In January, I presented research demonstrating the relationship between physical fitness and mental acuity. In doing so, I highlighted one of the complementary bonds between secondary virtues. But what of virtues beyond fitness and intelligence? What is the relationship between fitness and other-directed, social virtues? There are many possible approaches to exploring this association. In this essay, I examine the possibility of developing social virtues where they are absent or disregarded. Can physical fitness serve as a tool to rehabilitate individuals whose actions have shown a disregard for the rights of others? I believe it can.
According to a 2011 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, about 40% of incarcerated adults in America return to prison within three years of their release.1 In a perfect world, penal institutions would act as reformeries to produce fully rehabilitated individuals who become model citizens upon their liberation. Instead, inmates face constant struggles with captivity, solitude, isolation from family and friends, drug addiction, overcrowding and violence, and often emerge from prison no less likely to commit further crimes. Consequently, government institutions and prison wardens must seek low-cost, low-risk initiatives for inmates to reflect on their crimes, maintain their health and cope with the stress of prison life. In recent years, many prisons worldwide have turned to yoga to fill that need. The Swedish national prison service employs a yoga coordinator, who trains prison guards as yoga teachers.2 In the United States, more than twenty prisons offer yoga practices through the Prison Yoga Project. Founded twelve years ago by James Fox to benefit at-risk youth, the program provides teacher training and has sent more than 7,000 copies of Fox’s manual to inmates so they can practice yoga on their own.3 A similar program in the United Kingdom, called the Prison Phoenix Trust, organizes yoga classes or sends yoga and meditation CDs to inmates in about 80 prisons.4
In 2013, Oxford University’s Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry measured mood, stress, impulsivity and mental well-being in inmates at a women’s prison and a young offender institution in West Midlands, England. Half the subjects participated in a ten-week yoga program run by the Prison Phoenix Trust, while the other subjects received no yoga training. According to Oxford’s Dr. Amy Bilderbeck, “the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention.”6 In 2010, the journal Nursing Research published a study that demonstrated incarcerated women who completed a twelve-week regimen of two yoga classes a week showed “a significant linear decrease” in their symptoms of anxiety and depression.7 Reverend Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, who helps inmates in the addiction recovery program as chief of chaplains at the Richmond City Jail in Virginia, said the mental health program at the jail had reduced recidivism by 18 percent, thanks in part to the prison’s incorporation of a yoga program for inmates.8 A 2008 study echoes this claim, showing just 8.5% of prisoners who attended four or more yoga classes were re-incarcerated upon release, compared to 25.2% of those who attended between one and three classes.9
Recidivism statistics aside, individual prisoners seem to enjoy genuine, long-term benefits from yoga practice. London resident Nick Brewer spent six years in Villa Devoto Prison, in Buenos Aires, Argentina for cocaine smuggling, and can attest to the power of yoga.
“It was the worst place I had seen in my life,” Brewer says of the prison. “They don’t have cells, they have open wings, where you can have anything from 100 to 400 people per wing. There were no beds so you’d literally be like sardines sleeping on the floor.
“Every week someone was killed, so you saw a lot of mindless violence, beyond what I’d ever, ever experienced in England—people with machetes, guns, lances. You’d literally see people being mutilated and cut to pieces and stabbed to pieces.”10
Eventually, wardens transferred Brewer and his co-defendant to a shared cell, where he began to practice yoga.
“If it wasn’t for prison I wouldn’t have got involved in yoga, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. I would probably be dead,” says Brewer, who now runs his own yoga studio. “At one point I actually became grateful for being in prison because I could feel this massive evolution, this change that was happening within me through yoga. So I almost became like a grateful convict, happy to be where I was, paying the time for my crime and rehabilitating myself.”11
The many benefits of yoga practice among inmates suggest this activity can strengthen non-physical virtues. It seems more likely that depressed and anxious people will commit acts of aggression, and that such aggressors will find themselves back in prison. Since yoga has been shown to alleviate both negative emotions and consequences, reason exists to believe yoga does support changes in ethical behavior. As an activity that combines physical movement with conscious mental application, yoga highlights the importance of both types of virtues in the quest for overall self-improvement.
“We realized we weren’t doing anything for the physical piece of treatment,” Dr. Pruitt says of the Richmond City Jail’s mental health program before yoga. “That’s an important part of the recovery process.”12
Beyond the physical demands of yoga lies the sense of personal responsibility required to achieve a particular yoga pose. A yoga practice consists of just the yogi and her mat, so the individual yogi controls the success or failure of a pose or practice.
“What we’re trying to do with any program is get inmates to think about how responsible they are for the crime they’ve committed and the consequences,” says Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.13
Yoga appears well-equipped to accomplish that aim.
- Pilon, Mary. “A Series of Poses for Fitness, Inside and Out.” New York Times. 3. Jan. 2013. Online. 15 Feb. 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/us/inmates-find-health-and-solace-in-yoga.html.
- Mansel, Tim. “How yoga is helping prisoners stay calm.” BBC News. 25 Sep. 2013. Online. 16 Feb. 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24272978.
- Pilon, 2013.
- Mansel, 2013.
- Bejim. “Man Grabbing Steel Cage Stock Photo.” FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image. 22 Apr. 2012.
- “Prisoners doing yoga may see mood benefits, study finds.” BBC News. 11 Jul. 2013. Online. 16 Feb. 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23268302.
- Pilon, 2013.
- Landau, Pashupati Steven and Gross, Jagat Bandhu John. “Low Reincarceration Rate Associated with Ananda Marga Yoga and Meditation.” International Journal of Yoga Therapy, No. 18, 2008. Online. 20 Feb. 2014. http://www.prisonyoga.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ReincarcerationStudyIJYT.pdf.
- Mansel, 2013.
- Pilon, 2013