Rikers Island Yoga – Stop, Drop and Jump Back

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It’s only in the last ten to fifteen years that there have been serious studies about the effects of yoga and meditation, let alone how yoga and meditation may affect the prison population. But two doctors at Oxford did a preliminary study about yoga in prison and found some interesting results.

‘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,’ said Dr Amy Bilderbeck and Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.’

– University of Oxford Department of Experimental Psychology

This week I bumped into two students who are no longer in my class due to reassignment. While I’m happiest hearing that students are going home, it’s good to see people smile and chat when the see the ‘yoga lady’. Wendy and Monica (not their real names) said that they were bummed that they didn’t have yoga. Wendy said, ‘I have to show you something though.’ She then gracefully moved through a Sun Salutation. For the non yoga set the movements in a sun salutation are below.

‘I’ve been practicing and even showing other girls stuff. I’m so proud of myself.”

So was I and told her so. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard that people keep practicing even when there isn’t class.  Another student told me uses the time she is locked down during shift change to do her mini-workout and yoga. She’s a fan of balancing poses and meditation. The meditations we do are something that she thinks about when she’s not in class.

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Dr Bilderbeck, who practises yoga herself, cautioned: ‘We’re not saying that organising a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates. 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’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.’

I think that teaching yoga in prisons and jails in important. There are two women who are now practicing being mindful on their own. They have a stronger sense of pride and self. I don’t know if this is going to help them when they leave. But I do know it can’t hurt.

This is yoga. For real.

Namaste y’all.

If you would like to learn more about Liberation Prison Yoga and the work we do click here.

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