Soon, I’ll follow up with details on what it’s like to teach yoga in prison—from the yard to the yoga room, from dealing with inmates to working with custody staff, and other details people are often curious about.

References

  • West, J., Otte, C., Geher, K., Johnson, J., & Mohr, D. C. (2004). Effects of Hatha yoga and African dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 28(2), 114-118.
  • Streeter, C. C., Gerbarg, P. L., Saper, R. B., Ciraulo, D. A., & Brown, R. P. (2012). Effects of yoga on the autonomic nervous system, gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and allostasis in epilepsy, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical Hypotheses, 78(5), 571-579.
  • Ross, A., & Thomas, S. (2010). The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(1), 3-12.
  • Auty, K. M., Cope, A., & Liebling, A. (2017). A systematic review and meta-analysis of yoga and mindfulness meditation in prison. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(6), 689-710.
  • Shapiro, D. H., & Walsh, R. N. (2003). Meditation: classic and contemporary perspectives. Aldine Transaction.
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