Yoga for the soul

By : Mary Pilon
Last Updated: Fri, Jan 04, 2013 19:51 hrs

Three times a week, Robbie Norris, a lean, 50-year-old yoga teacher, hops into his blue 1992 Volvo station wagon with his yoga mat and heads to his class in a drab brick building. He barely glances at the barbed wire as he strides through the metal detector. He exchanges his driver’s licence for a visitor’s pass, navigates a labyrinth of hallways, security guards and the buzzing and clanking of gates, and makes his way to a windowless room.

A dozen women, scarred, tattooed and in blue and yellow jumpsuits, are waiting, splayed on donated yoga mats under harsh halogen lights.

“What's up, Robbie?” says Kim Alexander, 31, an inmate at the Richmond City Jail who is charged with violating her probation and is in addiction treatment, as she reaches out to touch her toes. In minutes, the other women, whose crimes include embezzlement and parole violations, are inhaling, exhaling and deep into a series of vinyasa and warrior poses, with only the clank of the guard's keys outside to disturb them.

The ancient art of yoga, a physical, spiritual and mental practice whose benefits have been promoted as improving relaxation, has found an unlikely home: prisons (in the United States).

At least 20 prisons now offer yoga through the Prison Yoga Project, a programme that began in California 12 years ago when its founder, James Fox, began teaching yoga to at-risk youth. Fox holds trainings for yoga teachers and says he has sent more than 7,000 copies of his manual to inmates to practise yoga on their own.

States’ spending on corrections has quadrupled during the past two decades, to $52 billion a year, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Despite a focus on rehabilitation and deterrence of future crimes, however, roughly 4 in 10 adult American offenders return to prison within three years of their release, the report found.

“Any programme that gives an inmate a chance to reflect is going to have positive benefits,” says Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has expanded yoga offerings to most of its 33 adult prisons.

Typically, yoga teachers volunteer their time and mats are donated, resulting in little or no cost to taxpayers. Many instructors drawn to teaching in prisons say they had grown disillusioned with instructing some of the Lycra-clad urbanites seeking to channel their inner Gumbys and lose weight rather than connect with the more spiritual aspects of the practice.

“This seems like a relatively inexpensive technique that could be made available to inmates and doesn't take a lot of space,” says Steven Belenko, a professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University who focuses on prisons.

Research on the effects of yoga on prisoners is relatively scarce, but incarcerated women who completed a 12-week regimen of yoga classes twice a week showed “a significant linear decrease" over time in their symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a 2010 paper in the journal Nursing Research.

The health of prisoners is problematic, with conditions including obesity affecting offenders, especially the young, says AnnaMarie Irons, a teacher in Tucson who leads yoga classes at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center.

But doing yoga is not always well received by other prisoners, says Bryan Shull, who in December finished serving a three-year sentence in various Virginia prisons. While practising on his own in his cell, as Shull stood up from a downward dog pose, he was struck in the face by another inmate who had put a lock in a sock and hurled it at him. It led to a trip to the infirmary and an operation on his nose.

The inmates help each other do handstands. Then, after 90 minutes of class, one hits the light switch. In the pitch-black room, the men lie on their backs as Norris leads them in breathing exercises. Then lights flicker on, and the mats are rolled up. The inmates put on their jumpsuits and file out of the chapel.

“At first, I thought this was girlie stuff,” says Andre Chaka Garnett, 35, who is serving multiple sentences for offenses including failure to register as a sex offender and grand larceny. He joined the class five months ago. His projected release date is July 8. “It’s made me learn patience,” he says.

©2013 The New York Times

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