The Yoga of Redemption

by Matthew Gilbert

From Spirituality & Health, Issue: March/April 2005

It’s Tuesday night at San Francisco County Jail Dorm #7. Bhavani Kludt, a registered instructor with the Yoga Alliance and a trainer at the Integral Yoga Institute in San Francisco, and Bill Scheinman, a meditation teacher with Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, lead me through a series of locked doors controlled by some unseen force on a floor above us. Video cameras keep a watchful eye as buttons are pressed and keys inserted. Soon we are standing in a room the size of a high school auditorium amid dozens of orange-clad men clustered in groups, milling about, or holding private counsel. A series of bunk beds line two of the walls; along another are several open toilets, barely private behind an approximately four-foot-high cement wall. The din is what you might expect to hear at intermission of a popular play. Our arrival draws some stares, but the noise doesn’t abate.

Kludt says hello to the duty guard, who then barks out a couple of names. Two inmates, both in their 20s and white, suddenly materialize out of the crowd. They smile and shake my hand, as if we’re meeting for the first time over a potential business deal. The five of us follow a hallway past several other similarly raucous dorms. On the way, the young men grab two large bags filled with zafus (meditation cushions) and yoga mats.

We enter a small but pleasant room with dull white cinderblock walls and a worn gray carpet. The mats are stacked in a corner and the zafus tossed in a circle. A few minutes later, 23 others file in, one by one, and take their places. While most are black, many ethnic and racial groups are represented. Each has signed a waiver acknowledging that a reporter will be taking this class with them. Several meet my eyes and nod. I nod back, still not completely at ease. Kludt says a few introductory remarks and then segues into the work.

“Don’t forget to pay attention to your breath,” she says matter-of-factly. “There is no judging here, no forcing yourself to do something that feels uncomfortable. Concentrate on listening within, on finding your inner strength.” The hatha yoga routine Kludt directs is surprisingly vigorous. There are moans, grunts, and more than a few helpful instructions. There are light moments as well. When Kludt directs the group to clasp their hands behind them, fill their chests, and then bend forward, one of the inmates quips, “Ahh, the handcuff practice pose.” The group explodes in laughter.

Forty-five minutes later, Scheinman guides us through a 30-minute “loving kindness” meditation. “This will help you to expand your emotional range,” he explains, “to feel more positive emotions.” The lights are dimmed, the room falls silent, and we close our eyes. In quiet solitude we embrace ourselves, our families, those we’ve hurt, those who may have hurt us, and the entire planet. If I hadn’t known any better, I could have been in any meditation class in any room in any town. But I wasn’t. I was in a high-security jail full of violent offenders serving time or awaiting sentencing for domestic abuse, armed robbery, or aggravated assault. And while some of them would soon be released, others were looking at years of internment behind state or federal prison walls.

Yoga Extends Its Reach

It was inevitable that the practice of yoga, as well as its objectives — compassion, mindfulness, self-discipline, and, not ironically, liberation — would make their way to those behind bars and those who might likely end up there. Bo Lozoff and his wife Sita were the first to introduce Eastern traditions of spirituality into U.S. prisons 30 years ago when they founded the Prison-Ashram Project (now part of their Human Kindness Foundation). Lozoff’s 1984 book We’re All Doing Time: A Guide to Getting Free is a celebration of Buddhist practice, metaphysics, and good old-fashioned kindness and caring that has been distributed free of charge to thousands of inmates. Lozoff himself has visited about 700 prisons, by his estimate, and while he has scaled down his involvement, staff members handle hundreds of prisoner requests for information and guidance every week. Lately, the project’s efforts to reach out to inmates have been joined by the work of other organizations with programs throughout North America.

These groups, including numerous smaller and individual efforts, operate in a wide variety of adult and juvenile facilities. Many of them partner with an institution’s mental health or stress management services and offer a combination of yoga, breath work, and meditation. Classes are often taught by both yoga and meditation teachers. This is how it works at the San Francisco County Jail, where inmates seem genuinely moved when the two-hour session of asanas and inner work nears completion as one after another shares their experience.

