Teaching Yoga in a Prison

Sannyasi Atmatattwananda, England

The observations and guidelines in this article are based on several months of teaching in the remand section and in the VPU (vulnerable prisoners unit) of a medium/high security level prison for men in London, U.K. Attendance at the twice weekly two hour classes was voluntary.

Categories of inmates and backgrounds

In this type of prison, there are three categories of inmates: remand, short-term, long-term and 'life' prisoners. The remand prisoners tend to be more restless and anxious, uncertain about their fate, finding it harder to adapt to their environment, particularly if they are first time offenders. The teacher has to be very flexible with remand groups as there tends to be a high turnover of students and variations in numbers in the class from week to week. The class attendance ranged from one person to twenty-five. Long-term inmates and those who have received their fixed jail terms tend to be more settled. Once sentenced, the majority will then endeavour within their capacity to serve their time as best they are able.

In the VP Unit, the inmates are considered to be vulnerable due to the nature of their crimes and are kept apart from other prisoners. Effectively it is like a prison within the prison. The classes were held in a small cell on the third floor, usually used by the chaplain, and there would be about ten or eleven men literally wedged inside the room.

Although the majority of inmates were English, they also came from other countries including Africa, Europe, India, Iran, Pakistan and the West Indies. They came from all walks of life and different levels of society. Statistics showed that a high proportion of inmates came from unstable backgrounds, ranging from parents' broken marriages, abuse or neglect in childhood, crime within the family etc. All categories were and are living under very high stress conditions, with a poor quality diet, in a noisy, harsh, hostile and rigidly regimented environment, seemingly devoid of warmth or aesthetic beauty of any kind.

Teacher and students

The range of crimes committed by class students may vary from paper work fraud to minor drug offences, cat burglary to violent crimes such as child abuse, rape or murder. However, as a general rule, the teacher should not display any concern nor inquire as to the nature of the crimes. If this information happens to be volunteered during a private conversation, that is a different matter, and an impartial, open and accepting attitude is required. However, in principle it is better not to know, as, for example, if the crime was of a particularly serious or violent nature, some form of critical judgement is likely to enter the teacher's mind and cause some prejudice which will be neither helpful nor appropriate.

The teacher may well be asked to perform some personal favour for the inmates. Do not be persuaded, as not only are such requests usually strictly against the prison rules and will jeopardize your role as a teacher there, but also any favour performed will then leave you in a very awkward situation with the inmates who will be aware that you can be manipulated.

It is essential that the yoga session should create a feeling of safe and supportive space so that trust can develop. Inmates are both vulnerable and sensitive and as many of the practices involve opening up and letting go in some form or other, often for the first time, absolute acceptance, encour-agement and a light, positive atmosphere is essential. For many, this may well be the first time they have had any form of direct contact with a nurturing, spiritual practice. As always, an injection of humour and laughter can be a great way to dispel tension in a room.

Physical, mental and emotional issues

The teacher should be aware that the inmates are dealing with a number of specific different issues and needs to adjust the teaching practices accordingly. Physical tension and stiffness is due in part to lack of any decent movement or exercise. Many students have back problems initially.

Mental and emotional tension may include: disorien-tation, particularly if new to the prison system; poor digestion due to poor quality diet and emotional tension; high levels of anxiety due to the immediate environment, random cell checks, lack of personal privacy, violence between prisoners, or prisoners and guards; fear of being bullied by peers as well as guards, which can include rape, or non specific fear generated by being in the prison environment; insomnia due to overcrowded cells, cold, noise and the internal state of stress; depression, particularly if the inmates do not have very much to do, the days are extremely long, dull and monotonous; lethargy which often stems from the above; isolation from friends and family; anger and resentment about their sentence, and as a result of all the mental samskaras that have had no chance to be realized or released; guilt about any crimes committed, about not being able to fulfil the role of husband, son, father etc. as a result of being inside. Some class members may also have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

In contrast to working with other groups of people such as busy executives, students or housewives who find it hard to find even ten minutes a day for themselves, one major advantage to teaching in prison is the fact that the inmates have plenty of time to practise. So if they find that they like and enjoy yoga and they choose to adopt the yoga techniques in greater depth, then they have the time, possibility and potential to practise and explore them between classes in their cells with some considerable degree of commitment, and will proudly display what they have accomplished from week to week.

What to teach

It is difficult to generalize about the types of practices to be used, as obviously it depends greatly on the age and capacity of the class. Therefore, the following outline is only a general guideline and practices should be adapted according to the teacher's discretion, bearing the above factors in mind and assessing the feeling from the inmates at each class, for example, whether the mood is hyperactive or depressed.

