Yoga With Inmates at San Quentin State Prison

The Live Be Yoga Tour team visited San Quentin State Prison in Northern California to talk to the inmates about how yoga has transformed their time behind bars.
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The Live Be Yoga Tour team visited San Quentin State Prison in Northern California to talk to the inmates about how yoga has transformed their time behind bars.
Inmates practicing yoga at San Quentin State Prison.

Inmates practice yoga at San Quentin State Prison as part of the Prison Yoga Project. 

When I pictured prison, I imagined a bunch of hard-hitting criminals sitting around in dimly lit cells. I pictured darkness, discord, and hopelessness. I found out that that dated perception couldn’t be further from the truth. What if I told you that inmates are practicing yoga in prisons all across America? The Live Be Yoga Tour team visited San Quentin State Prison in Northern California to witness this incredible phenomenon and talk to the inmates about how yoga has transformed their time behind bars.

But first, how did yoga classes make their way to prisons to begin with? Meet James Fox, the founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, who has been teaching yoga at San Quentin for over 10 years. James, who comes to the prison every week, is very friendly with the inmates. They even ran up and chatted with him when we walked across the yard to the building where yoga classes are held. James's objective, as director of the Prison Yoga Project, is to provide prisoners with a mindfulness tool to draw on their yoga practice when they’re not doing yoga. If they’re tangled up in a confrontation in the yard, or upon release, or tempted to go back to using, they can draw on what they've learned from yoga for practical solutions. They can do it without actually having to do a yoga pose to get the value. That’s the transformational, rehabilitative value of yoga.

San Quentin’s yoga program is well known and revered among the inmates -- there’s even a yearlong wait for the privilege of attending yoga classes. (There are over 4,000 inmates at San Quentin, including 780 prisoners currently on death row, making it the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere. Inmates on death row are not eligible to participate in yoga classes.) Classes are held twice a week, and accommodate about 20 students. The class I attended took place in a mid-sized room with white walls, high ceilings, and lots of natural light. It was much airier and brighter then I would have imagined it to be. One by one, the inmates started trickling in and putting their mats down. Many of them began stretching on their mats or sitting on blocks in meditation. They carried themselves like seasoned yogis; it was clear that this wasn’t their first yoga class.

On the exterior, these men -- covered in tattoos, with scars and stories written all over their faces -- appeared brazen and intimidating, but when they flowed together through Sun Salutations, they were graceful and fluid. Watching an African American man, a white man, and a Latino man lying side by side in Savasana, completely calm and at peace, was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. In that moment, all of my preconceived notions about inmates were wiped away. They weren’t criminals, they weren’t prisoners, they were just humans practicing yoga together. Yoga means unity. These men were wholly unified, and it was beautiful.

The Live Be Yoga team interviewed three inmates after class -- two had been sentenced for first-degree murder, the other for armed robbery and kidnapping. We asked each of them how yoga had changed them. They said that it’s improved their mental health and self-awareness. It’s allowed them to better handle the daily difficulties of life in prison. It’s taught them to "respond, not react." It’s bolstered their relationships with other inmates and with their families outside the prison walls. It’s introduced them to mindfulness. It’s strengthened them mentally and physically. It’s given them a sense of inner peace. Yoga has radically changed these men's lives for the better.

I learned a lot from these inmates. In my opinion, just because someone committed a crime, it doesn’t mean they're a bad person. Half of the inmates at San Quentin are considered "general population," which means inmates they’ve exhibited good behavior during their time in prison. Many of these men committed crimes in their youth, 20-30 years ago, and they’ve changed. They’ve reformed. They’ve grown. The rehabilitation programs at San Quentin are intended to transform these inmates into responsible and productive members of society, and from what we could see, the Prison Yoga Project appears to be making huge positive impact. To find out more about the Prison Yoga Project, visit prisonyoga.org.

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