“The relaxation helped me let the tension go,” says one man. “It clears my head, makes me think better,” says another. “When you’re in a stressful place like this, it helps to get rid of the negativity.” Talking to several inmates afterward, it was clear that for many, the chance to simply get away from the relentlessness of their environment — the noise, the guards, and the lack of privacy — was reward enough. “There’s usually a lot of hatred in jail, but not in class,” shared one animated, stubble-faced man. “Tuesday [after class] is the only night I sleep well.”

The benefits of such practice can go beyond immediate relief. In fact, advocates claim that the real potential of these programs lies in getting participants to acknowledge and then deal with the pain they’ve caused as well as with their own psychological and emotional traumas. It’s an undeniably slow process, although Martha deBarros, a Zen Buddhist meditation teacher who has taught both juveniles and adults for 10 years and currently works independently at San Quentin State Prison, recalls one inmate who seemed to have had an epiphany in one of her classes. “I’ve discovered a kindness in me that’s sort of amazing,” she recalls the man saying. “During the meditation, I suddenly felt my victim’s pain. It was like a rush. It was spooky. Everything changed suddenly. I’m shaking now.”

Back at the San Francisco County Jail, a soft-spoken black man in his 30s, worried about the pressures on his family while he awaits his fate, credits Bhavani for helping him deal with the anxiety. “Yoga helps me focus more on my inner thoughts, on my anger and my posturing. It’s helped me with my pretrial jitters and when I deal with the child protective services. Instead of getting upset, I go inside. I can trust that things are being taken care of.”

Prison staff who work with these programs are impressed with the progress they see. Mauryne Lees, a specialist with the San Francisco County Jail’s Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP), marvels that “when we made [yoga and meditation] mandatory, I started seeing drastic changes, real expressions of peace on some of the inmate’s faces.” Cindy Crow-Urgo, director of Camp Glenwood Boys Ranch south of San Francisco, thinks that the programs of Youth Horizons “have really helped these kids. There are a lot of outside influences; they need all the tools they can get.”

Punishment vs. Reform

Unfortunately, the acceptance of such programs is hardly the norm. For the last two decades, in an increasingly conservative political climate, the philosophy of incarceration in this country has been punishment.

“Twelve years ago, the whole notion of rehabilitation was written out of the mission statement of the Department of Corrections,” says Jaques Verduin, founder and director of San Quentin’s Insight Prison Project, which integrates hatha yoga, insight meditation, and group therapy with other skill-building classes. Lucia Meijer, former administrator at the Seattle North Rehabilitation Facility (NRF) and now program director for the North American Vipassana Prison Trust, agrees that the notion of inmates as a redeemable population has been out of favor for some time. “Those who see prisons as a tool of containment are reluctant to look at rehab,” she says. Facing ideological resistance, budget constraints, and a dearth of data showing benefits, programs that deal with the deeper cycles of violence and substance abuse that lead to internment in the first place have thus struggled for legitimacy.

Not surprisingly, recidivism rates — the likelihood that an inmate will return to prison for another criminal offense — remain high and, according to the latest figures, have actually increased. The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced in June 2002 that 67.5 percent of the 272,111 inmates released from state prisons in 1994 were rearrested within three years, compared to 62.5 percent in 1983. More than 80 percent of them ended up back behind bars. That’s 137,000 people, each at a cost of $20,000-$30,000 per year.

“A night in jail or prison costs what you would pay to stay in a decent hotel,” says Ken Kerle, managing editor of American Jails magazine. This in a prison system that has grown from 200,000 inmates in 1970 to nearly 2 million today; the U.S. locks up a higher percentage of its citizens than any country in the world.

There is little disagreement among those who work with inmates that most of those released have too few skills — practical, emotional, or psychological — to successfully steer themselves through the difficult re-entry into “civil” society. This is the rationale that yoga and meditation instructors rely on to justify their programs and gain the attention of overworked administrators growing desperate for alternatives to incarceration as usual. They claim that doing “inner work” and gaining tools of self-awareness can help break dysfunctional patterns that lead people to hurt others and, ultimately, themselves. But enthusiasm and belief don’t substitute for hard data, at least not to those making the decisions.

“The problem,” says Kerle, “is that we don’t know how well these programs work. We need evidence that they pay real dividends.” As it turns out, a small body of research is beginning to take shape that validates many of these claims.

