The ancient art of yoga, a physical, spiritual and mental practice whose benefits have been touted as improving relaxation, has found an unlikely home: prisons. When many states have cut their wellness and education programs for inmates, citing cost and political pressures, some wardens looking for a low-cost, low-risk way for inmates to reflect on their crimes, improve their fitness and cope with the stress of overcrowded prison life are turning to yoga.Three times a week, Robbie Norris, a 50-year-old yoga teacher, barely glances at the barbed wire as he strides through the metal detector at the Richmond City Jail in Virginia. He exchanges his driver’s license for a visitor’s pass, navigates a labyrinth of hallways, security guards and the buzzing and clanking of gates, and makes his way to a windowless room to teach yoga to inmates.In minutes, the women in Mr. Norris’s class, whose crimes include embezzlement and parole violations, were inhaling, exhaling and deep into a series of vinyasa and warrior poses, with only the clank of the guard’s keys outside to disturb them.The number of yoga programs is not officially tracked, but many wardens said they were interested in pursuing them. Typically programs start informally, a hodgepodge of volunteer efforts by instructors and correctional facilities.The Rev. Dr. Alonzo C. Pruitt, the chief of chaplains at the Richmond City Jail and an addiction recovery officer, said the mental health program at the jail had reduced recidivism by 18 percent, and he partly credited yoga with that success. Mr. Norris began teaching the male prisoners at the jail, which holds around 1,450 men and women, four and a half years ago.Even though states’ spending on corrections has quadrupled during the past two decades, to $52 billion, the rate of recidivism has remained stubbornly high, with roughly four in 10 adult American offenders returning to prison within three years of their release, according to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts. Verdoux Adam, an inmate in California, attended a yoga class.“Any program that gives an inmate a chance to reflect is going to have positive benefits,” said Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the Corrections Department in California, which has expanded yoga offerings to most of its 33 adult facilities.At least 20 prisons now offer yoga through the Prison Yoga Project, a program that began in California 12 years ago when its founder, James Fox, center, began teaching yoga to at-risk youth. Mr. Fox holds trainings for yoga teachers and said he has sent more than 7,000 copies of his manual to inmates to practice yoga on their own.Typically, yoga teachers volunteer their time and mats are donated, resulting in little or no cost to taxpayers. Many instructors drawn to teaching in prisons said they had grown disillusioned with instructing some of the Lycra-clad urbanites seeking to channel their inner Gumbys and lose weight rather than connect with the more spiritual aspects of the practice.
Inmates participate in the yoga program at San Quentin State Prison in California.“This seems like a relatively inexpensive technique that could be made available to inmates and doesn’t take a lot of space,” said Steven Belenko, a professor with the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University.
James Fox, left, patted inmate Tariq Shabazz on the shoulder. Mr. Shabazz has been behind bars seven years on a domestic violence charge he says he has been practicing yoga for six months.