Editorial: Prison Yoga

Swami Tapasmurti Saraswati

Satyananda Ashram, Australia has regularly been conducting yoga classes in prisons throughout the country for the last eight years. During 1977-78, I had the opportunity of conducting weekly classes in Sydney's Long Bay Maximum Security Complex, and subsequently in 1980 in Perth, conducting classes in Fremantle Maximum Security Prison, Bandyup Women's Prison, and two minimum security prison farms. Throughout that time I was able to meet many different types of prisoners and gain some degree of insight into their attitudes and problems.

Firstly; there is no such thing as a 'typical' prisoner, and the common notion of the hardened criminal behind bars is misleading, to say the least. Prisoners are also people like you or me and we all are subject to the illusory play of mind and maya, but due to the highly restricted environment, and complex social interactions that develop in prisons, there are a few unique problems common to all prisoners. Most noticeable is the feeling of rejection by their society in which they have deep psychological roots, and the subsequent stigma of 'ex-prisoner' they will carry for the rest of their lives, whether they have served five weeks or five years. One young girl I met in the women's prison had been involved in an incident which local media had used to generate a lot of negative energy amongst the public. The weight of this public reaction on top of an already heavy sentence formed a dense black cloud around her. Next is the feeling of being 'wronged', by the courts, police, prison warders, etc., and sentences too severe, or the prisoner's claims of innocence or victimisation by the authorities, whether justified or not. It is also difficult for most prisoners to live in the present and accept their situation. Short-term prisoners tended to think only towards their day of release and had little enthusiasm for anything else. It was mainly the long-term prisoners who were prepared to make a commitment towards their yoga practices, as they had had time to think about their situation and realise that as they were going to be there for some time, they might as well do something positive with that time.

These types of problems, along with the emotional suppression induced by the prison environment, as well as feelings of instability, often consciously created by the prison authorities to prevent prisoners from becoming too familiar with prison routines and creating strong liaisons with other prisoners. All these types of problems cause deep psychological scars which are very difficult to resolve without the use of techniques such as meditation, where their influence on behaviour can be observed with a certain amount of detachment.

The reasons prisoners came to yoga were varied, but could be summarised in the following way:

  1. Most came initially for physical fitness benefits as the only forms of physical development were gymnastics and weight lifting routines, all tending to increase physical tension and muscle bulk. The introductory class of pawanmuktasana often raised a few eyebrows, but when the muscle bound bodies experienced difficulties and stiffness with even these simple exercises, attitudes soon changed.
  2. The second most common reason for coming was to learn relaxation and how to cope with the stress and tension of prison life and yoga nidra was extremely successful in this context. Many desired to learn meditation, particularly in maximum security prisons as there they were locked in their cells for 16 or 17 hours each day. Although T.V., radio and books were available, many realised that their problems originated in their minds, and wished to resolve them at their source.
  3. There were some who had known about, or done yoga previously, who saw their period of confinement as a useful time to grow spiritually, and were aware of the deeper implications of the practice of yoga.
  4. Of course, there was a small percentage who came because they thought they would be able to gain occult powers such as astral travel in order to visit wives and girlfriends, or to have some sort of advantage over the warders. On one occasion I was even asked about a mantra someone had read about which was said to win court cases. Naturally, such aspirants were often disappointed.
  5. Many prisoners undertook educational programs, often up to university level, and practised yoga in order to improve their concentration and memory abilities.
  6. Drug addicts were often given medication during their withdrawal period, but some were given the 'cold turkey' treatment, and looked to yoga in order to help cope with the horrors of withdrawal. Many ex-addicts and alcoholics were using yoga to rebuild their somewhat shattered bodies and nervous systems.

Of course the benefits of teaching yoga in the prisons worked both ways as one swami found out when he locked his car keys in the car at the prison car park. His problem was solved within a few minutes of summoning Sydney's most expert car thief onto the job.

I found that a swami teaching in the prisons gained a degree of acceptance that the prisoners were not willing to grant to the other facilities offered to them. This was, I suspect, due to the fact that they recognised that a swami, like themselves, stood apart from the mainstream of society. He did not represent the 'establishment' or any social institution trying to 'get at them', and his only motive in teaching was to share what he knew of yoga. In an environment where there was very little trust, this went a long way to establishing a good rapport between teacher and students.

To the best of my knowledge, classes in prisons in Australia are continuing in an even more expanded form these days, even to the extent where one student has committed himself to sannyasa while still serving his sentence, and works at organising classes, teaching and practising, as well as theoretical study of yoga.

In America, a "Prison Ashram" project has been under way for many years now, providing yoga classes, literature, and seminars throughout the country. Their ultimate aim is for enough prisoners to become involved so that after some time the only real prisoners in the jail will be the warders.