  • Harvard University has completed a three-year study of the San Francisco County Jail’s experimental RSVP, which considers itself not simply a rehab program but an application of the broader aims of restorative justice, including victim impact, offender accountability, and community involvement. The re-arrest rates of “graduates” who were in the program for at least four months dropped a remarkable 80 percent. The program won a coveted Innovation in American Government Award from the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Committee on Criminal Justice, delivered Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs to 4,800 inmates and 100 staff — including the Commissioner of Public Safety and several prison superintendents — of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections between 1992 and 1996. Although funds ran out before a reliable recidivism study could be conducted, before-and-after studies found “statistically significant improvements” in a number of psychological tests measuring hostility, moods, self-esteem, and “sense of coherence.”
  • YIF (Yoga on the Inside Foundation) gauged program effectiveness at two secure juvenile facilities in Los Angeles County by comparing behavioral referrals of participating minors to those of non-participants over a five-month period. “We discovered,” reports founder and former president Mark Stephens, “that those participating in yoga were 60 percent less likely to receive a negative office referral for acting out in school (inside the secure facility) and 68 percent less likely to receive a negative camp referral for interpersonal conflict.”
  • In 2002, Seattle’s NRF found that rates of re-incarceration for 75 inmates who took 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats was 56 percent, a 25 percent improvement over recidivism rates in the general inmate population of 437. A follow-up study by the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington found that drug use, drug and alcohol-related consequences, and self-reported levels of depression and hostility were significantly lower among those who took the course compared to those who didn’t.

No-nonsense Vipassana Prison Trust director Meijer, with 30 years of substance abuse counseling, training, and administration behind her, feels that the findings of the NRF study break new ground.

“I’ve seen the fads, I’ve seen the studies. They have to stand the test of time. But when I look at this [Vipassana] stuff objectively, I have to say that the program is extremely promising. The benefits appear both immediate and long-term. It’s a boot camp for the mind.”

Inside Prison Walls

While it’s easy to romanticize the potential of such efforts, the challenges can be daunting, given the harsh conditions of correctional life and the circumstances of those who live it. Often, teachers see inmates or juveniles for no more than a couple of weeks as they cycle into and out of the system. This is especially true in jails and detention centers. Lack of support from prison staff and guards is another common obstacle. Some of the problems are logistical, such as finding an appropriate space or dealing with unexpected lockdowns. In one situation, Kludt tells me, prison administrators had to keep screening the class list for names of rival gang members.

“Teaching in these environments requires a huge amount of mindfulness and no attachment to outcomes,” says Kabat-Zinn. He notes that most of the training provided by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections focused on helping MBSR teachers recognize “the art of the con. Prisoners spend all day bullshitting each other.”

In juvenile facilities, which are attracting more attention as a first defense against adult-age criminal acts, the challenges are slightly different, complicated by a youthful disregard for authority and the natural growing pains of adolescence. Excessive posturing and attitude, says Andrew Getz of Youth Horizons, “are like a veneer over a hyper-vigilance.”

“Basically, they are all trauma survivors,” says Noah Levine, co-founder of the Bay Area-based Mind Body Awareness Project for juveniles and author of Dharma Punx, an autobiography that recounts his transformation from rebellious adolescent junkie to Zen meditation practitioner and teacher. “They’ve learned it isn’t safe to show vulnerability. Even closing their eyes can be an issue.”

Ultimately, the future of programs that bring yoga and meditation to inmates and at-risk youth may depend less on the availability of hard data documenting their success and more on the availability of the teachers themselves. All of the organizations mentioned here rely on grants and private donations; few of them actually pay their instructors, and none of them charge the facilities they operate in. This is fine as long as there are willing volunteers and enough money for basic expenses, but if these programs are to grow or even survive, then support will have to come from somewhere, and the funding environment is becoming more and more stretched.
Planting Seeds of Hope
The line between success and failure, between “breaking free” and “breaking down” again, is fragile for those behind bars, even under the best conditions. As I listened to inmates in the counseling part of RSVP talk about the challenges they faced on the outside, I was struck by how difficult their lives had been — and likely would be again. Many were abused as kids; others had family members with drug and alcohol problems. One exchange between an inmate and the group facilitator was especially poignant:

Facilitator: “Do you think you can be different when you get out?”
Silence.
Inmate: “Truthfully?”
Silence.
Inmate: “I don’t know … I’ll try … I’m 51 years old. I don’t want to come back here.”

