Can downward-facing dog really change the lives of the incarcerated?


By Judith Keeling

Research at the University of Oxford has found that weekly yoga sessions can provide a substantial improvement in the mental well being and outlook of inmates —  and for some, it might even prove to be life-changing.

Scientists at the University’s Department of Psychiatry recently conducted a 10-week study involving 170 prisoners in seven prisons across the West Midlands in the UK. The prisoners, who came from all age groups and included Category B and C inmates, young offenders and women prisoners, were randomly assigned to either a course of 10 weekly, two-hour yoga sessions, or to a control group, in which they carried on with their normal prison routine.

“Many prisoners have told us that the yoga course helped them to sleep better, be less depressed or anxious, and less angry,” explains Dr Amy Bilderbeck, one of the researchers. “We found that 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. Some have even said that they thought it had given them the perspective to turn their lives around.” 

The study, which is published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, is only preliminary but is the first of its kind. Given the positive results, it’s thought that yoga could provide an affordable mean of addressing some mental health issues in prisons. “Prisoners suffer a lot of anxiety and anger and many are poor at managing this,” explains Bilderbeck. “So yoga, with its emphasis on breathing exercises and meditation, helps them to learn how to calm the mind; it helps them to learn detachment from their emotions. They might feel anger for instance, but they don’t have to act on it.”

“We're not saying that organising a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn them into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates,” she continues. “We're not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners' well being and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.”

The trial was carried out in conjunction with the Prison Phoenix Trust, an Oxford-based charity that offers 150 weekly yoga classes in 90 prisons across the UK.  The charity was founded in 1989 to help prisoners of all faiths develop a spiritual life through meditation and yoga. “This research confirms what prisoners have been consistently telling the Prison Phoenix Trust for 25 years: yoga and meditation help them feel better, make better decisions and develop the capacity to think before acting, all of which are essential in leading positive, crime-free lives once back in the community,” explains Sam Settle, director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. “Almost half of adult prisoners return to prison within a year, having created more victims of crime — so finding ways to offset the damaging effects of prison life is essential for us as a society.”

Indeed, research conducted in the United States shows that practising meditation, a component of yoga, regularly appears to reduce the likelihood of a prisoner reoffending. “One U.S. study showed that the reoffending rate among people who practised meditation was 32 per cent compared with 48 per cent among those who did not practice meditation,” explains Bilderbeck. Although that figure is still high, a drop of 16 per cent also implies a significant improvement.

Yoga programmes similar to those run by the Prison Phoenix Trust are now helping prisoners in the United States, with jails in California reporting that regular practice helps even dangerous inmates find focus and become calmer. At Folsom Prison, for instance, Lamar Simms, jailed for his role in a killing 20 years ago, is a convert. “It’s one thing to be physically in prison. But then it’s another thing to be mentally in prison,” he explains.  The sessions, which include classic yoga positions and as well as practice of breathing and meditation, have grown on Simms. “Yoga’s not for everyone. It wasn’t really for me in the beginning,” he explains.

Dr Bilderbeck is now planning to study the correlation between the amount of yoga a prisoner practises with improvement in their mood and ability to control emotions, as well as examining if it could be useful for those on probation, too. “I strongly believe that every individual should be given support to turn their life around for the better,” she says.

Image by RelaxingMusic under Creative Commons license.