Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Yoga Guides Indian Prisoners to Freedom

By Amber Skorpenske
Edited By Adam Flango

Prisoners in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh are getting out of jail early if they complete yoga courses. 

Prisoners practice yoga in India

By participating in three months of posture, balance and meditation inmates hack away at their jail time by 15 days. Authorities say these lessons will improve the inmate’s demeanor by reducing stress and aggression.

Carol McClenahan a yoga instructor based in Pittsburgh traveled to a similar prison in Jaipur, Rajasthan that offered yoga to inmates every Saturday. She says, “There were about 30 inmates taking the classes and I saw amazing postures which they had practiced. Pranayama practices (the art of breathing control) were an integral part of the program.” A local Rotary Club sponsored this particular program.

In many jails there are yoga competitions among the inmates giving them not only benefits from yoga but also self-worth and to show how far they’ve come. McClenahan was one of the judges at these competitions and says, “I witnessed a great camaraderie and self-worth there.”

Perception Differences

Yoga has very different connotations in India then it does in the United States. Manish Patel, Business Manager of Bayer Material Science based in Baytown Texas, says, “ Ancient Indian religious values and traditions has engraved practices such as yoga in modern day society. The culture of India in general believes in purity of the mind and soul and many religious practices directly correspond to doing just that.” It is more like a great spiritual awakening or cleansing of oneself and in this way could be beneficial to inmates.

Dharmesh Surati is a yoga instructor who has worked with the Prison Smart Program teaching young teens in jail. This program consists of teaching them “Sudarshan Kriya” a rhythmic breathing method and other stress-elimination techniques.  Surati says, “The basic idea of rehabilitation of prison inmates by the use of yoga is that in the core of every human lies a goodness. As the essence of yoga also is to discover our core, the spirit and unite it with the universal spirit.” Surati believes that because of extreme stress, mental impression or impulsive emotional outbursts, people commit what is defined as a crime by law.

Surati says, that many of the kids he has worked with became warm and friendly on the third day of class when they realized there was someone who cared for them despite their social status. Dharmesh saw a new sense of contribution, service and belongingness through these yoga attendees. Surati, concluded, “95% of these kids loved the workshop and felt it has helped them with being more calm and seeing life more clearly. This is because of the universal nature of yoga.”

Leigha Garcia-George, a new resident to Hyderabad after the relocation of her husbands job, Andhra Pradesh has been attending yoga classes and says they are very different than what she used to do in the United States. She says, “They are a lot more focused on meditation. We spend about 30 minutes doing sun salutations and other movements then the other 40 minutes we lay on the ground meditating to a tape or chanting.” She also says that the country is filled with signs – big enough to advertise concerts – announcing free yoga seminars and announcing the next “Big Yogi’s” arrival. Her husband, Ross George is more wary of India’s “yoga business” and says “Many of the people that add in the spiritual portion of yoga are either pretty flaky or seem to be under the sway of televangelist style yogis who are rolling in cash.”

Others still are worried about the impact this use of yoga might have on the more religious segments of Indian society. Aszra Mathar, a student at West Virginia University and originally from India, says, “I am not offended by this use of yoga. I do feel that Buddhists might disagree with this though. They view yoga as sacred. So it’s my assumption that they would be against its implementation within the prison system.” She goes on to say however that if Buddhists truly believes it cleanses the soul, they might not be offended by it. No one can know for sure.

There is also the idea that perhaps promoting a “recreational” activity to allow inmates to leave jail early is unfair and might downplay the difficulty of serving time. Mathar says, “Although using yoga rehabilitation is beneficial, I think it is important for those who commit crimes to realize the severity of their actions and remain an inmate for the duration of their sentence. Yoga or any other rehabilitation service shouldn’t be used to shave off time from a sentence.”

Carol McClenahan still believes that the practice and knowledge of yoga is for everyone. “From the loftiest Hindu Brahman priest to the lowest of society, it is an open book and those that choose to take the knowledge will benefit and those who are not ready or open will not.”

Regardless of the differing opinions this program seems to work well. Prisoners are moving on and becoming certified instructors who, most often, are coming back to teach yoga for other prisoners and continuing the tradition. There are even loftier hopes of introducing and promoting yoga in society so that people no longer commit crime. Only time will tell if this incredible goal will actually come true.

With this experimental work being done in India, it begs the question – would a program like this work in the United States? “Absolutely not,” Leigha Garica-George laughs, “I think people would laugh at it and not take it seriously at all.”  Aszra Mathar also weighs in, “It is my understanding that rehabilitation is something the States are very much in favor of, I don’t think many will support this.”

Recently, Carol McClenahan and a colleague from India visited Assistant Wardens of the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, PA to speak about teaching yoga to women inmates there. Wardens initially agreed and took the instructors to possible locations for classes. McClenahan says, “We brought donated mats and were ready to go. But right before we began, the jail pulled out and said they decided not to do it. They gave no reason. When we had visited, the guards were quite hostile and cynical to us about the program.”

It may be too soon to introduce this unorthodox “therapy” to U.S prisons, where prison authorities may see yoga as a pastime for housewives and the health conscious.

Believers still stand strong that yoga and particularly Zen meditation will become more and more common in prisons as officials and instructors alike see the changes in practitioners. As for the inmates in India? The fastest escape from their cells will now be from downward dog.

No comments: