The Weekly Tithe: Space and Freedom Behind Bars

This week in The Weekly Tithe, we celebrate the practice of mindfulness in the least likely of places: prison.

Photo credit: the great Robert Sturman
Prison Yoga Project
I first learned about PYP in December 2011 while seeking to expand public perception about what yoga is, who it belongs to and what it looks like. I had seen the incredible documentary, The Dhamma Brothers, a couple of years earlier and was aware of the application of alternative healing methods within the prison system but had yet to learn how widespread or effective yoga had become in this context. The project was started by James Fox, who began bringing yoga to at-risk populations when he received his certification in 2000. Some struggle to understand why prisoners should be taught yoga, something that's come to be considered a luxury. I will share PYP's statement on this, which was offered on their Facebook page today:

"Some people can’t understand why we teach yoga in prison. “Why cut a prisoner any slack at all? They’re getting what they deserve. Do the crime, do the time.” Or, “I’m against spending any taxpayer money on coddling criminals.”

The fact is, most released prisoners come right out into the community where they originally committed their crimes. Thanks to scant rehabilitative help in prison, more than 60% re-offend. Our work offers an inexpensive way to improve prisoner health with the possibility of reducing the rate of re-offense.

Most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma -- chronic interpersonal trauma often experienced as children, such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, neighborhood violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, drug and alcohol abuse, and witnessing crime; including murder. Sometimes horrors so unimaginable they don’t have a name. We call this “original pain.” These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly, in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behavior, and tendencies toward drug and alcohol addiction, as well as violence. Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in jail, where they experience even more trauma.

Traditionally, cognitive behavioral therapists have helped people process unresolved trauma, but more recently psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers -- many working with US military veterans -- acknowledge that embodiment practices such as yoga, enriched with mindfulness practices, can have more impact in alleviating the symptoms that lead to both reactive behaviors and stress related disease.

The Prison Yoga Project was founded in the belief that yoga, taught specifically as a mindfulness practice, is very effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma, allowing us to address the resultant behavioral issues. We've learned from 12 years of experience in San Quentin and many other correctional institutions that a yoga and mindfulness practice can help offenders change trauma-driven unconscious behavioral patterns…usually the behavior that put them in prison.

We ask, “upon release, what kind of former prisoner do you want to bump into at the grocery store, on the playground, or when you’re fixing a flat tire on the side of the road? Do you want the guy stuck in his cell for 15 years? Or the one who has received some rehabilitative care?” We live with the results of their imprisonment, don’t we? Prisons are a dumping ground for people with addictions, trauma and mental illness. So we focus on impulse control, mood disorders, violence control, depression, despair, addiction and PTSD.

There’s a major breakdown in the criminal justice system in this country. The system is retributive -- mostly punishment -- do the crime, do the time. At PYP we believe in restorative justice. We believe in victim-offender education and we provide prisoners with tools for self rehabilitation. We've helped thousands of prisoners by instilling self-control and fostering accountability, addressing the damage they've caused to their victims and themselves."

If you believe in the healing effects of yoga and want to help bring them to men and women as a way to better all of society, please consider donating to Prison Yoga Project. If you're a yoga teacher or committed practitioner, you can train with PYP to bring yoga to at-risk, highly traumatized populations. I believe that yoga belongs to everyone, that it is good for every body and that at its best, it can make miracles. As always...

Give good, do good, feel good!


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