In broad terms the initial approach should be as though for a beginners class. The chances are that the majority of students will be completely new to yoga practices, and the teacher will initially need to assess where the class are at in terms of general fitness, flexibility, degrees of tension and mental disturbance. It is always a good idea to find out why the students are there and what their hopes, preconceptions or expectations are from practising yoga. You may need to modify the practices a little. For example, the number of back complaints may make a full session of pawanmuktasana in the starting position too uncomfortable to begin with.

Therefore, always start a session in shavasana, remaining there for slightly longer than usual. Some people may not want to lie with their palms upwards, if this is the case, then rest the hands on the sides, or even crossed over the chest until some trust has been established. Work with body awareness and then breath awareness.

Begin the asanas with lying postures, such as supine stretching in conjunction with the breath, supta pawan-muktasana (leg lock), which is good for digestive disorders as well as for the spine, and supta udarakarshanasana (sideways back stretch). This way the students will get the feel of the practices before sitting up and being so aware of the other people around them. Initially, due to vulnerability and general lack of trust, they may feel uncomfortable about doing these practices in a group, but gradually a level of trust and understanding will develop, as they begin to experience the practices.


Pawanmuktasana 1, 2 and 3 can be taught in accordance with the inmates' capacity. Shaking out of feet, legs, fingers, hands and arms, visualizing shaking out of negativity, also often instigates laughter. Tadasana stretches the body and the walking version to alleviate constipation can be explained. Tiryaka tadasana loosens the body, tones the kidneys and adrenal glands, related to fear. Kati chakrasana, patting yourself on the back, relieves physical and mental stiffness.

Marjari-asana loosens up and relieves stiff backs. Vajrasana is good to sit in for meditation initially for those with sciatica, and is also helpful for sexual sublimation. Encourage the use of this asana for several minutes after eating to aid digestion. Shashankasana is grounding, connecting to the earth, useful for anger or too much mental activity, as well as for constipation, realignment of discs and backache. Shashank-bhujangasana relieves backache and stretches the spine.

Shalabhasana strengthens weak lower backs quickly. The sphinx pose can be practised on a bed. Utthita lolasana allows a letting go of all the day's tensions. Trikonasana works on the kidneys and adrenals. Dwikonasana helps release tensions in the midback, neck and shoulders. Utthanasana helps boost circulation of prana. Matsyasana allows expression of pent-up emotions, opening of the heart and throat centres.

Advasana is good for sleeping in if there is backache, as is jyestikasana, which also melts away tension in shoulders and necks. Makarasana can be done on beds while reading etc. Matsya kridasana is good for sleeping, relief of sciatic pain etc. Simhasana is great for expressing anger, often in a humorous way.

If the inmates are the keep fit types who have spent times in gymnasiums, they will enjoy the challenge of surya namaskara. If not, they will enjoy the new found feeling of flexibility and fitness it affords.

Other practices might include: bhujangasana, tiryaka bhujangasana, sarpasana, saral dhanurasana, gomukhasana, ardha matsyendrasana and eka pada pranamasana, later moving into more advanced practices such as sarvangasana, halasana and paschimottanasana.

Sitting asanas may include sukhasana, swastikasana, siddhasana and ardha padmasana. Many students are initially unused to sitting, so need to bring blankets, pillows, or jumpers for additional support beneath the buttocks.


Breath awareness is often quite a radical first step in itself so go gently with this. The complete yogic breath and the different stages, i.e. abdominal, thoracic, clavicular etc. should be introduced as soon as possible. It is another practice that can be done without particular observation whilst lying on their beds. The addition of verbal instructions to “Breathe in coolness, calmness, extra oxygen, strength and positivity” and “Exhale tiredness, tension, carbon dioxide, toxins and negativity” is helpful.

Padadhirasana helps to balance the breath. Bhastrika and kapalbhati build up levels of prana. Nadi shodhana is the yogic harmonizer. Suggest doing mental nadi shodhana at various times throughout the day as it has an instant effect on the nervous system and can be practised without anyone noticing. Bhramari is the yogic soother and tranquillizer. Sheetkari and sheetali help to cool the mind and the emotions, while ujjayi promotes calmness and is good for anger.

Jnana, chin and kechari mudras, and jalandhara bandha can be introduced when appropriate.

Yoga nidra

This is very powerful and useful in this situation and there should be at least 30–40 minutes allocated in a class for yoga nidra. Try always to ensure that the students are warm enough. Do not be rigid in regards to remaining motionless. Often there will be a great deal of involuntary spasm and twitching taking place, when inmates are lying in shavasana, both at the beginning of the class and in yoga nidra as the initial layers of tension begin to be released. Sometimes the students' bodies would literally jump off the ground, which could be unnerving for them initially. Always explain that this is a positive release of nervous and muscular tensions and after some time their bodies will begin to settle down and the spasms will become less frequent. Sankalpa can be very helpful. Discuss the concept in order to keep it realistic, i.e. it should not just be “I will be released tomorrow!” There was the distinct feeling during parts of this practice, especially visualization, that everyone in the room had temporarily forgotten that they were in prison, and thus their minds and psyches were given a deep rest and a feeling of expansion and inner freedom prevailed. Virtually all said that their quality of sleep at night improved.


