Can downward dog benefit those doing hard time?

By Douglas Quan for PostMedia News, September 22, 2013


Even though some politicians have derided prison yoga programs as unnecessary inmate “coddling,” there’s a growing push for their expansion across Canada.

Advocates say yoga and meditation boost inmates’ mental well-being and help to reduce prison violence. They point to the success of programs in the U.S., including one at California’s San Quentin State Prison, notorious for housing some of the most dangerous offenders.

The question — can the downward dog really benefit those doing hard time? — will be the focus of a panel discussion next month at a conference of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association.

“We’re interested in promoting (offenders’) return to the community with better skills than when they left it. If meditation helps them become more self-aware and helps them control their anger, then it’s really advantageous,” said Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, which advocates for prisoners’ rights.

“It contributes to the successful re-integration of people.”

The society is in the process of taking over administration of Freeing the Human Spirit, a Canadian charity that has provided yoga and meditation classes at more than two-dozen provincial and federal institutions, mostly in Ontario, using volunteer instructors.

The charity was founded in 2004 by Sister Elaine MacInnes, a Catholic nun and Zen master. She recently retired, leading to the decision to merge the charity with the John Howard Society.

Latimer said she is now hoping to expand the yoga and meditation programs — which she says cost very little to run — to more institutions across the country.

This summer, a study out of Oxford University found prisoners who went through a 10-week yoga program had a more positive mood, were less stressed and performed better on a computer test of their impulse control.

“We’re not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ well-being and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons,” Amy Bilderbeck, one of the study’s lead researchers, said in a news release.

The HBO news magazine Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel recently aired a segment examining how former professional wrestling entertainers, such as Jake “the Snake” Roberts, have turned to yoga to help them through depression, drug addiction and mental illness.

Yoga programs have also been developed for American combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Expansion of yoga in Canadian prisons may still be a tough sell for some.

In 2011, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak blasted the provincial Liberals for being too soft on criminals, telling reporters: “I have a problem with prisoners getting Zen yoga classes while moms who have had their kids murdered can’t get access to (compensation).”

The federal Conservatives also appear to question the value of prison yoga.

Asked this week if the federal government would consider providing funds to help expand such programs, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said via email: “Our government’s focus is on making sure the correctional system actually corrects criminal behaviour. Let me be clear: No taxpayer dollars have been spent on this program.”

Edmonton-area yoga instructor Chantele Theroux, a speaker at the upcoming criminal justice conference, doesn’t understand what the fuss is about.

Theroux, who also works as a provincial investigator specializing in fraud and forensic investigations, said prison inmates often have anger issues, impulse-control issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder — in other words, they’re prime candidates for exposure to yoga’s calming effects.

Theroux said she came across photographs of inmates taking part in the San Quentin program, called the Prison Yoga Project, and was moved by the juxtaposition of battle-scarred, tattooed inmates in “soft, vulnerable” yoga poses.

She travelled to San Quentin to learn more about the program and ended up teaching a class.

“Because they’ve learned how to breathe, and calm themselves down and not just react in the face of challenge and ego, there’s less violence. You can feel it,” she said.  “Not once did I feel intimidated, scared, worried, concerned for my safety.”

James Fox, founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, said he has taught his prison yoga techniques to more than 400 instructors in about eight states, and even helped establish a program in Norway. Next month, he’ll be doing the same in Germany.

He said his courses are not “cushy” but demanding both physically and mentally, as participants are forced to concentrate for long periods.

Fox’s website includes a testimonial from an inmate who has been in prison for more than two decades. The inmate recalled how a new cellmate had trashed some of his belongings. Instead of retaliating, he introduced himself to the new cellmate and just cleaned up the mess. He credited yoga for keeping him calm.

“The next day the word on the yard was that I owed that dude a complete ass-kicking,” he wrote. “They just didn’t get it.”

“What kind of person do you want returning to society?” Fox said. “Someone who doesn’t avail themselves to different kinds of physiological and psychological approaches to healing? If you don’t offer prisoners those types of programs they’re not going to improve. They’re only going to get worse.

“What kind of person do you want to run into at the grocery store?”

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