Prison Yoga Project – Freeing the Prisoner Inside

Tadasana (hands)

By: James Fox, Founder, Josefin Wikström, European Programs Director, and Sam Williams, Prison Yoga Project Massachusetts

Throughout the US and our in-prison classes internationally, we see transformations in the people we serve each week. For many incarcerated people, our program offers the beginning of self-awareness, practical skills for self-regulation, and insight into what drives their behavior and why they ended up in prison. By identifying their symptoms of trauma and finding ways to self-soothe and regulate strong emotions, they start to gain self-control, self-esteem, and agency in life. And PYP’s program offers an authentic and humane connection to the outside world via our specially-trained facilitators.

The Prison Yoga Project envisions a cultural shift toward healing-centered approaches for addressing crime, substance use, and mental health disorders. Our mission is to provide programs for rehabilitation and resilience rooted in yoga and embodied mindfulness.

The Challenge

We frequently hear stories from program participants about developmental trauma, including abuse, neglect, poverty, hunger, racism, and other social inequities. They represent significant contributors to criminal behavior and substance use, often leading to incarceration. Unfortunately, the prison environment only compounds the trauma, as we have witnessed firsthand in our 20 years of experience working within the system.

The punitive approach of our prison system provides little opportunity for individuals to heal from developmental and complex trauma. And isolation only adds to creating a condition of multi-layered trauma. As a result, recidivism rates remain high, as unresolved trauma can lead to a constant sense of insecurity and social isolation after a person is released from prison or jail.

The inhumane conditions of incarceration cause harm not only to those who are incarcerated but also to correctional officers and staff, their families, friends, and the community as a whole. And those who are incarcerated return to society with exacerbated symptoms of trauma that can lead to further criminogenic behavior. So in actuality, our prison system is not serving public safety.

Our Solution

Many incarcerated people adopted criminal lifestyles as the result of ongoing symptoms of unresolved trauma. They sought a sense of belonging by associating with people of similar backgrounds and often joining gangs. Once they become aware of the impact of having been exposed to trauma from childhood and in life, it often empowers them to take a new path forward. They see themselves not as damaged goods with low self-esteem and shame-based identity but as a person responding to a life geared toward survival. This realization can provide a sense of self-empathy and hopefulness and motivate them to take responsibility for their actions, make amends, and be of service when released to society.

Using a body-centered approach drawn from yoga and other somatic practices, we help individuals release trauma, reducing its impact on their nervous system and behavior. Our practices include mindful-awareness training (interoception), movement synchronized with conscious breathing, and moments of deep relaxation. Regularly practicing these skills over time leads to changes in the brain that safely and effectively help individuals resolve trauma and develop resilience. And our group practices help create prosocial communities that counteract the isolation inherent in incarceration, fostering empathy and compassion.

We look forward to sharing insights and practices from our experience at the 34th Annual Boston International Trauma Conference.

“Yoga and its emphasis on the power of a single breath has promoted for me a respect for life and a profound realization of the destructive force of violence.”

 S.L. – Incarcerated man, San Quentin, California USA

Photo Credit: Robert Sturma

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