A Series of Poses for Fitness, Inside and Out

By Mary Pilon for The New York Times, January 3, 2013


He barely glances at the barbed wire as he strides through the metal detector. He exchanges his driver’s license 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?” said Kim Alexander, 31, an inmate at the Richmond City Jail who is charged with violating her probation and is in addiction treatment, as she reached out to touch her toes. In minutes, the other women, whose crimes include embezzlement and parole violations, were 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.

When many states have cut their wellness and education programs for inmates, citing cost and political pressure, some wardens looking for a low-cost, low-risk way for inmates to reflect on their crimes, improve their fitness and cope with the stress of overcrowded prison life are turning toward yoga.

The number of yoga programs is not officially tracked, but many wardens said they were interested in pursuing them. Typically programs start informally, a hodgepodge of volunteer efforts by instructors and correctional facilities. At least 20 prisons now offer yoga through the Prison Yoga Project, a program that began in California 12 years ago when its founder, James Fox, began teaching yoga to at-risk youth. Mr. Fox holds trainings for yoga teachers and said he has sent more than 7,000 copies of his manual to inmates to practice 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 program that gives an inmate a chance to reflect is going to have positive benefits,” said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which has expanded yoga offerings to most of its 33 adult prisons.

“What we’re trying to do with any program is get is get inmates to think about how responsible they are for the crime they’ve committed and the consequences.”

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 said 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,” said Steven Belenko, a professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University who focuses on prisons. “It could be taught with DVDs. It has scalability.”

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.

“Maybe it was coming together and feeling a sense of community, but I was really glad to see it worked,” said Holly Harner, the lead author of the paper and a nurse and professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “It made them feel in control of their bodies in a very stressful environment.”

The health of prisoners is problematic, with conditions including obesity affecting offenders, especially the young, said AnnaMarie Irons, a teacher in Tucson who leads yoga classes at the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center. “When I was a kid, we ran around,” said Ms. Irons, 51. “These kids today can’t do a downward dog. They have no flexibility.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, the chief of chaplains at the Richmond City Jail who works with inmates in the addiction recovery program there, said the mental health program at the jail had reduced recidivism by 18 percent, and he partly credited yoga with that success. Mr. Norris began teaching the male prisoners at the jail, which holds around 1,450 men and women, four and a half years ago.

“We realized we weren’t doing anything for the physical piece of treatment,” Dr. Pruitt said. “That’s an important part of the recovery process.”

But doing yoga is not always well received by other prisoners, said Bryan Shull, who in December finished serving a three-year sentence in various Virginia prisons. While practicing on his own in his cell, as Mr. 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.

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