There is an advantage to the fact that the inmates are 'inside', particularly with the longer term inmates. It means that after a short while practising techniques such as yoga nidra and antar mouna, their minds tend not to be filled with the usual amount of external daily clutter and distractions as on the outside and the teacher can find that the students may progress to deeper stages or states of meditative experience relatively quickly. In some cases what could take several years to achieve with other students, if at all, can be achieved within a few months with prison inmates. Some inmates would sit steadily and with complete alertness as though they had been practising meditation for years.

Antar mouna is obviously essential for mind management and for dealing with all the above mentioned problems and disturbances. It enables the witness capacity to develop, so that all the sounds etc. become far less disturbing, thus affording inner relaxation. It allows the students to make friends with their minds, to clear some of the negative samskaras, of which initially there are many, and to be able to understand what is really going on inside themselves, in a non-judgemental way.

Ajapa japa is a great practice for calming and focusing the mind as well as from the psychic purification aspect. Inmates would report a marked difference in their coping mechanisms and a lessening of anger during the week, once they had begun to learn and apply these practices. It enables them to become detached from the thoughts and reactions that arise and to witness rather than automatically react. This was particularly useful in dealing with situations involving aggravation and anger. Many seemed to be very grateful to learn these techniques of mind or self-management and for some the class seemed almost to be like a lifeline from one week to the next.

Listening and counselling

If possible, the teacher should try to arrange for classes of two hours duration. Firstly this enables the students to really get into the practices, and second it allows for some additional time to be allocated to listening to the inmates either at the beginning or at the end of the class. This forms an important even essential part of the class, enabling the inmates to let off some steam to a friendly and impartial or objective ear. This may involve intimate personal problems or general stories of the week often relating to difficulties or aggression within the prison system. It also generates a feeling of trust, involvement in their lives, and a caring continuity from one session to the next.

The teacher should be even more than usually alert in order to answer some of the queries that can be asked unexpectedly. Do not make the mistake of presuming that because these people are in prison they are stupid. The reality is very far from it. Many of the inmates are extremely bright and intelligent and may keep the teacher on his/her toes with their insightful and piercing line of questioning in regard to yoga and spiritual matters.

Encouragement of personal sadhana

If attendance is voluntary rather than compulsory then, as with other classes, although the inmates will initially attend for any number of different reasons ranging from bad backs, curiosity, desire for fitness, insomnia, anger management etc., they will quickly find that they gain far more than they had ever expected. Both the teacher and the students will be able to perceive the immense power and vibrational flow of the yoga practices very acutely in the midst of this enclosed environment, and the enthusiasm and verbal feedback that is expressed is very encouraging and inspiring.

Daily personal sadhana and, if it is permitted by the authorities, additional reading matter in regard to the practices and spirituality should be strongly encouraged, though in a relaxed manner. There should obviously not be any feeling of pressure, enforcement, or additional guilt of any kind, if they are not able initially to do the practices as intended. However, the benefits should be pointed out and, if the desire arises to practise on their own and they can be encouraged with guidelines of a simple, appropriate series of practices, then the positive results will soon begin to manifest in the attitudes of the inmates and in their ability to cope with their daily lives. At whatever level the practices are adopted they will bring benefit according to each individual's capacity, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Seeing prison life as an opportunity

After some time one can perhaps begin to talk about the parallels to the experience of life within an ashram. i.e. being cut off from all outside activities, the rules and regulations, the uniform ashram inmates wear, the severe hair cuts! Developing the attitude of choicelessness in regards to the simple food that is served for example. Then rather than always pandering to the attitudes of like and dislike, learning to express gratitude for the nourishment that is provided. Explain how much easier it is when one accepts the present moment without resistance. How much harder it is to deal with when the mind fights against it. Learn to go with the flow. Discuss the physical and pranic benefits of the structured timings and disciplined routine. Perhaps even being able to arrive at the point of appreciating the relative luxury of the time to meditate, and contemplate on the deeper meaning of life and the search for the inner guru or true self.

The ultimate ideal, of course, is to enable the inmates to be able to regard and fully accept their time in prison as a close parallel to time spent in a monastic/spiritual retreat situation and for them to see that with the use of the tools of yoga and meditation, that rather than considering and experiencing jail as only being a negative, limiting and confining experience, rather it can even be considered as a great opportunity for personal growth, inner transformation and expansion. Those who are serving a very long sentence will have a transformative coping mechanism and for those who will be released after some time, this will offer a new understanding, perspective and approach to life on the outside.