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Finding Calm in the Chaos

by Kalia KelmensonApril 28, 2016
Woman with tattoos holds hands in anjali mudra


There is a population of people where anger is an accepted, indeed expected, emotion. The emotions of fear and sadness however, are not. In this culture, violence and addiction are the main issues. You may not want to join this population, however, this population is joining you, every day.

Right now, 1 in 100 U.S. adults are in prison. 1 in 31 are in some type of corrective situation. Of those released, 60% return to prison within 3 years. The statistics paint a compelling picture for changing how we think about prisoners in our country. Our current prison system is not intended for rehabilitation, but rather for punishment. To change this, we need to give prisoners the tools to develop self-compassion and empathy for others so they don’t stay stuck in the same behavioral pattern that led them to prison to begin with.

James Fox believes that “If somebody really makes the effort to make amends and to rehabilitate themselves, then they deserve to have that opportunity.” Fox started teaching yoga to prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in 2002. His initiative is based on the idea that most prisoners are disassociated with their bodies because of their histories and because of their living conditions in prison. They often experience high levels of anxiety, fear, depression, and despair. The two main behavioral issues he has seen with them are violence and addiction.

In response to these observations, he created The Prison Yoga Project, which is informed by the trauma that many of the prisoners have experienced in their lives. His goal is to help prisoners “change trauma-induced unconscious behavioral patterns, and develop skills for impulse control.” By bringing yoga, pranayama, and mindfulness practices in as foundational tools, he helps inmates turn their attention, which is often focused in a hyper-vigilant way on the world around them, inside themselves. He teaches them to develop often latent skills of self-control and self-discipline.

Any practitioner of yoga can recognize the challenge of staying in a difficult pose, of breathing through the temptation to come out of the pose because it feels too challenging. For prisoners, developing the capacity to access the breath in order to calm the mind and calm the body can be life changing. Learning that there is an alternative to acting impulsively can change the outcome in all situations.

In response to prisoners’ requests for help in continuing their practice outside of prison, Fox has written a manual to help guide them in their practice on the “outside”. He also travels the country leading teacher trainings for those who want to bring yoga classes into prisons. He teaches participants how to convince institutions to bring yoga to their prisoners, and also what really works when teaching prisoners. His methods are evidence based, and he has found a method that really speaks to the needs of this unique socio-cultural group.

By creating a culture of rehabilitation, and by offering the chance to develop capacities that are desperately needed, The Prison Yoga Project is bringing hope and the possibility of a brighter future, not just for the inmates, but for society at large. (

Kalia Kelmenson

Kalia Kelmenson founded Maui Mind and Body to support women's health. She is the creator of Core Strength Balance and Mind Body Booty Camp and enjoys moonlighting as the reviews editor at Spirituality & Health. Kalia explores the fascinating intersection of fitness and mind-body health. Find inspiration for your movement practice from research and stories that are emerging from this intriguing field.

This entry is tagged with:
PrisonTeaching YogaSocial Justice

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