Yoga for prisoners?

James Fox conducting yoga for prisoners

James Fox

We want to take the bad guys and lock them up. Out of sight and out of mind! But does this really solve the problem? Prisons are factories of violence. Are we sending people there at great cost to tax-payers only to turn them into hardened criminals? One man, James Fox, is out to change this and he has an unusual tool in his tool box: Yoga!

Sara Neufeld an Anusara yoga teacher with background in journalism recently interviewed him. Here is the interview reposted with permission:

Sara Neufeld: How did you get involved teaching in prisons?
James Fox: I’d been practicing yoga for 24 years, and when I became certified to teach in 2001, I knew that I didn’t want to teach in yoga studios… In one of the teacher trainings I did with Erich Schiffmann, he said something that really impacted me, something to the effect of, ‘Don’t be so concerned about teaching someone else’s teachings. Find what it is that you have to offer.’ … There was a monk who was in that training who had been teaching homeless people, and I was very impacted by that… There was a residential treatment facility for boys in the town I lived in. I thought, ‘Well, there’s the perfect opportunity.’ … I went to this residential facility called Full Circle and presented that I would like to teach yoga to the boys. At first they said, ‘It would be impossible. We can’t keep their attention for more than five minutes.’ That went on for five years until Full Circle lost its state funding and had to close…. (Meanwhile) the Insight Prison Project, a nonprofit organization, was setting up a multidisciplinary program at San Quentin and asked if I would set up a program.

SN: What was a typical class like for you when you started?
JF: When I first started going and I’d walk in with my yoga mat under my arm, the guys on the yard would whistle at me…. Yoga was brand new to them. It was looked at as some kind of pursuit for sissies. I was like a Martian showing up in their world. I remember one guard saying to me, ‘Man, I’ll give you six months.’ … After about a year, more and more guys started showing up… Now I’m teaching three classes and about to start a fourth: two for guys with life sentences and two for (those with) determinant sentences, beginner and experienced, (filled to capacity at) 16-18 students each.

SN: How do you draw inmates to your classes?
JF: Word of mouth in prison is everything. If something good is going on, the inmates spread the word…. Oftentimes I’ll get a guy who will come to the class and say, ‘I’d really like to stretch.’ And I’ll say, ‘This is not a stretching class. You’ll get plenty of physical exercise here, but it’s really more about your mind.’

SN: What poses and meditation techniques have worked particularly well with your students? Which have you eliminated through trial and error?
JF: I’ve been a Vipassana practitioner for many years…. I always do a short period of meditation to begin the class and a short period of meditation at the end…. At unexpected times during the asana practice, I will stop. I like to do a standing moment of meditation in between sets of Surya Namaskar. I’ll stop in Tadasana and have the guys close their eyes to bring them back fully into themselves…. Working with this population, oftentimes slower is better. It instills mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t just sitting and meditating, but it’s something you want to carry through the entire practice…. I’d pretty much been an Iyengar and Ashtanga-trained yogi, and about four or five years ago I started studying Taoist yoga… It corresponded to a particular teaching topic I was fond of, the warrior spirit, what are the real attributes of a warrior. Really warrior-ship is not about fighting but developing the emotional and spiritual discipline to be a defender of your community and your tribe. I started incorporating the Taoist practice, both the Yang part, which is more assertive, and the Yin, and the men have really liked it a lot.

I always include standing poses whether I do them in a vinyasa or standalone. I do a lot of focus on the kidneys because I’m working with a majority of guys who are recovering addicts…. When I started working with youth, I thought, what are the common denominators? Addiction and violence. How can I apply yoga to those issues? Of course the addiction part plays into the violence. So a lot of work on the kidneys and the liver, really working the lower back in a careful kind of a way so the kidneys are continuously toned.

I do not do any poses that put pressure on the cervical spine. No shoulderstands, headstands, plow…. We’re practicing on linoleum on concrete. Quite awhile ago I realized a couple of guys had injuries to their neck and so I realized, not worth it. Handstands against the wall, particularly for the experienced guys, they love that…. When you work up to the point where they can do a handstand against the wall, it’s a moment for rejoicing.

SN: Tell me about the book project.
JF: The book started primarily because … I was getting a lot of requests: ‘What can I do when I get out?’ It’s not very realistic that a lot of guys are going to get out and enroll in yoga classes…. Sometimes I would copy different asana practices, and I realized it was an incomplete way of giving them information. It just became obvious to me that I needed to write a book. I thought I’d so something that was maybe a dozen pages with a meditation practice, a couple of pranayama practices and an asana practice.

When I started, I realized I should do this the right way, put together a complete book for prisoners. I was also getting more inquiries from yoga teachers around the country interested in teaching yoga in prisons…. And then I thought, if it’s good for the guys in my classes, why not make it available to prisoners everywhere? … I needed to see if I could get some grant money so I could print more books, and that’s when I got connected with the Give Back Yoga Foundation. In talking with the Human Kindness Foundation, they have a prisoner newsletter that goes out on a quarterly basis…. We did an announcement in the holiday newsletter of 2009…. Initially I printed 1,500 books, and I had 1,500 requests in six weeks…. In 2010, I sent out about 4,500 books to prisoners, all in response to handwritten letters…. I am still getting a couple hundred requests a month…. I’m out of books right now. I’m waiting to print the second edition. I’ve added 36 pages to it with a couple of (new) asana practices, including a non-impact asana practice because I got a number of letters from prisoners who said, ‘I’m not in very good health or physical condition, and I like your book but I find the asana practices to be too difficult.’ … Give Back is granting some money toward the printing of the book, but the majority I raise on my own through grassroots fundraisers, so that’s the importance of doing the fundraiser in New York.

SN: We’re excited to have you coming to New York City. What can participants expect from the training?
JF: They can expect to get a really clear insight into the prison system, the need for rehabilitative programs and how yoga can be applied to the specific issues that prisoners are confronted with…. (There will be) lots of practical suggestions and information about how you can take the philosophy of yoga and apply it to people who come from such dramatically different backgrounds and are dealing with entirely different circumstances.

SN: You’ve become a passionate advocate for prison reform. Please explain.
JF: There are two areas. One is looking at the criminal justice system itself and the way it’s set up to keep sending more and more people to prison….If somebody is a nonviolent drug offender, I think we should be spending money on drug programs rather than the amount of money we spend keeping them incarcerated….The second area is looking at the prison itself and what is being done for prisoners. Since most of the major states have these huge budgetary issues, this is a call for the community to become more involved. Most people look at prisoners as out of sight out of mind, but 80 percent of them are coming back. You’re going to run into them in a grocery store, you’re going to run into them in traffic, you’re going to run into them on the subway. What kind of people do you want them to be? A lot of guys will tell you they go into prison a nonviolent drug offender, and they become violent because prisons are violent. You can get any drug you want in prison…. A person has to have a very strong commitment to rehabilitate.

This link will take you to the original interview:

James Fox led a workshop on teaching yoga in prisons at Ashtanga Yoga New York on June 18th and 19th. The highlights of the meeting can be found here.

Anneke Lucas has done some great interviews with prison inmates at San Quentin State Prison. You can find the story here:

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