Prison Yoga Project: Creating Access to Healing and Recovery

Despite two very different life paths, two individuals with a shared passion found a unique way to give back to their community. James Fox, M.A., spent 20 years in the wine business and then manufactured liquid supplements for nutritional supplement companies. Chanda Williams, M.A., wanted to be an astronaut and worked in the aerospace industry. Both of them practiced yoga. Today, Fox is founding director of Prison Yoga Project (PYP), and Williams is a yoga teacher and trainer and program director for PYP programs in Northern California. PYP has grown from Fox’s classes at San Quentin Prison to a national and international program. “What started out with me walking into San Quentin 18 years ago with a yoga mat under my arm has really spread,” says Fox, author of Yoga: A Path For Healing and Recovery. People who are incarcerated receive the book for free if they request a copy from Fox.

PYP focuses on teaching what Fox calls trauma-informed yoga. “From my own experience growing up as a young man in Chicago and dealing with the kinds of issues that urban young men experience, I thought that yoga would be a really great complement to other restorative justice practices for young men who were in trouble with the law,” Fox notes. In San Quentin Prison, the original site for the project, most participants were men, ages 35 to 55, from a variety of ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Caucasian, and Latino.

In the incarcerated population, Fox sees a microcosm of societal problems. “If you take the social, economic, and racial inequalities in this country, and the issues of childhood trauma, you can see them concentrated in the prison population,” Fox says. The lasting psychological and physical effects of trauma, if not addressed, lead to reactive and criminal behavior, he adds.

Trauma-informed yoga includes four components and differs from traditional yoga in its emphasis on emotional healing. The four components include physical movements, breathing exercises, mindful awareness, and deep relaxation. In a trauma-informed approach, “you alternate between action and non-action so that your brain and your body get used to modulating from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system,” or from the part of the autonomic nervous system that controls the fight-or-flight response to the part that resets the system to homeostasis, Fox explains.

A trauma-informed approach is also one in which the teacher acts more as a facilitator and invites the participants to try the poses, according to Williams. In addition, Williams says, “I understand that some poses are not appropriate, such as any pose that would have a participant put their hands behind their backs, because it may trigger the response of a traumatic incident that’s happened to that individual.” Poses are adapted for a participant’s physical limitations, as well.

Both Fox and Williams note that unresolved trauma lives in the body, even if the individual can’t or doesn’t want to talk about it. Fox points to the bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., as seminal work on this topic. Trauma-informed yoga can sometimes get people to open up about what they’ve experienced. It also gives them a healthier way to respond to stressful situations.

“If you really want to support individuals in rehabilitation, you have to have a way for them to access their places of pain and suffering,” Williams says. “Otherwise, what tends to happen is they return to unhealthy behaviors.” Trauma-informed yoga “allows people to tap into that sense of agency, where they understand that, ‘I am in control of myself. I can make another choice,’” she adds.

Prior to COVID-19, which shut down prisons and jails to visitors, many individuals would take Fox’s course for up to a year, but according to Fox, the response is dose-dependent, and at least 6 months is needed to see lasting effects. Williams notes further that California voters acted in 2017 to create incentives for people who qualify and participate in rehabilitative programs. If they join PYP for 26 weeks, they can shave 2 weeks off their sentence, she says.

Since COVD-19 restrictions began, Fox has updated his initial book and co-authored a new book released in February with PYP’s European director, Josefin Wikstrom, geared to the special needs of female prisoners. PYP has continued to hold virtual training classes for instructors and held a series of webinars. Unfortunately, most prisons and jails do not have the technology to do Zoom classes or something similar, both Fox and Williams report. In her downtime, Williams has corresponded with her class members by mail and is working on her doctoral dissertation, a mixed-methods study looking at the application of trauma-informed yoga for men who are incarcerated and studying the effects on increasing their interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness, and psychological wellbeing.

The gold standard for determining the effectiveness of PYP would be recidivism rates, but Fox notes that no prison or jail has been willing to share records for people in their custody because of privacy concerns. However, two Swedish studies for programs in which PYP’s Wikstrom was involved have shown that yoga is effective for reducing psychological distress levels in people in prison and has a positive effect on considerable risk factors associated with recidivism. A study of the psychological benefits for women who are incarcerated and involved in PYP in South Carolina showed that yoga “is a relatively inexpensive intervention that could benefit both [people who are incarcerated] and prison staff by reducing some negative behaviors and possibly mental health problems.” And a study conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency that looked at the Insight Prison Project that initially hosted PYP reported that PYP participants experienced the following:

  • A reduction of stress and anxiety
  • Calmer temperament
  • Emotional control and anger management
  • Improved rational decision making
  • Reduction of chronic physical pain

Neither Fox nor Williams is surprised by these results. They see the physical and psychological changes in the people they serve. One man walked into class with two canes and left without using them, Williams reports. “Then there are some individuals who really speak to the inner transformation that’s taking place for them,” she adds. “Talking about how they’ve been able to actually apply this, the teachings, in real life. Even if they can’t recall a specific yoga pose, they can remember to breathe.”

Finally, both Fox and Williams want people to remember the prejudice faced by individuals who have experienced incarceration. “They’re human beings,” Fox says. With 9 out of 10 individuals who go through incarceration returning to the community, Fox sees an advantage to restorative justice, rather than a punitive approach. Williams wants to see more small businesses hire individuals who have been incarcerated and says fellow community members can participate by welcoming these people home.

For more information about PYP, see https://prisonyoga.org/. For training opportunities, visit https://community.prisonyoga.org/courses/incarceration-trauma-and-yoga/.

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