Breathing Behind Bars


Breathing Behind Bars

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

San Quentin prison in California is home to 4,000 male inmates out of which 700 are on the dreaded Death Row. Every morning, a group of hardened criminals gathers in a nondescript room and begin an intense 30-minute yoga session. The group is always positioned in a semi-circle, with “nobody standing behind anyone’s back.” In a tense and fraught prison environment this can cause fear and tension.

In this yoga class, body contact is strictly avoided and teachers refrain from making physical adjustments during the session; each individual is given ample physical space to practice freely. The overall emphasis lies on calming the nervous system with freestyle asanas, to create a sense of balance and a better attunement with the harsh environs of prison life. Unlike other regular yoga classes, a frisson of mild fear runs through this one. A gentle, kindly teacher has to get these hulking six-foot tall men, with a history of cracking a skull or two, into lotus position. And more importantly, he has to keep them there, and convince them that this will make a difference to their lives behind bars. The slightest misunderstanding over a word or a gesture can cause the infamous ripple effect in jail, which then turns into the tidal-wave effect. Aka total mayhem. An armed guard is, therefore, always present at the class.

When I think about yoga and my own daily practice, I think of a bright open room, full of concentrated but smiling faces, the strong collective sound of breath, and finally, the burst of physical and creative energy that engulfs me and peaks once I’m done with the very last pose – a restful shavasana. I leave the shala as if I’m walking on air and the day stretches ahead with endless possibility. Sure, I have writing deadlines, calls to make, the odd muscular pain in my shoulder after rigorous twists and bends, stuff to sort out, including the coffee in my hand that has clumsily spilt.

But I feel a deep surge of freedom, an “it’ll all work out” sensation of hope.

This surge of freedom, this sense of hope, and a new mindfulness is what yoga practitioner James Fox felt was lacking for prisoners across American jails. In 2002, he founded the Prison Yoga Project, targeting prisoners with varying degrees of Complex Trauma or past experiences of abandonment, assault, or abuse.

Fox has the unflinching belief that yoga reduces the “aggressive-reactive” elements of the brain and makes for calmer, more empathetic responses when interacting with others. He is often confronted with a fundamental question at work: Yoga and prison are two concepts at odds with one another – one represents freedom even in the highest spiritual realm while the other stands for captivity in the basest physical sense. How can they possibly work together?

The answer lies in the writings of teacher Eric Paskel. Eric argues that they are meant to work together if you begin thinking of yoga as more than just poses. Yoga is about getting out of jail mentally even as your physical body remains trapped.

I must confess. While I devote myself to a daily yoga practice, I am skeptical of what I call new-agey spiritual quick fixes.

In 2009, Mike Higgins, an MBA from Wharton and a successful corporate executive, found himself pleading guilty to a financial misdemeanor. His life changed with his nine-month sentence. Mike went from being a high-flying, socially prominent businessman to a nameless, faceless serial number. The worst part was the shame and the guilt he faced every moment of those endless days and sleepless nights.

Mike had been familiar with a few yoga postures in his youth, and now he started practicing them again in his cramped cell. It gave him something to do and made him feel calmer, and soon, with permission, he gathered a small group together in the communal yard. There was resistance at first; many of the other inmates – hardened felons – scoffed at yoga, made catcalls, and could not bring themselves to concentrate at all. But Mike encouraged them, and over time, learnt that regular practice tamed the violent and snap impulses that governed many of these criminal minds.

When Mike was released in 2012, he launched the Transformation Yoga Project, which targets yoga therapy and meditation specifically at recovering addicts, war veterans, and people with criminal records looking to restart their lives. The emphasis is on creating awareness by guiding individuals towards a better understanding of themselves, why they made the choices they did, and how they can make wiser choices in the future.

With women, says yoga teacher, therapist and dancer Josefin Wikstrom, the issues are somewhat different, but equally challenging. Wikstrom has taught at Sweden’s largest prison for women for the last six years. Most of the inmates have experienced rape and sexual abuse. Wikstrom avers that regular modified yoga has greatly benefited these women by bringing about physical and mental calm, hormonal balance, less anxiety and aggression, and better sleep. She herself has learnt a great deal as a teacher. They avoid the “happy baby” pose, for example, Wikstrom says, because many women in prison are separated from their children and the pose can cause sadness and painful memories.

The same darkness and sadness pervades Indian prisons too. Two of the country’s largest jails – Tihar in Delhi and Arthur Road in Mumbai – are overcrowded, dirty and violent. Most inmates are undertrials: poor, uneducated, and without legal support. Trained teachers willing to volunteer time and effort are hard to come by.

But Mohan Kumar’s story is one of triumph over the odds. Mohan had served 12 years at Bangalore Central Jail when he became one of 30 inmates taking part in a special project. This was a 90-day yoga and meditation course introduced by the Art of Living Foundation. Mohan, an aggressive young male, found himself in a calm and positive state of mind by the end of the course – and went on to become a yuvacharya, or a prison teacher, sharing his learnings with other inmates. Today, Mohan has serious duties in prison: Besides teaching and counselling, he manages the jail’s meal programme. Using Mohan as a positive case study and role model, the AOL Foundation went on to launch its programmes across seven major prisons in Karnataka and has reached out to close to 2,500 prisoners.

Prison yoga offers inmates 90-minute pursuits of inner peace

Yoga and prison are two concepts at odds with one another – one represents freedom even in the highest spiritual realm while the other stands for captivity in the basest physical sense. How do they work together?

Lezlie Sterling/Sacramento Bee/MCT via Getty Images

I must confess. While I devote myself to a daily yoga practice, I am skeptical of what I call new-agey spiritual quick fixes. And while I consider a day without yoga incomplete, I don’t believe that it alone can mend broken lives. For that you need emotional and social support, family, friends, meaningful work – and that’s hard to come by for prisoners with hard pasts and shaky futures.

And then I come across powerful testimonies like those of S.L., an inmate of San Quentin who is serving a life term for murder. As part of James Fox’s Prison Yoga Project, S.L. has a stunning perspective of how yoga practice can make the worst offenders face themselves, take responsibility for their crimes, and move forward. He says in the project’s documentation: “We cannot change our reality or our environment. But we can work towards spiritual freedom. Yoga and its emphasis on prana, the vital force, has given me a new respect for life, for the power of a single breath. And I have grown to understand that I extinguished the breath of another human being. Forever.”

Prison rarely brings about such transformation, often pushing criminals deeper into violence but yoga brings self awareness, and a second chance at life – a chance that most embrace with open arms.