Prison yoga. It’s not so new. Heck, it’s even one of the subplots of the new women’s prison-centered Netflix series Orange is the New Black. (You didn’t have to watch all 13 episodes of the season over the weekend to meet inmate ‘Yoga’ Jones, but you could have, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with that. Nope, nothing at all.) But as studies on yoga are rapidly increasing so are the findings that the practice and meditation are beneficial for the body and the mind for everyone. Yes, that include prison inmates.
This particular study, reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, took place in a women’s prison and a young offender institution in the West Midlands region of England. It was conducted by researchers out of the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University, supported by the Prison Phoenix Trust, an Oxford-based charity that offers yoga classes in prisons. Studying the effects of yoga on mood, stress and behavior, the researchers found positive results.
‘We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention,’ say Dr Amy Bilderbeck and Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.’
Inmates of varying ages were randomly assigned to 90 minute weekly yoga classes for 10 weeks, or to a control group. Each inmate took part in standard psychology questionnaires (before and after the classes for the yoga group) that measured “mood, stress, impulsivity and mental wellbeing.” There was also a computer test that measured attention and behavioral responses to visual cues. The results showed that the yoga group had less stress, better moods and did better at controlling impulsive behavior than the control group.
Bilderbeck is quick to advise that yoga is not meant to replace, but to supplement:
“We’re not saying that organizing a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates,” study researcher Dr. Amy Bilderbeck, of Oxford University, said in a statement. “We’re not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.”
Also, it’s way cheaper than meds and other mental health interventions:
Dr Bilderbeck adds: ‘This was only a preliminary study, but nothing has been done like this before. Offering yoga sessions in prisons is cheap, much cheaper than other mental health interventions. If yoga has any effect on addressing mental health problems in prisons, it could save significant amounts of public money.’
While this is great news for tax payers and the prison staff who have to deal with rage and aggression, let’s not forget the prisoners who have to serve their time within the confines of cell walls, physically, mentally and emotionally. Instead of picking up bad habits in prison only to be released back into society more ill-equipped than when they left, yoga can be one more tool these folks can use to help make peace within the prison and perhaps within themselves. This could translate to less repeat offenders, less return visits and more consciousness.
Sam Settle, director of the Prison Phoenix Trust, says: ‘Almost half of adult prisoners return to prison within a year, having created more victims of crime, so finding ways to offset the damaging effects of prison life is essential for us as a society. This research confirms what prisoners have been consistently telling the Prison Phoenix Trust for 25 years: yoga and meditation help them feel better, make better decisions and develop the capacity to think before acting — all essential in leading positive, crime-free lives once back in the community.’