Prisoners find hope and healing with meditation and yoga
by Sam Settle
November 5th, 2012
As a new study shows prisoners who practice yoga and meditation are less impulsive and make better decisions, Sam Settle of the Phoenix Prison Trust explores how yoga really can make a positive contribution to prison life.
Inmates have traditionally favoured bulking up at the gym as a strategy for surviving incarceration. So why are yoga and meditation popular in prison, and why do prison managers choose to pay for yoga classes in times of massive cuts to their budgets.
Up and down the country, prison inmates are discovering the benefits of yoga and meditation. Steve, serving time at high security prison HMP Woodhill said recently, “The yoga exercises and meditation are now part of my evening routine, and I feel like a changed man. I no longer feel tense and angry. I have more time to listen to people instead of just walking away.”
Since 1988 The Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT) has been in touch with tens of thousands of prisoners like Steve, who want support in their spiritual lives, through yoga and meditation, working with silence and the breath. There are weekly classes in 87 UK and Irish prisons and the PPT sends books and CDs to inmates who request help starting a daily discipline in their cells. Last year the Trust sent 5,100 books and CDs to inmates who wrote for help. The practices can be done by people of any faith, or those with none.
Why do inmates take to silence and yoga so enthusiastically? The best answer I’ve heard was when I was teaching a weekly class at HMP Bullingdon. Eight men on a drug treatment programme had just spent an hour doing yoga postures to strengthen and stretch their bodies, 20 minutes of relaxation and breathing exercise, and 10 minutes of silent meditation, focussing on the breath. As people began to speak again afterwards, Jim said, “That was the first time I’ve forgotten I’ve been in prison in my seven months inside. I could hear the bird chirping outside, and people messing around in the hallway. As I watched my breath, all that was still there, but it was all just HAPPENING: not in prison, and not NOT in prison.”
His words – and his face and body language - indicated tremendous relief. Prisons are uncertain, precarious places, with overcrowding, staff shortages, bullying, drugs, lack of control over one’s circumstances, and feelings of guilt, uncertainty and anger all creating tremendous mental pressure for inmates – and for prison staff. Yoga postures are excellent for releasing that tension from the body. Meditation – sitting still, putting attention fully in the breath, not visualising nor trying to make anything happen – allows the normal activity of the mind – thinking, planning, worrying, reliving events – to slow down or even stop briefly: a great relief.
It is a privilege to sit in silence with a room full of people concentrating firmly on letting go of thinking and of normal concerns, and delving into that part of us that exists before thought and concept. And it is a great joy to not only listen and talk with them afterwards, but to see actual changes in their behaviour.
At Bullingdon for example, when the men arrived for their first class, they split into several separate groups, talking boisterously. No one was hostile, but neither was there any appreciation for the setting, the other people or themselves. After that class though, in addition to listening to each other when they spoke, they put the room back in order without being asked. It’s as if by forgetting the self when focussing on the breath, the sense of responsibility and identity is expanded to include others.
Prisoners are often pleasantly surprised by this shift. A man imprisoned for theft and pickpocketing who had been practising meditation for several months said that while walking down the landing one day, the person in front of him unknowingly dropped his watch. Without any thought, this former pickpocket picked up the watch and gave it to the owner. It was only a few seconds later that he thought, “Hey, what’s going on here?”
Inmates facing dramatic challenges are also helped by their daily discipline. Wayne had come off drugs in prison, partly through meditation and yoga. When he moved to a new wing, he refused the offer of free drugs from the dealers there. Frustrated in their attempts to get him hooked again, they beat him up badly. But even as they were kicking and punching him, Wayne felt no animosity, and kept a place for his attackers in his daily prayers in the months that followed.
As prison governors try to meet immense challenges in their prisons, they may welcome news from Oxford University, who recently ran a randomised control trial examining the effects of yoga and meditation on prisoners. The inmates allocated to the yoga group had improved mood and reduced stress and anxiety, and were better able to override impulsiveness after a 10-week programme of yoga and meditation, compared to the control group, who did no yoga or meditation. Also, the yoga group were better able to pay attention, sustain that attention and make decisions. The implications are that yoga and meditation are helping prison governors fulfil key aims of the prison service: treating offenders with dignity and humanity, improving staff / inmate relationships and reducing violence.
Mike from HMP Featherstone speaks for many when he says, “I have never felt this stress free since I was a child. It’s made me slow down and more patient. You don’t need Oxford University to tell you that yoga and meditation works!” Part of me agrees with Mike. Another part of me is delighted that the research echoes what prisoners have been saying for years.
The Prison Phoenix Trust is a small charity depending totally on supporters’ kindness and generosity to continue our work with prisoners and prison staff. To find out more about the Trust or to make a donation, please visit www.theppt.org.uk.
Sam Settle is Director of the Prison Phoenix Trust and a yoga teacher.
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