Prison Yoga Is Helping Inmates Transcend Their Cells

Photos by Robert Sturman

If, like 25 million other Americans, you’ve practiced yoga recently, you probably did it in a studio. Perhaps you entered through a softly-lit lobby with a soothing fountain gurgling away next to the reception desk. Chinese bamboo flute music played. You perused the new selection of floral-print mat bags and No-Slip towels available in the merchandise section. Perhaps you purchased a coconut water. Or maybe you prefer “power yoga,” where you can listen to all your favorite top 40 hits while lifting and tightening. Or maybe you’ve been there, done that, and now you’re courting the extra challenge of doing yoga on a paddleboard floating in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.

Or maybe it was just you and your body in your windowless 8-by-10-foot cell in a supermax prison. Founded in 2002 at San Quentin Prison in California, the Prison Yoga Project now sources equipment and trains hundred of teachers each year to serve in correctional facilities across the country—and demand is on the rise. They’ve even been invited to collaborate with prison officials to bring their innovative programs to incarcerated populations in Norway, Guatemala, and India, the birthplace of yoga. VICE recently spoke with James Fox, the founder of the Prison Yoga Project, to find out why Americans in orange jumpsuits might need yoga even more than Americans in Lululemon do.

VICE: Where did the idea for the Prison Yoga Project come from?
James Fox: I became a teacher in 2000 after practicing for years and finding that while there were physical benefits, the greatest benefits that I was personally experiencing were emotional and psychological benefits. But I didn’t want to teach in a yoga studio. I wanted to bring yoga to people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it, who could really benefit from it. So I started working with at-risk youth at a residential treatment facility for boys in Bolinas [in Northern California]. 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.

I get feedback along the lines of, ‘I was in the cell block, and this guy’s been sweatin’ me for a while. All of a sudden we’re getting into it—and then I remembered to breathe. I remembered how to disengage.’

Then in 2002, I was asked to set up this program at San Quentin with the Insight Prison Project. They were putting together a rehabilitation program for prisoners grounded in the understanding that in order to change negative behavioral patterns it was important to do cognitive work, emotional work, to address issues of violence—anybody who’s incarcerated, whether or not they’ve been physically violent themselves, they’ve been in a violent world—and then there was this mind-body integration piece, which they had asked me to address.

How does a yoga class in prison differ from one in an ordinary studio?
There’s more focus on mindfulness as the foundation for the practice. We’re working in an environment where people are massively impacted by trauma. The three major components that contribute to trauma are a lack of safety, predictability, and control. Well, think about prison. Life in prison can be terribly unpredictable. I don’t think public classes really even consider engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, engaging the body’s relaxation response. We want to be able to give the prisoners tools that they can use to calm themselves down when they need to. I get feedback along the lines of, “I was in the cell block, and this guy’s been sweatin’ me for a while. All of a sudden we’re getting into it—and then I remembered to breathe. I remembered how to disengage.” When these guys get into a situation like that or a guard confronts them, what are they going to do, bust out into Warrior II? No, they’re going to bring in the most important part of their practice, which is learning how to disengage, learning how to interrupt that reactive behavior.

You have to address the body when you’re working with any kind of trauma.

How do yoga and mindfulness help prisoners in working through trauma?
Complex trauma comes from a person’s “original pain”—the original trauma in your life. It could be abandonment by a parent, death of a parent, sexual abuse, physical abuse. If you’re not able to effectively address that original pain, it will come to shape your entire life. This is true for all of us. You’re carrying this wound, and because the pain is not being addressed, you’ve created all the secondary pain in your life. So a young person starts acting out, maybe using substances, then maybe they start getting involved in criminal behavior and it just starts piling up. We’d be working with men in their thirties, and they’d be looking back at their life saying, “Oh my God. The whole trajectory of my life, committing all of these offenses was all because of that original pain. I see it now.” There’s a cognitive aspect to it, but then as the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has shown, the body keeps the score. The mind might get it, but the mind is tricky, and the mind has all these ways of dissociating out of protection. This field of research has been motivated by work with returning combat veterans, but you have to address the body when you’re working with any kind of trauma. And the most insidious kind of trauma is this complex trauma, early life trauma.

Mindfulness means self-awareness. But you’re not just engaged with the thoughts in your mind. Mindfulness is about understanding that you also live in your body. The asana practices then offer the opportunity to discharge the trauma that’s held in the body. You’re working with the body’s wisdom. You don’t have to conjure up, “Oh, there was that time I got in a gun battle on the streets of South L.A. and I didn’t realize the amount of trauma that I was holding as a result of that.” No, you don’t have to go into that. The body will release. It’ll discharge with a regular yoga practice. I think that’s one of the reasons why people really get hooked on yoga. Even if they think that they’re just doing it for the physical benefits of the practice. People feel so much better because they’re releasing so much of that anxiety that the body holds.

Is it difficult to interest prisoners in doing this kind of work?
It was in the beginning. It is no longer difficult. Because—and I’d like to think that we had something to do with this—yoga has become more widely accepted. And in a sense yoga is perfect for a prison environment because you don’t need a lot of space. So even if you’re confined to a cell, even if you’re in solitary, you can have a regular practice and get the benefits of a regular practice. I’ve sent a lot of books to Pelican Bay, to guys who are in the SHU. I get these letters back from prisoners after they’ve gotten a book, and it’s like I sent him a thousand bucks or something. We now have teachers around the country who are teaching in over a hundred jails and prisons and things are really starting to accelerate.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I like to say that I’ve got a lot of good friends in low places. Because of the prison industrial complex in this country and the years of the war on drugs, the media portrays prisoners as though they’re subhuman. Well, they’re like all of us. They screwed up, but they’re human beings. We’re spending billions of dollars keeping people in prison, but it can be hard to raise money for this work, because people think, “Prisoners? Forget about it. They deserve to be in prison.” But 93 percent of them are returning to society. They’re coming back. How would you like them to be when they return? We haven’t done a good job of rehabilitating people over the last 30 years. It all changed with the war on drugs and mandatory sentencing. Now the focus is on punishment. We’ve got two and a quarter million people who are incarcerated and a 60 percent recidivism rate. That’s a dismal failure. So while we’ve got them, I think we should be allocating resources to give them the tools so that they don’t come back to prison. That’s where I come in.

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