“Yoga has brought peace into my life,” Blaine* tells me at the end of the yoga class. This could be heard in any yoga studio, except that we are not in just any yoga studio; we’re in a prison. We are in the middle of the first yoga teacher training program in a correctional institution in the United States. Though yoga classes in prisons are not rare anymore, training inmates to become yoga teachers had never been done before, until last April, when FCI Otisville, a medium-security federal prison for men in New York state engaged with the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch, a spiritual retreat center located in New York’s Catskills Mountains.
Sivananda, an international non-profit organization that teaches yoga in a tradition dating back several thousand years, founded the first yoga teacher training in the West in 1969. The organization, dedicated to spreading peace, health, and joy through yoga, has been sharing yoga in prisons for the past 20 years—sending books on yoga to inmates, exchanging correspondences, and teaching yoga classes in prisons.
Sivananda has been hosting yoga classes at FCI Otisville, located 45 minutes away from the ashram, for years. Constantly up against a shortage of teachers to bring yoga into prisons, Mahadev Chaitanya, the ashram manager, imagined what might happen if he tried to train the inmates themselves. Convinced of the transformative power of such a course, he envisioned the potential spreading of yoga and inner peace within the correctional facility in a sustainable way: Yoga teachers within would reach a larger inmate population and in turn benefit to the entire prison.
In light of the basic philosophies of yoga, prisoners have much to gain from a regular practice. Inmates are more likely to be dealing with negative emotions—anxiety, fear, despair, anger, depression, and trauma—than a practitioner not behind bars. With a present reality that hinges on past events, as well as an environment of hostility and potential danger, yoga presents an opportunity to break through from the cycles of negative thoughts and emotions that further imprison the self. Yoga presents an opportunity for a form of freedom.
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Within the yogic framework, violence is said to spring out of fear—fear of the other, fear of not having enough, fear of not being in control, fear of dissolution. Yoga can help transform fear into awareness, which could mean transforming violent impulses into an innate sense of empathy.
Yoga Teacher Training in Prison: Program Structure
At FCI Otisville, the inmates follow the same curriculum as any other trainees in Sivananda ashrams across the world. The coursework incorporates hatha yoga, yoga philosophy, anatomy and physiology, study of the preeminent yogic text Bhagavad Gita, meditation, and kirtan (chanting). The program introduces students to yoga progressively during a 6-week preparatory phase where they attend a weekly class, read books, and write assignments about their understanding and experience of yoga. The training course runs over the course of six months and is composed of three intensive sessions of 10 days each. Between these sessions, the students are expected to practice and study yoga on their own.
The training is open to all as long as they fill certain educational, fitness, and behavioral conditions—no prior yoga practice is required. For the pilot program last spring, the 15 trainees selected by the correctional administration were at very different levels—some had been practicing yoga for years, others were brand new to it. The group was heterogeneous in terms of age (20 to 55 years old), race, and criminal background.
The First Yoga Teacher Training in Prison
When I was living and teaching at the ashram I was asked to coordinate the project because of my background in humanitarian aid and human rights, which included work in prisons in Colombia and Haiti.
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On the first day of the program last spring, we were escorted by a correctional officer through several security gates to reach a large basketball court. With flowers, candles, and musical instruments, we transformed the gym into a sacred yoga hall before the trainees arrived. Overwhelmed with emotions, questions, and expectations, we sat on the floor for a group meditation with the inmates. When the trainees changed into their new yoga uniform the room suddenly lit up: the 15 incarcerated men lost the predominant identifier, and instead become yoga students.
Before starting the course, despite a profound motivation, I wondered how my mind would react. Would I be able to avoid wondering about their crimes? Would I be able to truly feel oneness with these men? As soon as the yoga class started, my doubts dissipated: I was assisting the class as I would for any other group. I observe them practicing at first, then help them bring their feet together, straighten their backs, and focus on their breathing.
Though I knew going in to this experience that I would be perhaps the first woman to touch some of these men in years, if not decades, I never felt that my gender got in the way of my teaching. To speak to these men softly and with kindness is not only my duty as teacher, but also a rarity for my students. “You make us feel like we are normal,” says Bill.*
Day after day, for three months, we observed the trainees’ metamorphosis as they progressively opened up. This transformation tends to happen in all intensive teachers training as students go through a sort of purification process induced by yoga practice, and in this context the change was even more apparent. Prison is a harsh, loud, crowded, chaotic environment where standing on guard, exhibiting strength, and containing emotions are seen as a necessary protection. During the classes we could hear other inmates just outside lifting weights, shouting, arguing.
At first, the trainees pushed their physical limits. While yoga is about being present, experiencing what is, and finding the fine line between comfort and challenge, our trainees were clearly not looking for comfort. They are used to dealing with difficulties and pain. As they practiced the physical postures, they winced, sweat, and turned red. We needed to remind them over and over again to be gentle with themselves. But within a short time, they started letting go, especially in the final relaxation, surrendering into Savasana. “Since I spent seven years in solitary confinement, my body was always so tensed, I felt I couldn’t breathe. Now I’m relaxing. And I feel the love,” says Chris*.
Opening up and observing one’s thoughts are not easy tasks. One of the trainees confides that meditation brings dark thoughts to light; he experiences frustration, sorrow, and most of all—guilt. But the process of self-inquiry toward peace of mind is initiated. Within a week, as the science, or magic, of yoga operates, the trainees expressed a positive change: with more knowledge on how the mind functions, they began exerting some control over their thoughts, distancing themselves from the waves of emotions, and they said they felt more at peace.
“It is as if a bright light has been turned on, allowing me to see myself and life more clearly,” writes one of them. In this perspective, the opportunity to learn yoga can lead inmates to find more freedom—inner freedom—than many of us living “outside,” but bound by worldly attachments, emotions, and negative thought patterns.
After the first intensive session it was not easy for the trainees to go back to their everyday lives. As in all yoga teacher trainings, this is where the real challenge starts. In prison, negative influences are strong and difficult to escape; in their own words it is a place of “ignorance and darkness.” But soon the yoga students overcame this obstacle—they found the discipline and motivation to practice every day together, encouraging each other.
The Future of Yoga Training in Prisons
Yoga offers a unique opportunity for positive transformation and rehabilitation in even the most extreme settings. With this journey, the inmates discovered their inner resources to better resist stress and anger, and found love and peace within. Training prisoners to become yogis and yoga teachers helped improve inmates’ ethical behavior and strengthened respect for themselves and others. Relations between inmates and with the guards also improved.
In a country with such a high recidivism rate yoga can prove an efficient and cost-effective rehabilitation tool. My hope is that the Sivananda teacher training program can serve as an example that will inspire other institutions and be replicated elsewhere, generating a greater impact for the entire U.S. prison population.
* Names have been changed to respect the inmates’ anonymity