Teaching Yoga in Prisons

Swami Pragyamurti Saraswati (England)

It is said by many people that if you have been educated in a boarding school or spent time in a prison, you can more easily adapt to ashram life, and I imagine that the opposite is also true! However, there is one major difference, in that we come to an ashram of our own free will, but are incarcerated in boarding schools and prisons because of our parents' wishes and the laws of the state. It was after my first stay here at Ganga Darshan that I realized the similarities between the three institutions, and began to think about trying to teach yoga in one of the London prisons where some kind of education program was already established.

Initially my enquiries were either ignored or I was told that there was no time available – no time in prison, where there is nothing but time! And when I approached an organization supposedly dedicated to introducing yoga and meditation into prisons, I was informed that my haircut indicated that I had 'turned my back on my femininity' (?) and they preferred a 'softer' more Christian approach. I began to think that perhaps I was not supposed to teach yoga in prison after all, and put it to the back of my mind; until one day, about four years ago, I received a call from one of the largest and most notorious men's prisons in the U.K. At my interview with the governor he requested me not to teach levitation, but allowed OM chanting and the burning of incense! It was also agreed that I would teach two groups of 10–20 men, and because of the small numbers there would not be guards in the room during class, which would give me a chance to build up a rapport with the students.

The case of Bill

I confess to wondering how pawanmuktasana would go down with a group of guys who worked out in the gym and were extremely tough looking! As usual, however, the grace and inspiration of my beloved Paramahamsaji prevailed and I resisted the temptation to start with some challenging asanas in the very first class. In fact this would have been completely inappropriate, because I was asked to accept a middle-aged man called Bill, who had a surgical belt strapped around his lower back, a walking stick to help him shuffle around and who had been unable to sit down at all for two years. He was naturally suspicious and hostile as I explained that he could do the various practices standing and lying and that the yoga nidra might help him relax.

The following week I was surprised to see Bill again. He told me that he had enjoyed the first class, had slept better that night and had, therefore, decided to practise PM part 1 daily in his cell. I asked for permission to give him a copy of my beginners' yoga nidra cassette as he had a walkman in his cell. And Bill continued to surprise us all! The next week he informed me that he had been able to sit in a chair for half an hour. The week after that my students called me eagerly to see the 'miracle' that awaited me, and when I entered the classroom, there was Bill seated on the floor in siddhasana, hands in gyana mudra – a miracle indeed! As his mobility improved and the pain lessened he threw away his belt and stick and his whole attitude towards himself and the world was transformed; but as he was transferred to another prison after a year I lost touch with him for the time being.

Applying the practices in daily life

The class that Bill attended is held in the education department for the general inmate population of thieves, drug dealers and so on, and too often these men can only attend for a few months before being sent to another prison. Their ages vary enormously, as do their standards of education and racial origins, and some of them undoubtedly only attend the class to get out of their cell for a couple of hours. Some of them have spent time in India, in ashrams even, and are already practising yoga or Buddhism, so they are delighted to discover a swami in their midst!

But whoever they are, they are experiencing degrees of tension, misery and anger at their present circumstances, so I try to give them practical suggestions as to the application of various yoga techniques in their daily lives. On many occasions a man will tell me how he 'remembered that yoga breathing, Swami' – referring to slow, deep abdominal breath – and thus avoided a serious confrontation with another inmate or a guard. And as we work on shakti bandha, shoulder rolling, naukasana and balancing postures the men become aware of the enormous tension present in their own bodies and often start to practise a few asanas on a daily basis, although this is not easy sharing a small cell with a non-yogi. The fact that I am allowed to give the students yoga nidra cassettes is greatly appreciated and many of them sleep better now and have generally calmed down, so that they are 'doing their time' in a more positive and constructive way, which is even noticed by the guards.

Making progress and building up trust

The second class is held in the Vulnerable Prisoners Unit, where inmates are isolated from 'the Main' for their own protection, either because of the nature of their crime – vicious crimes against women and children, rape, abuse of various kinds – or because they have been bullied and terrified by other inmates to whom they may owe money or other favors. In many ways I find this class the most satisfying, because the men remain on the VPU for longer periods of time, years even, and we have been able to make some consistent progress in the past two years and both they and I have noticed the changes.

As they become familiar with yoga nidra, for example, I have been able to develop 'pleasure and pain' (in the pairs of opposites) to include very specific memories of fear, anger, tenderness, self-respect, etc., to help them deal with some of their reasons for being in prison, but very carefully, as psychiatric and spiritual care are not high priorities inside. And some of the men have told me that they really do not like confronting such emotions and find it very hard. We also practise antar mouna, sitting on chairs in a circle and I encourage them to continue with the first three stages at least in their own time. In addition, several men have taken mantra diksha from Swami Niranjan when he was in London, although it was not possible for him to meet them personally, and their malas are much treasured.

When I first started teaching in prison I decided that I would not attempt to discover the crimes for which my students had been confined, as I feared that this would make it difficult for me to establish a good teacher-student relationship, and especially with the sex offenders would prejudice me against them from the start. This has proved to be a wise move, and when some of them do discuss their crimes with me it does not adversely affect the trust that has been built up. I think the presence of women teachers in a male prison is a good thing, but it is definitely not suitable for most women – too frightening, too hostile – and I suspect that it is easier for a more mature, self-confident woman who is not too easily upset by rather juvenile male bravado. The general 'vibe' when entering such a place is pretty overwhelming, and some weeks, when there has been a suicide or additional inmate-guard confrontation, it is frankly awful.

Sowing the seeds of change

The tension in the men, in their bodies and minds, means one has to work slowly and steadily, but because many of them are ill-educated and have been brought up with no idea of their inner worth and potential, it also means that they are generally bored and have limited powers of concentration – breath awareness does not come naturally to most! It seems that many of the really hardened criminals do not bother with the education program, so this may indicate that those who do enrol have at least some intention of improving their chances upon release. Some are highly intelligent – and manipulative – and many are just rather weak people who got caught up in a life of crime and are not even very good at that. Some of the older men have spent most of their lives in and out of institutions, but perhaps the younger ones will perceive the possibility of change, the possibility of taking charge of their own life and living it more usefully and interestingly. And I believe that if I can help one man see the way towards this insight, the job is more that worthwhile doing.

After teaching yoga for nearly 25 years, teaching in prison has opened up a whole new view of the possibilities that yoga has to offer; it shows me new depths, new angles, even new ways of teaching the various techniques that I know so well. There cannot be many jobs where, after so many years, you suddenly get offered a brand new look at the dear, familiar old stuff. So once again I am learning quite as much as I am teaching, receiving just as much as I am passing on, and I regard the experience as a great blessing.

Thank you, Swamiji, and thank you gentlemen of HMP Wandsworth!