“Yoga wisdom” isn’t for everyone, of course. The language of the East isn’t universally understood, and concerns that yoga is a religion or “only for sissies” were not uncommon among some of the inmates I spoke with. But the aims of instructors and enlightened administrators have little to do with conversion. “It’s not about getting someone interested in esoteric traditions,” says Verduin, “but about studying the human condition and regaining some control. Many of these people aren’t bad; they just don’t have the right tools.”

Perhaps the one thing in shortest supply for those whose actions have brought them to such a point is hope. Faced with the inhumanity of prison life and the bleak scenarios that await them on the outside, is it any wonder that many have surrendered to bitterness, resignation, or retribution? And yet many others would like nothing more than a reasonable chance to overcome their despair and the self-destructive cycles that inevitably follow.

If teaching yoga and meditation does nothing more than give some of these men and women the chance to return to their families and their communities with more compassion, resolve, and self-awareness than they left with, won’t those efforts have been worth it? And while some inmates are beyond the reach of even the most skillful teachers, who would deny anyone the inherent capacity to heal and to learn from past actions, however much hurt those actions may have caused?

“I feel that any person, so long as they draw breath, is still God in drag,” says Bo Lozoff, “so of course they are potentially reachable. That doesn’t mean they will be reached at this given time, just as the masses of humanity remain unaware of their divine nature. Prisoners are people, pure and simple. They represent all the possibilities of the human being.”

Yoga and Meditation Programs for Inmates and At-risk Youth

As acceptance of these programs within the prison system grows, the challenge becomes one of recruiting enough volunteer teachers and funding. Here is a contact list for those who would like to offer support.

Featured in the Article:

  • Insight Prison Project (insightprisonproject.org)
  • Prison-Ashram Project (humankindness.org/project.html)
  • Yoga on the Inside Foundation (yifoundation.org)
  • Mind Body Awareness Project (mbaproject.org)
  • Youth Horizons (youthhorizons.org)
  • North America Vipassana Prison Trust (prison.dhamma.org)

Other Established Programs:

Prison SMART (Prison Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training) (prisonsmart.org), sponsored by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation, has clients nationwide and recently conducted a court-ordered program for gang members and juvenile offenders called the Los Angeles Youth Project.

The Prison Dharma Network (prisondharmanetwork.org), whose founder, Fleet Maull, was a former federal prisoner, is an “international nonsectarian contemplative support network for prisoners, prison volunteers, and correctional workers.”

Prison Project (siddhayoga.org/projects_support/prison), part of the SYDA Foundation, has offered a home-study course for inmates since 1979. Over 6,000 prisoners — a 50 percent jump from pre-9/11 figures — from approximately 800 prisons across North America, Australia, and Europe are currently enrolled.

The Lionheart Foundation (lionheart.org), based in Boston and founded by Robin Casarjian, offers in-house and educational programs, including Vipassana meditation, through its National Emotional Literacy Project for Prisoners and the recently launched National Emotional Literacy Project for Youth-at-Risk.

The Zone: A Teen Center for the Mind, Body, & Heart (lineageproject.org), founded by Soren Gordhamer and The Lineage Project in 2001, serves the needs of at-risk and post-incarcerated youth with yoga and meditation instruction from its location in New York City’s high-crime South Bronx.

Yoga Outreach (yogaoutreach.com) has been bringing yoga and meditation programs to correctional institutions, treatment facilities, and health care centers in British Columbia, Canada, since 1996.

For a comprehensive source of articles, books, and videos about yoga and meditation work in prisons (spanning an approximately 30-year period through 2001), read Yoga In Prison, compiled by Trisha Lamb Feuerstein for the Yoga Research and Education Center (530-474-5700, yrec.org) and available online at http://iayt.org/prison.pdf.

Matthew Gilbert is the editor of Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness, the quarterly magazine of The Institute of Noetic Sciences. His new book, The Workplace Revolution: Restoring Trust in Business and Meaning to Our Work, comes out this April from Conari Press. He can be reached at mgedit@hotmail.com.