Yoga is being taught in many prisons around the world for a variety of reasons: for the management of stress, for general health and the alleviation of different physical problems, but mostly as a method to correct and reform the criminal personality. The latter is finding more recognition and acceptance from governments and prison authorities.
Prisoners are treated like caged animals in maximum security prisons, especially in Australia, England and America, locked into a space no bigger than an average bathroom, separated from loved ones, friends and family and surrounded by people who are often mentally unstable, unpredictable, angry, frustrated and sometimes violent. The inmate has to learn different ways of dealing with this new environment and the other inmates that share it, new ways of coping and surviving. Added to this is the trauma and stress of the trial, sentencing and subsequent imprisonment. The new labels 'criminal', 'prisoner' and 'convict', will be there for the rest of their lives, the prefix 'ex' being added on release.
All these factors have a deep effect on the psychological, emotional and physical layers, resulting in high levels of anxiety, stress, anger, fear, depression, frustration and insomnia, digestive disorders, high blood pressure, bowel disorders, ulcers, migraines, allergies, back problems etc. which are all common in prisoners.
When dealing with inmates we need to be aware that in most cases the crime/crimes committed were due to distortions of the mind, inner stress, mental disharmony and unresolved tension. When there is imbalance in the relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and incorrect hormonal distribution in the body, then any sort of behaviour can occur. Depending on whether an individual is sattwic, rajasic or tamasic in nature the hormonal balance varies and substances like adrenaline, noradrenaline and acetylcholine have a great role to play in the control of, or execution of ones physical and mental activities.
It is well known that these hormones can be balanced and regulated through yogic practices. The yoga practices discipline the physical and mental activities. When there is stability and control of mind and physical expressions, then one is less likely to commit a crime, compared to someone who has no control over their body, mind or emotions. Crime is a short cut to satisfy a craving, a short cut which goes beyond normal and legal means. Crime, delinquency and the different patterns of anti-social behaviour express tensions which arise from a deeply discontented mind, from a weak mind and from unbalanced emotions. A weak mind is one which lacks balance and a sense of proportion. No approach to the problem of delinquency and crime can be truly effective unless the basic weakness of mind is remedied.*1
It is important for the teacher to have some record or documentation, maybe in the form of a questionnaire, which the prisoners can fill out at the beginning of the course or term and again at the end or at regular intervals as they continue. This is a good record, not only for the student, but for the prison authorities and also for future research on prisoners. The following are some examples (from BSY and related Satyananda Yoga teachers) of the benefits prisoners derive from the practices of yoga.
Prisoners, like students outside, come to a yoga class for a variety of reasons. In 1996, I had the opportunity to teach a class of 8 voluntary students once a week for 8 months, in a women's prison in Perth, Western Australia. Some had heard that yoga improves physical health and fitness and they usually had a desire to look and feel better. Some had a particular ailment or illness e.g. backache, frozen shoulder, constipation, headaches, high blood pressure etc. Others came because they wanted to learn to relax and meditate. Some had practised yoga before and wanted to continue whilst serving their sentence. Some came to yoga to help them to overcome their drug addictions. Some came out of curiosity.
All reported improvement in their physical health, flexibility and levels of relaxation and concentration. They said that the yoga classes had given them nurturing, time for themselves and deep feelings of satisfaction and contentment. They were using abdominal breathing as much as possible, especially during times of stress, i.e. during a court appearance, when seeing the Warden, or when being interviewed by police. Other teachers also reported positive feedback from students, especially those who had attended classes for a while and were practising yoga on their own.
Another yoga teacher in an Australian prison conducted stress management courses using yogic practices over a period of approximately 2 years. These were 12-week courses with one 1½-hour class per week. The prisoners were only allowed to attend one course with no repeat or continuations. Self-evaluation questionnaires were used at the start and end of the course. Physical improvements reported were reduced insomnia, headaches and improved circulation. Mental and emotional improvements included decreased negative reactions, less anger, depression and feelings of loneliness, increased self-esteem, confidence and self-image.
In an Indian prison, one yoga teacher taught 2 sessions daily over 4 weeks. He also asked for feedback in writing at the end of the one month program. All prisoners reported increased self-confidence and a willingness to return to their lives in society and deal with the shame of imprisonment. Some were innocent and had said previously that they would rather die in jail than return and face the accusations and slander. Gang members were helped by yoga nidra, ajapa japa and antar mouna practices which helped to calm their minds, and they said they were now able to differentiate between good and bad. The superintendent and jailers also noticed that the students were less aggressive, quieter and more positive.
In another prison one angry inmate said that he would kill the person who put him in jail when he was released. The teacher said, First do yoga then kill him! He gave the prisoner 25 rounds of bhramari to practise morning and evening. At the end of the month's program, the angry prisoner was also due to be released, but instead of wanting to kill the man responsible for his imprisonment, he said he wanted to stay in jail for another 6 months and practise yoga. So he went to the Superintendent who agreed, provided he taught yoga to the other prisoners. Later he wrote to the yoga teacher, saying that yoga had brought him great happiness and satisfaction, as now he was able to help others too.
The Bihar School of Yoga, under the guidance of Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, started a pilot study on a small group of prisoners in the Munger District Jail in October 1994. The aim was to harmonize the body and mind to effectively cope with stressful situations. Attendance at the daily classes was voluntary. After the 15-day program the trainees reported a general feeling of freshness and relief from chronic bowel problems and insomnia, reduced hostility, anxiety and frequency of negative emotions, and a more positive attitude towards life, fellow prisoners and authorities.
