yoga for prisoners?

Last year, America imprisoned 2.3 million, spending more than $5.1 billion dollars to do it. What's more, anyone who has spent time in the system as of 2014, has a 60 percent chance of returning. But instead of rushing to a blame game, lets examine this like a puzzle.

Like any puzzle, we find its solution by following it to its origin. The problem begins with society's obscure understanding of what it means "to do wrong". It's important to understand that no one is born to steal, murder, rape, or act like a terrorist. These are all functional human beings reacting to dysfunctional environments that lead them to do terrible acts. Their wrongdoing is coincidental and likely the product of years of complex trauma. And as we are well aware, complex trauma carries with it an inertia that can travel generations. So the suffering we see today may have begun centuries ago and has been passed down through broken hearts and broken homes to the criminals that occupy our streets. But health and emotional stability with enough determination can work in the exact same way.

Which brings us to the newly coined term, 'rehabilitative justice'. A term I first heard when I started teaching yoga in prisons with the help of James Fox and the Yoga Prison Project. James Fox brought up the idea: why not, instead of separating people from nature and their emotional health and reintroducing them to the same abusive trauma that led them to prison in the first place, we help rehabilitate them through something that works?

Obviously we shouldn't be paying for something that doesn't work. And maybe in this lifetime we might also see the end to our grandparent's war on drugs, which alone would lead to the release of millions of nonviolent offenders. But even so, we are still looking at an enormous amount of people who live behind bars. These offenders continue to be abused within the prison system, then are released into our society and urged to continue the legacy of their trauma by re-inflicting it on us over and over again. And they are doing so simply because of a lack of creative inspiration on how to address people who hurt people.

The most obvious problem I've witnessed in criminals is emotional literacy. We might not be able to release ourselves from our embedded traumas and bad habits, but we can understand our triggers, and learn incredible coping mechanisms to understand who we are and why we act. And that alone can make a huge difference in preventing our mistakes. This is where yoga comes in as a heavy weight. Every asana has its own emotional and physical challenges that bring out the most subtle reactions in us. A lot of these responses can be extraordinarily deep within our emotional body, and through the workshop of yoga, we can have a window into a part of our thought process we otherwise may never have had. Without us necessarily being aware of it, we are learning, memorizing, and absorbing a new way to interact with these triggers set off by the yoga practice. In the same way, if I asked you to stand on one foot, you would be subconsciously registering a physical memory of balance. Going further, if I asked you to let go of the fear that might develop in a back bend, you are subconsciously registering an emotional memory of balance.

Yoga's effect on prisoners has been very well received. One prisoner serving a life sentence at San Quentin Penitentiary once told me that, ever since finding yoga, despite it being in prison, he felt more free inside the walls than he had while living on the outside. 

Is yoga the 100% answer? No. It's not. But it absolutely helps. And it's a great way to make a very positive impact in your community and extend your teaching skills to people in need. If you want to take this a step further, I recommend offering free classes to your local prison by phoning their Events Administrator and proposing the idea. Most of the time, these people are enthusiastic about outsiders offering meditation or yoga classes. Generally, these sort of requests are warmly received. Just don't expect to get paid! If you have any questions, you can always reach out to the Yoga Prison Project directly at their website, prisonyoga.org .


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