2.25 million men and women – that’s 1 in 100 adults – are in prison in the U.S. today, and 60 percent of those prisoners who are released return to prison within 3 years. Prison is a breeding ground for mental, emotional, and physical distress, and a repository for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Experiences of anxiety, depression, agitation, hopelessness, grief, fear, and rage can be greatly increased under incarcerated conditions, especially with the current issue of overcrowding within America’s prisons.

Whatever your opinion of America’s prison situation, the fact remains that the majority of prisoners, because of backgrounds of neglect, abuse, violent behavior, and drug and alcohol addiction, have become disassociated from their feelings and bodies as a result. But all is not lost: James Fox, M.A., a yoga instructor with over 20 years of experience, founded the Prison Yoga Project in an attempt to help prisoners shift unconscious behavioral patterns of reacting into conscious ways of responding by teaching them the skill of clearly witnessing their moment-to-moment experience – in other words, cultivating a sense of awareness.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and clinical social workers acknowledge that mindful practices such as yoga can greatly help people alleviate the symptoms that lead to both reactive behaviors and stress-related disease. Learning an awareness practice in prison is not only important for supporting behavioral rehabilitation, but also critical for physical and emotional well-being. (Healthcare costs alone account for $2.1 billion of the California prison system’s $9 billion annual budget.)

The Prison Yoga Project helps students reclaim sensitivity and consciousness through a practice of self-awareness and self-control that instills non-reactivity and self-acceptance. The classes help to free the mind and body from confusion and distress, allowing one to be at peace and receptive to learning new ways of thinking through postures (asana), breath work (pranayama), and short periods of meditation. Discipline of the mind and body is emphasized, in order to develop positive behavioral habits and impulse control. The ethical code of conduct and behavior that defines a yoga practitioner’s lifestyle is underscored. The program also promotes non-competitiveness and intentionally fosters community building through cooperative group participation.

James developed the Insight Prison Project’s Yoga Program at San Quentin State Prison and has been its coordinator and principal teacher since its inception in September 2002. In addition to directing the Yoga program at San Quentin, James co-facilitates a group process class with prisoners for the Insight Prison Project.

Testimonials from prisoners about the effect of The Prison Yoga Project are pretty remarkable:

I have a strengthened identity with self and a sense of something universal. It has given me the ability to affect my own well being and peace without dependency upon someone else or chemical substance.” – T.W.

”I am grateful to the powers that be for having put a teacher such as yourself in my life. I have reconciled myself to a life of sobriety and plan to seriously pursue my spiritual practices, especially Yoga.” – R.C.

”For those of us sentenced to a life term, time is inexorable. We are challenged to draw vitality and meaning from our circumstances. Yoga has helped me to understand that it is in quietness and stillness that time becomes an ally not a foe. It is in stillness that I realize the things that are important and those things that really do not matter.” – S.L.

Yoga is about creating union between opposing forces, dissolving blockages – both physical and mental – and creating awareness of the present moment without adherence to the past or the future. Learning this fundamental behavioral shift can make the difference between a person committing a crime or not. For more about the Prison Yoga Project, visit their website.
Special thanks to Elephant Journal, Robert Sturman Photography and James Fox at the Prison Yoga Project. To donate to a great cause, Robert Sturman Photography has created t-shirts to promote prison yoga awareness. For more info and to buy one of these hip tees, check out the link. All photos by Robert Sturman of Robert Sturman Photography.