Yoga for Prisoners

Swami Yogatirthananda Saraswati, Switzerland

For the past two years I have been teaching yoga in a high security prison made up of separate buildings and different divisions. The cells are equipped with television, video sets and a computer, if requested. Most men work during the day and those who are assigned to the enormous farming complex work long and hard hours. The authorities offer educational classes in languages, computer courses or courses by correspondence.

Every evening (from October to April) a program of activities is organized, with classes once a week in video, photography, painting, musical instruments, chess, psychology and yoga. At the same time, the gym is available to everyone and the cells are open.

The interest in these activities is very limited, especially since television and computers have been introduced. The peer pressure of an ethnic group has a great impact as well. A Muslim from Kosovo who walks to his yoga class with a little mat and blanket rolled up under his arm is, at best, subject to teasing and mockery.

The yoga activity may have from two to seven participants. There is of course, coming and going, transfers to other prisons, to other divisions or the final release. Some men may have back problems or joint problems due to an injury or arthritis, there may be cases of diabetes, some men are taking methadone, others suffer from sleeplessness, many are on anti-depressant medication.

Those who follow a course are fully committed, sincere and persevere. They respect the subject being taught, yoga, as well as the teacher giving the class. Trust, the indispensable basis, comes naturally and spontaneously.

Patiently the students follow pawanmuktasana, the beginners' exercises, which are not always interesting for men who work out regularly in a gym, are well trained, strong and competitive. They welcome the 'real' exercises and postures (shakti bandhas, the vajrasana series) and especially surya namaskara (salute to the sun), which concludes the series of physical exercises. Everyone likes naukasana (the boat pose), which gives an instant release of tension.

A big surprise for teachers and students alike is the asana 'chopping wood' – rarely is there a participant able to shout to his heart's delight. Even with soundproof walls it takes many sessions of chopping wood before the men feel free to shout and let go of inhibitions, fear and embarrassment. To encourage them I chop a few rounds of wood myself.

The pranayama exercises, yogic breathing, ujjayi, nadi shodhana and bhramari are not always obvious, but their immediate beneficial effects quickly justify their practice. Yoga nidra is the all time favourite.

A total flop was the talk on the SWAN theory; it was too direct an approach and seen as yet another psychological trick, of which I guess many have had their fill. Maybe the timing was wrong, maybe I should have introduced one item at a time, with two or three weeks just on Strengths. Maybe the men resisted the externalized way of self-discovery and prefer the intimacy of yoga nidra.

Each week the class is adapted according to each group and the needs of each day: more exercises here, more time for breathing or for yoga nidra there, and for some, time to talk. The daily life in prison is full of stress: a fight, an ethnic or interpersonal conflict, a murder or suicide within the prison walls. Added to that are many family matters, an appeal refused, a court hearing delayed or news from the war at home. I have found that a pre-planned class does not work and every week I have to learn to be more open, more aware and more sensitive to the needs of the group and to adapt the class accordingly.

One group may be cheerful and sociable from the very start, full of jokes, fun loving; another group may have an attitude of 'each man for himself', with great social tension among the participants, no exchange, no communication. In time this attitude gives way to a sense of real camaraderie, humour, kindness and a caring interest is shared among all.

Only in the second year did I introduce Om chanting at the beginning and end of each class, as well as mental repetition of Om during breathing practice or yoga nidra. The openness of the participants was overwhelming; they took to Om without hesitation or reserve. One group asked to do trataka. Some of the participants soon practise yoga exercises regularly on their own; some ask for a yoga nidra tape.

The diversity of the participants is enormous, from the illiterate to the academic, from those who have never heard of yoga before to the one who has read all the books of Sri Aurobindo and many more.

Everyone though is able to make his own personal discovery: some tension in the body he hadn't been aware of; a posture to relieve backache; a method to stop the con-tinuous flow of thoughts; a tool to relax and improve the quality of sleep; an unknown source of inner wealth and creativity; the courage, the will and the potential to change.

The students accept all that is proposed to them, the method of teaching, the limitations of the teacher and their own limitations, the personal experiences of the group, the discovery of strength, but above all the challenge of yoga – the transformation of personality.

Some men have written down their own perceptions of yoga and the yoga class:

“Thanks to the yoga course I have been able to see the difference between good and bad. For example, when I went to the hospital, I felt shame for the first time. (The prisoners are taken in hand and ankle cuffs to the local hospitals.) I can also control my nerves and I can avoid unforeseen problems. The yoga course is very beneficial to us.”

“I am happy to have a teacher. So far I had learnt yoga and meditation only through books, but now I can ask questions, go deeper with each practice and have better training and understanding of each practice as well as of myself.”

“After the yoga class I feel very good. I don't have headaches any more, or very rarely. Before I had terrible headaches three to four times a week. I sleep better too.”

“I especially like the relaxation at the end of the class. When I follow the voice of the teacher for 20 minutes, I get to relax completely and there is a deep sense of well-being.”

“I have learnt easy exercises to help my back problem. I can do them on my own whenever I feel pain. I feel relaxed and positive after the class, I am able to sleep well.”

“About two months ago, while I was serving the evening meal, another prisoner said in a very aggressive way, 'Let me take the soup myself, get lost, you old fool!' The silly thought flashed through my mind to hit him over the head with the ladle I was holding in my hand. The important thing is that I could control myself. Today I can say that this self-control is essentially due to the yoga techniques that were taught, and in particular to the different breathing exercises, but also due to my will, my motivation and my self-awareness. Yoga is not a pastime but a learning process.”

The learning process is also a part of my own experience in the prison. Besides living the satisfaction of teaching, I am confronted each time with an emotional intensity that requires equally intense awareness and detachment from what I am doing. The slightest emotional involvement, the slightest trace of insecurity is picked up, reacted to, criticized or accepted. There is an unspoken rule of 'give and take' which both parties, students and teachers alike, must respect. An expectation which has to be fulfilled hides behind a thin veil of kindness and politeness. The men themselves may not be aware of this expectation but it is the challenge I face every time. In this expectation I see a silent declaration of their openness and willingness to change. It is my duty to be as open as they are, to be as willing and ready to change.