Yoga Helps Prisoners Find Their Center

A group of about 20 young men donning tattoos, red sweats and white T-shirts gather in the drab, tile-floored, gray barracks, as an instructor guides them through a deep series of Oms, side stretches, standing poses and breathing exercises.

“Inhale, exhale and bend to the right into a warrior pose,” says Gabriella Savelli.

For the next two hours, the young men who average 22 in age and whose crimes range from drug panhandling to auto theft, will be guided though yoga postures and breathing exercises. The hope that is that at least momentarily, they can focus on their bodies and souls, and not on the barbed wire that surrounds them at Cook County Jail on Chicago’s troubled West Side.

Savelli is on a mission: to hook them onto the ancient art and spiritual discipline of yoga.

“It’s one thing to be disciplined by other people,” she says, adding that she hopes yoga and learning breathing techniques will help give them the tools to manage stress and to have more self-discipline. “It’s something altogether different to have the strength – inside and out – to discipline yourself.”

As national coordinator for the Washington, D.C.- based Prison SMART, she leads one of the fast-growing programs that is bringing yoga and mindfulness relaxation techniques to prisons across the globe.

“The trend is growing," says Savelli. Since, 1992, the program has offered yoga and mindfulness and breathing technique training to more than 10,000 inmates, correctional officers and law enforcement staffs across the country and as far away as South Africa, Bosnia and throughout Mexico.

The number of prison yoga programs is not officially tracked, but the growing number of prisons worldwide offering yoga programs, along with the mounting scientific research that yoga can lessen stress and a host of psychological woes for prisoners, speaks volumes about the impact the ancient practice is having on the legal system.

The Prison Yoga Project is another rapidly growing yoga prison program that offers yoga classes to prisoners at more than 30 prisons nationwide, including nine prison nurseries, for pregnant women incarcerated at the Rose M. Singer Center, the women’s section of Riker’s Island, and across the country. The organization’s yoga programs are focused on prenatal care through fostering courage, control, and mental health among inmates, according to an article in The Atlantic. James Fox, founder of The Prison Yoga Project, began taking his yoga and mindfulness meditation programs to male prisoners in 2002 at California’s San Quentin Prison as well as other state prisons. His book, Yoga a Path for Healing and Recovery, published in January 2010, has been requested and sent to over 8,000 prisoners.

Research at Oxford University shows yoga’s benefits for prisoners’ mental health: reduced stress and improved patience, mindfulness and reflection—qualities difficult to cultivate in prison. The study is significant because mental health issues are typically much higher in prisons than the general population, and high levels are often recorded of personal distress, aggression, antisocial behavior and drug and alcohol abuse among prisoners.

The Oxford researchers found that not only does yoga help to calm the prisoner’s internal and external chaos, it is also a relatively inexpensive solution to behavioral problems. Through their study, they discovered that the female prisoners participating in yoga may see psychological benefits, such as reduced stress and improved mood and less impulsivity and better behavioral control. The Oxford University researchers, along with colleagues from King's College London, the University of Surrey and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, report their findings in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

"We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention," said Dr. Amy Bilderbeck and Dr. Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University in a statement. "The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners."

One thing is for certain, there’s no fancy fashion or bells and whistles in yoga prison-style. The young men at Chicago Cook County Jail practiced yoga without mats on the cold tile floor. And at the Project Yoga program for the pregnant female prisoners at Riker’s there are no superficialities and the classes are broken down into the most basic of yoga rules: being present.

“There are rules, but being in the moment is much more important in prison. It’s more immediate and present, there’s no room for yoga lingo or preachiness,” says Anneke Lucas, Director of the New York City Project Yoga program in The Atlantic.

What motivates yoga instructors to want to teach in prisons, varies, but Savelli says most like her, experienced the transformative powers of yoga and breathing exercises in their own lives. A welfare case worker in Pittsburgh, she also came into contact daily with men and women who were being released from prison. Her office was their first stop.

“They arrived with no money, no ID’s and they all told me how much they wanted to change and have a new start, and they were sincere about it,” she recalls. “But, then they go out into the community and they see that nothing is changed. I realized they needed to have the change from within."

A second experience, working with prisoners who lived in tents in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, convinced the 48-year-old that she needed to dedicate her life bringing the transformative power of yoga and “breath” to those who need it most. Since then she has traveled the world teaching yoga and breathing practices to prisoners, inmates and their guards.

Her team has affectionately come to be known by prisoners as “the yoga people.”

"Without the tools to manage extra stress, there’s a high rate of recidivism [for inmates],” she says.

Prison Smart’s mission is "to make a life-transforming difference in the lives of all people within the criminal justice system, by teaching skills for reducing stress, healing trauma, and providing practical knowledge of how to handle one's emotions, to help them live their highest potential and contribute to society,” says Savelli. Prison SMART operates under the umbrella of The International Association for Human Values, (IAHV), a volunteer-based non-profit dedicated to the development and promotion of human values in society.

“No matter where we go, no matter what age, gender or race of the prisoners we meet, I have never met a prisoner who has done yoga before in their lives,” says Savelli. “But, yoga is transformative for them. I explain it like this. If you light a candle during daylight, it’s cool. But if you light a candle in the complete darkness it is a magnificent experience. That is what breathing and yoga is like for the prisoners I have met. There is a dramatic impact.”

For the men and women she has worked with in prisons during the last five years, Savelli says she has watched as they’ve released difficult emotions, and seen “the peace and positivity that comes when they are closing their eyes.” She adds, “I want this to be their default position, the place they start and end their days in.”

Recently, an inmate, “a healthy, hardy looking man,” approached Savelli after one of the practice sessions and said to her, “I’ve never felt peace in my life before this. Never, except maybe at birth.”