Yoga in Prison

This is the translation of an article published in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, 12 September 2007

At Norrtalje prison, the inmates imprisoned for crimes of violence, learn how to control their rage. Yoga is included in the treatment program. “Yoga creates harmony and gives the interns an opportunity to practise self-discipline. It is a very good tool for those who really want to change their life.”

A big room in the basement has been converted into a yoga hall. There is a blue Buddha statue in front of white walls; a dark blue wall is decorated with a colourful sun in the middle. It could be any yoga centre, if it were not for the bars at the windows below the ceiling; if it were not for the high walls surrounding the building, barbed wire and locked gates and the fact that the people practising yoga are incarcerated criminals serving long sentences.

We are at Norrtalje prison. Here Eva Seilitz, yoga teacher and health and well being consultant, is conducting yoga classes for a group of interns a couple of times a week. They also have access to a yoga program on DVD which is being shown on TV-monitors in the individual cells through the internal TV-system.

It all started in the summer of 2002.

“When the request came I had started to work as a coordinator helping women who are victims of domestic violence in the municipality of Norrtalje,” Eva tells us. “One of the most important questions was to find treatment models for men who abuse women. I had also been thinking for some time about what we could do to stop the increase of violence, drug addiction and criminality in society. Is it possible to motivate criminals to change their lifestyle by using yoga and relaxation?”

After three years of yoga during the summer holidays when the other treatment programs had a break, Eva was asked if she would like to start yoga for the interns as part of the ART (aggression replacement training) treatment program. ART is about learning to control anger and aggressive behaviour and training in social competence and ethics. Yoga is an excellent support and complements the other components of the program, as yoga also has an ethical component, where through the body one works with one’s inner self. Norrtalje prison is also about to start another program, PREPARE, for younger criminals where yoga will be a part.

Yoga for something very good

Eva Seilitz is educated in Satyananda Yoga. The method is a soft form of hatha yoga, where one develops strength and flexibility, as well as relaxation and meditation. Results show that most participants are positive about yoga. It has given effects such as:

  • Increased feeling of mental peace and control;
  • Increased concentration and motivation to study;
  • Increased physical, mental and spiritual well being;
  • Increased feeling of calm and better sleep.

This is what some of them said:

“I have come to terms with my past through yoga and meditation. To forgive myself and to forgive others is the key to inner peace.”

“Through yoga you get good health. It should be an important integrated part of the day and be obligatory. It is an activity that leads to something very good.”

“I have cleaned out twelve years of my life. I have a complete new life energy and am experiencing feelings that have been completely buried. I can even cry which I was not able to do before. It is as if someone has made a hole in a thick crust and it all just comes pouring out.”

Sweden is not the first country that offers yoga in prisons. In USA the Human Kindness organization was founded in the 1970s and in England a foundation, The Prison Phoenix Trust, has educated yoga teachers since the 1980s.

Research has shown that the interns manage with smaller doses of medicine and have a greater motivation to do something about their lives. What makes the project at Norrtalje prison exceptional is that yoga is integrated in the criminal welfare programs, and that prisoners are using an internal TV-system. Internal TV is a resource which could be used much more than it is today, according to Eva Seilitz.

Has she never been scared or felt insecure standing in front of a group of criminal men?

“No,” she says. “I have always been amazed at how sensitive and receptive they are. Only on two occasions have I had disciplinary issues, but it was possible to solve them. To practise yoga is a difficult challenge for many of the men. In the beginning they feel a bit embarrassed, feel it is a bit silly. It also requires patience and concentration to learn some of the practices, but they are trying and making an effort. Many of the interns are surprised what effect the practices have. Sometimes they come to the yoga class angry over something, thinking that they want to skip the yoga class. However, after the class they leave with peace of mind. Yoga creates harmony and gives them an opportunity to practise self-discipline. It is a very good tool for those who want to change their lives.”


Josef is incarcerated for twelve years for a violent crime he committed. He has done five years. He does not justify himself for he knows he deserves the punishment.

“For the first time I think that the department of criminal justice has found the right thing. If yoga can help only one percent of the interns it would be worth introducing yoga in all prisons. For me it was a turning point.”

Josef is from a war zone in the Middle East. Violence was an everyday occurrence when he grew up. He was a child soldier and he has seen things that no human being should see. When he was twenty he came to Sweden.

“I couldn’t control myself and I ended up in fights, exploded at every little provocation. You do something silly without thinking about it. It just happens. In the social circles I was part of there was also some cocaine which didn’t help.” “It is hard to be in prison,” he says. “You struggle with the feeling of guilt. You are locked up and just want to break out. If you are not mentally strong you will go mad.” Yoga has given him a new perspective on life.

“I am able to see my shortcomings, what I have done with my life, and that every action has a consequence. It is also easier for me to restrain myself today. For sure there is always something that happens in a prison that upsets and irritates you. Now it is enough for me to regain my composure with three deep breaths.

“Before I had no peace of mind or spirit. I despised myself and therefore I also despised others and everything around me. I had to start from scratch to build self-respect. Yoga has also given me respect for others. I don’t mean the respect that you demand in the criminal world, which is based on fear, but a respect which is based on care and consideration.”

In the beginning the yoga practice was a struggle, both physically, mentally and emotionally. Josef was a body builder and had strong muscles, but he was not very flexible. Some of the practices were almost impossible to do. The first three months he was ready to give up many times. Many of the other interns quit the program, which was a shame. However, it gave him more personal and individual practice.

“After some time it was much easier and finally I wanted to do the practices regularly in my cell, every morning and evening.”

Future plans

Yoga has given him many physical effects He sleeps better, the pulse and blood pressure have decreased. He has more clarity of mind, he says. Before there was just complete chaos in there; he was not able to concentrate. Now he is studying economics. When his wife and children come to visit, they practise yoga together. He is also writing a book with simple yoga practices for children in Swedish, French, Italian and German.

The ward is calmer nowadays. Josef tells us about the time when the wardens forgot to lock them into their cells in the evening. “If this had happened a year back nobody knows what would have happened. If we had been pissed off with somebody we would have killed him, or we would have completely ruined the place, or overtaken the guards and broken out. Nothing of this sort happened. We baked a chocolate cake, watched a movie and played cards. Then we made a little cave or hut with blankets in the kitchen and went to sleep in it together. We stayed because of Eva and her yoga. Today we have a very good relationship with the people working in the prison and the management is supporting the yoga project.”

Anders Ekstrom who is the manager of the prison thinks that yoga has become a very important complement and support to the traditional treatment program. “The interns who are aggressive have become calmer and those who study get better results. We are now going to make an evaluation and see if this is something that should be integrated in criminal welfare at large. This autumn we are going to conduct a research study with Karolinska Institutet, the biggest hospital, medical university and medical research facility in Sweden, on the effect of certain medicines on attention deficiency syndrome which every fourth intern suffers from. We are going to integrate yoga in the treatment.”