For the last couple of months I’ve been teaching a weekly yoga class to men coming towards the end of long prison sentences. Some were introduced to yoga in prison – for others this lunchtime session in probation service hostel is their first yoga experience.
The class is about an hour long and usually starts with a warm-up, a series of standing postures and then some deeper stretches or twists. But the parts the men seem to enjoy most are the long guided relaxation and seated meditation that end the session.
We do a simple breath-focused meditation using counted exhalations as an anchor for the mind. At first, like all of us, the men find this difficult – “monkey minds” jumping around and refusing to be quiet. But over time, the length of time it is possible to sit gets longer. One of the regulars tells me he now often sits for 15 minutes at a time.
And he tells me it’s helping him stay calm and focused at other times too.
Research published this year by Oxford University involving 167 prisoners found that yoga “is effective in improving psychological wellbeing among inmates and may form a part of effective rehabilitation programmes.” It also found that, “participants who attended more yoga classes and those who engaged in frequent (5 times or more) self-practice reported significantly greater decreases in perceived stress.”
There’s a lesson there for all of us – not just those in the stressful surroundings of prison.
And I’m finding I’ve much to learn from my prison teaching. I’ve turned up each week with, I confess, a bit of a do-goody intention. And while it’s very satisfying after each session to see the guys walk away with a peaceful air, it is also true that I invariably feel better too.
Sometimes I come away with a feeling of solidarity, having sat together with our breath through aching hips and knees. Sometimes it’s being inspired by the positive attitude someone brings when they’re new to yoga – but not deterred by how difficult they find some of the poses.
Often it’s the very tangible reminder of how powerful and transformative yoga and meditation can be.
I was trained by the Prison Phoenix Trust, who also provide yoga and meditation books and CDs for prisoners. They are a small and very effective charity who welcome donations.