by Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D.

The goal of incarceration of criminals, aside from being a form of punishment and assurance safety to the public, is hopefully to rehabilitate criminal behavior and to successfully reintegrate offenders in society as productive citizens.  As stated on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prison’s website, the hope is that prisons “are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens”.  However, the current reality is that the stress of incarceration due to the reduction and/or loss of freedom, control, privacy, and family contact and the increased prison incidence of abuse, violence and even disease is associated with significant negative consequences that are significantly greater than in the general population.  These include negative psychological impacts including anxiety, depression, anger, impulsivity, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and insomnia.  They also include problematic behaviors including aggression, violence, and antisocial and criminal behavior.  Notably, half of prison inmates are believed to have substance abuse disorder.  In terms of the bottom line of rehabilitation, the U.S. prison system has the worst rate of reoffending and recidivism with 70% of inmates back in prison in 3 years after release and 83% in 9 years.  Clearly, there is a great need for addressing both the suffering in prisons and the poor success in rehabilitation.

The underlying psychological issues with criminal behavior, which unfortunately become even more problematic in the correctional institution setting, include characteristics such as poor stress and emotion regulation, low levels of mind-body awareness, poor physical health and low levels of physical activity, sleep disturbance and insomnia.  At a deeper level are low levels of positive psychological characteristics such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, empowerment, self-compassion and most importantly a lack of life purpose and meaning and spirituality that are often tied to materialistic life goals.  This long list of underlying psychological factors is a remarkably good fit with the known benefits of mind-body and contemplative practices such as yoga, which growing research evidence has shown to foster physical health, stress and emotion regulation, mind-body awareness/mindfulness and ultimately improvement in life purpose and meaning and spirituality.

It is therefore not surprising that there is a movement internationally for the application of yoga in prison populations.  A 2020 review paper in the Journal of Correctional Health Care noted: “It was the early 2000s that gave light to more spiritual approaches to crime prevention and rehabilitation, leading to more holistic practices inside jails and prisons today. Now, jails and prisons all around the world, including Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, have incorporated some form of yoga, mindfulness, meditation, and/or other spiritual practices (chi-gung practice, breathing exercises, and the arts) into rehabilitation.”  There are a number of formalized yoga programs designed for prison populations by a number of organizations internationally that provide training and support for yoga instructors in teaching in this setting.  The well-known Prison Yoga Project founded by Paul Fox provides yoga programming in prisons internationally and their training programs and workshops offered online have been attended by over 3,000 yoga teachers as well as others in the criminal justice system.  The Kundalini Yoga-based Yoga for Youth program has a long history of teaching yoga to juvenile detention populations.  The Yoga Service Council published an invaluable book entitled “Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System” (available on Amazon.com), which is “a user-friendly guide that explains how to develop, implement, and sustain high-quality yoga programs appropriate for jails, prisons, youth detention centers, and court-ordered programs”.  Given this level of proliferation of yoga in prisons, there has also been a recent growth of scientific research in this field.

Most of the research on yoga in prisons has focused on the underlying psychological factors and the behavioral consequences faced by prisoners.  Several studies have evaluated improvements in stress and mood state.  A research team at Oxford University in the UK conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) with 167 participants across 7 British prisons.  The active intervention was a 10-week yoga program offered as 2-hour weekly group classes that included not only postures and physical exercises, but also breathing practices, deep relaxation and meditation.  Participants were encouraged to engage in self-practice of yoga outside of the formal classes.  Their study, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013, showed statistically significant improvements in measures of stress and distress as well as measures of positive mood state and cognitive performance.  In a followup analysis of the participants completing the yoga intervention published in 2016, they reported a trend in which participants who attended fewer of the classes exhibited smaller reductions in perceived stress and negative mood state.  Furthermore, those that never engaged in self-practice of yoga showed no changes in perceived stress and even some degree of worsening in negative mood state.  Self-practice for at least 5 times per week yielded statistically significant improvements in both stress and negative mood, with less but appreciable benefit for lower practice frequencies.

More recently, RCT’s conducted in Swedish correctional facilities examined a number of more specific but important psychological outcome measures.  In their first study reported in two separate publications, they applied a 10-week yoga intervention of weekly 1.5-hour group classes across 9 institutions and found, like the UK study, statistically significant improvement in negative mood state between groups.  They also showed improvements in perceived stress and well-being, although these were not statistically significant compared with the control group which also showed improvements.  Using the Prison Adjusted Measure of Aggression they found statistically significant improvements in antisocial behavior in the yoga group as compared with the controls.  Finally, they also reported significant improvements in measures of attention, impulse control, obsessive-compulsiveness, paranoid ideation, and somatization.  The improvements in antisocial behavior, paranoid ideation and impulse control, are particularly relevant for this population.  In a subsequent RCT conducted across 7 prisons, they probed more deeply into subtle psychological characteristics and found lower scores in novelty seeking and harm avoidance and significantly higher scores on self-directedness.  They concluded that their yoga intervention “increased the inmates’ character maturity, improving such abilities as their capability to take responsibility, feel more purposeful, and being more self-acceptant – features that previously were found to be associated with decreased aggressive antisocial behavior.”.

The observation that yoga interventions can affect underlying psychological variables that improve their odds of not engaging in criminal behavior, suggests that yoga may have an affect on reincarceration, which would suggest a true rehabilitative effect.  This has actually been evaluated in two studies.  An Ananda Marga yoga intervention in a North Carolina prison included 2-hour weekly yoga sessions that included asana, relaxation and meditation practices, but also added significant mantra practice and education in yogic philosophy.  Over a 5-year period their analysis compared 131 participants who attended 1 to 3 classes with 52 participants who attended 4 or more classes.  Of the lower practice group, 111 were released and 28 were reincarcerated  (25.2%) within a median of 12 months.  Of the higher practice group 47 were released from prison and only 4 (8.5%) were reincarcerated within a median of 7.5 months.  These data suggested a positive influence on reincarceration.

The strongest evidence for the effects of yoga on recidivism is from retrospective evaluation of the influence of yoga practices, which have been integrated into formal prison rehabilitation programs in the Israel Prison Service.  Prisoners who elected to practice yoga participated in 12 weekly 90-minute group classes and were encouraged to engage in self-practice outside of class.  Data was analyzed from 728 prisoners over an 8-year period who participated in the yoga sessions and from a 56,693 prisoners who did not practice yoga.  The characteristics of the prisoners such as incarceration statistics, socio-demographics, education were used to created matched groups of 591 prisoners with similar characteristics, with the primary difference being yoga participation.  Over a 5-year followup period after prison release, the reincarceration rates of the yoga group were superior to that of the matched non-yoga control group.  The risk of recidivism within 1 year of release was 30% smaller in the yoga group, and in the fifth year it was 17% smaller, with 41% of controls reincarcerated compared to only 34% of yoga practitioners.  In the report published in 2020 in International Journal of Offender Therapy and

Comparative Criminology, the authors acknowledge the need for following this research with prospective RCT’s but concluded with the recommendation that “policy-makers consider expanding alternative practices such as yoga into prisons, in recognition of their contribution to the rehabilitation process through the development of personal and social strengths”.

Clearly the fit between the challenges and characteristics of incarcerated individuals is a good match for what yoga can provide.  Although there is still little research on yoga in prisons, the studies to date are very encouraging.  Results have indicated improvement in the underlying psychophysiological factors and criminogenic psychopathology in criminal offenders, and also the associated benefits both during incarceration and, very importantly, after prison release with respect to reincarceration. 

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