With the cooperation of the jail authorities the program was extended to two more district jails and to the central jail at Bhagalpur. The results reported in the pilot study were also confirmed in these jails.
With the success of these programs, the Government of Bihar requested the Bihar School of Yoga to extend them to other prisons in the state. In 1995 the 15-day program was taught in a total of 24 jails, to 1,013 prisoners who attended voluntarily. Questionnaires containing items on physical, mental and emotional health, addiction, interpersonal interactions and future plans were given before and after the yoga training programs.
The results showed improvements in physical fitness, energy levels, strength, flexibility, a feeling of lightness in body, better digestion and sleep; reduced feelings of anger, revenge, anxiety, depression and interpersonal conflicts; increased feelings of positivity, happiness, peace and altruism; and decreased desire for tobacco and cigarettes. As a result, even the cost of prison medical expenditure was reduced.
Trainee prisoners were asked what they proposed to do after their release. Over 63% wanted to become involved in normal family life and work; 16% wanted to work for social upliftment and lead a spiritual life; and 2.08% wanted revenge against enemies and to settle issues with them.
The Home Department of the Government of Bihar decided to extend the training to all jails in Bihar (82 in total). Large numbers of trained yoga teachers were needed, so it was decided to train prisoners serving life sentences as yoga teachers and send them to different prisons throughout the state.
A one-month Teacher Training Course (2 x 15 days) began during JuneJuly 1996, in all the 8 central jails in Bihar. Prisoners who volunteered (with preference given to those who had undergone the earlier yoga training) were selected for the Yoga Teacher Training Course and 172 prisoners were chosen. Questionnaires were administered at the beginning of the first phase and at the end of the second phase of the YTT program. The Yoga Teachers Test was conducted on the line of the Bihar School of Yoga standard and the 167 prisoners who passed received a Yoga Instructors Certificate.
85% reported themselves physically fitter, mentally happier and more alert. 95% had better sleep and 98% better digestion. 70% had a substantial reduction and 20% a slight reduction in negative emotions (anger, revenge, anxiety and de-pression). 85% reported an increase in altruistic and pro-social behaviour. 83% reported a reduction in interpersonal conflicts. 98% resolved to continue their yoga practices, and 95% expressed a desire to teach yoga to fellow prisoners.
Reports were also obtained from each prison regarding perceived changes in social interaction, and mental and physical health of the prison yoga trainees. These also confirmed that the yogic training had brought about positive improvements in physical and mental health and conduct of the trainees.
Unfortunately this wonderful program has come to a halt and the trained prisoners have not been utilized due to a change of government in Bihar and decreased interest in social welfare programs.
Other projects and applications have taken place around the world and some continue to this day. The Tihar prison in New Delhi (through the initiatives of Kiran Bedi, a former Inspector General of the prison) introduced 10-day Vipassana meditation courses in November, 1993. In April, 1994, the largest ever Vipassana course took place in the jail with 1,000 prisoner students participating.
The prison has documented the effects perceived by the prisoners after the courses. 96% stated that they were now able to control their anger, while 4% stated that the frequency of their anger had reduced though the intensity remained the same. 90% achieved mental peace and no longer remain in stress for petty reasons and reasons beyond their control. 96% learnt to concentrate their mind on the subjects of their choice. 100% developed benevolent and compassionate feelings towards other inmates and staff members. 48% gave up smoking and 24% reduced their intake dramatically. 98% feel physically fit after the course. 66% have stopped bothering about the unpleasant past and are more concerned about the present. 70% have started planning for a brighter future after being released. 86% have started extending help and cooperation to fellow convicts, whereas previously they were self-centred. 100% stated that such programs should be organized periodically.
All claimed that they have improved in every sphere of their daily activities. 96% are more self-disciplined. 72% said they would repeat this meditation course with their families after their release. 100% said they have informed their families about the meditation course and its beneficial effects. 52% expressed a desire to work as 'dharma workers' when the opportunity arises. 88% continued with meditation in the morning and evening, 6% once a day and 6% are not regular.
Kiran Bedi also brought in many other changes and initiatives to give the prisoners a better life. She was concerned with a holistic approach for the personal growth and reformation of the inmates. The Vipassana meditation program still continues to this day.
In a Croatian prison, Vultoorapular, Professor Zjlko Brgles has been using the practice of yoga nidra with prisoners to bring about a transformation in their behaviour and to enable them to return to the community as physically, mentally and morally rehabilitated persons. His preliminary (unpublished) data shows changes in the convicts' behaviour and attitudes, with less aggression, anxiety and impulsiveness, and a general improvement in the social climate, interrelationships and communication between prisoners. Prisoners also reported feeling calmer, sleeping better, reduced insomnia, relief of tension headaches and a more positive attitude to their life in prison.
If there is scientific or statistical data and evidence to back up the claim that yogic practices can change the mental attitude and behaviour of prisoners and make them useful and civilized members of society on their release, then that would go a long way to giving credibility to yoga and making it more acceptable in the penal system.
Swami Niranjan has said: In a criminal's personality, in his feelings, thoughts and actions, we can see abnormalities. These internal abnormalities completely influence his life and induce him to commit crimes. Crime is a trait or tendency. Tendency means a wave arising in the mind. If this tendency is calmed down, the personality attains peace, then mental stress, emotional stress, agitated thoughts etc. also calm down and the suffering and sorrow ends. To reform the personality and to change the criminal tendencies, the best solution is to practise yoga.*5