Breathing Behind Bars


Breathing Behind Bars

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré


an 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.