Yoga has much to offer people in the criminal justice system, including those who are incarcerated or otherwise system-involved as well as those who work as correctional officers, administrators, or other criminal justice professionals.
What the Research Says
Research shows yoga to be exceptionally effective at reducing the negative impacts of stress, which is vitally important to both physical and psychological health. Particularly when chronic, stress can negatively impact all of our physiological systems (cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal, etc.), as well as our mental health and emotional resilience.
Although relatively little research has focused on yoga in the criminal justice system, what has been done affirms that it can help incarcerated people with mood and anxiety disorders, substance abuse, stress, impulsivity, and a wide range of physiological concerns.
How Yoga Is Being Taught in the Criminal Justice System
Prior to 2000, very few yoga classes were taught in a criminal justice setting, and what was provided typically focused heavily on traditional yoga philosophy. But during the past decade, more and more organizations dedicated to offering a more secular, psychophysiological, therapeutic approach to yoga have emerged.
In the United States, this has resulted in a significant upswing in the number of jails and prisons offering yoga programs. At the same time, yoga is becoming more widely recognized and accepted as a valuable complementary therapy for trauma, recovery from addiction, and other issues that heavily impact criminal justice processes and outcomes.
Who Is Doing the Teaching
Today, an estimated 250 to 300 jails, prisons, and court-ordered rehabilitation programs have yoga classes taught by outside program providers (i.e., individual yoga teachers and/or yoga service organizations). An additional 50 to 75 offer classes taught by people who are currently incarcerated themselves.
Why It's Important to Adapt the Yoga Practices Offered
While yoga can be an invaluable resource for people involved with or working in the criminal justice system, it must be appropriately adapted to meet their needs, concerns, and values if it is to be safe, therapeutic, and effective.
Some popular ways of teaching yoga are inappropriate for a criminal justice context and could even cause harm. Just because a practice is labeled “yoga” doesn’t mean that it can’t cause injury, trigger trauma, or simply alienate people who might enjoy it if it were adapted to meet their individual and environmental needs.
Teaching yoga in ways that are appropriately trauma-informed, age-appropriate, gender responsive, culturally competent, and aligned with relevant criminal justice rules, regulations, and procedures requires a significantly higher level of training, experience, and maturity than is necessary for an average studio- or gym-based class.
As with any yoga instruction, what matters most is serving students by sharing the practice with them in ways that are safe, effective, accessible, and engaging. The fruits of this work in a criminal justice context are often inspiring. They also provide a relatively low-cost means of leveraging results that more established (and likely more costly) interventions strive but fail to achieve.
© 2017 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies. Adapted from: Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System, published by the Yoga Service Council and Omega Institute.