A New Conviction

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Four years ago Ted Hyde was released from a state prison in California. Now, like many other former inmates, he’s headed right back to the slammer. But Hyde isn’t going to serve time. He’s going to serve his community by teaching yoga and meditation.

“I have to say it’s a little frightening,” says the 51-year old account executive from Orange County, California. “When I walked out of prison and those doors closed behind me, I thought I would never want to go back inside. But I can be of help now. I know this works.”

Hyde volunteers with the Siddha Yoga Prison Project, a 25-year-old nonprofit that has given free yoga instruction in the form of correspondence courses, to at least 45,000 prisoners worldwide. The project provides 1,200 prisons and more than current 6,000 inmates with yoga classes and monthly newsletters. Hyde says Siddha Yoga volunteers helped make his prison time the most spiritually transformative years of his life: “Most guys lose their self-esteem when they’re locked up. Siddha Yoga gave me the self-worth to get my life on track.”

Hyde’s life certainly seems on track. In addition to his job, his daily yoga practice, and his work with Siddha Yoga, he also volunteers at the local public radio station and a Shakespeare production company.

Hyde also credits Siddha Yoga for his successful reentry into society. When he was released, the local center invited him to take free classes, which he started attending right away. Since his wife had left him while he was in prison, the sense of community he found at the center turned out to be crucial.

The Siddha program is the largest of its kind in the United States, but teachers from other traditions are beginning to get involved. Steven Landau, president of the Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team, has been leading yoga courses at a prison in North Carolina for the past three years. Landau says that 17 of his regular students have been out of jail for an average of 14 months and only one has been sent back. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, about 60 percent of ex-convicts end up back in prison within three years of their release.

To start the program, Landau simply called around to prisons and asked if they’d like help from a volunteer yoga teacher. “I thought it would be a perfect place to teach yoga,” Landau says. “There’s not much else to do.”