Yoga classes ‘provoke’ prisoners

A prison in Norway has stopped holding yoga classes after it found that instead of calming inmates, they were actually making some more aggressive….
…On the negative side, the yoga had provoked “strong reactions: agitation, aggression, irritability, trouble sleeping and mental confusion”…deep breathing exercises are an essential element of Yoga…but such exercises could make inmates more dangerous by unblocking their psychological barriers…

17 thoughts on “Yoga classes ‘provoke’ prisoners”

  1. This does not surprise me at all. A lot of what is taught under the name “deep breathing,” even by some yoga teachers, is actually a form of effortful shallow or unbalanced breathing, which can lead to overbreathing and hyperventilation. The negative symptoms described in this story are some of the major symptoms of overbreathing and hyperventilation. That’s one of the reasons the upcoming “Future of Breathing” symposium in September at Kripalu is so important, since we will be exploring in depth some of the major principles involved in natural, healthy breathing.

  2. This doesn’t suprise me. It would be very interesting to know what the “prisoners” were doing as their “yoga practice”. The longer I practice yoga (over 25 years now) the more amazed I am at how a practice is designed. This is why I have come to value the work of Desikachar, Gary Kraftsow, Paul Harvey (my teachers). So much of yoga fails to recognize the dangers (perhaps that’s a harsh word)of practice. I’ve been in all too many classes that are about postures. Backbends are especially prized in yoga, but my experience is that without adequate preparation and counterpostures, you can become very “wired” by them. Too often teachers fail to have students relate to the breath so they don’t know how intense/tense they cane become after the completion of the practice. For example:

    One of my teachers gave me a backbending practice which was given after close observation of my breath/breathing and almost a year of lessons (I had been practicing yoga for 20 years). In the practice their was great care given to preparation but more important was the practice after the culmination of “THE” asana. There were not only postures for bringing the energy back down, but also a pranayama practice to even further stabilize my energy. I can only say that if I don’t do the practice as given to me, I usually become agitated a couple of hours later. Not only agitated but fatigued. I am only a beginner as to understanding this, but I totally value the process and have great respect for those who deeply understand what is really happening in the system when asanas are performed. We all too often lose sight of what yoga is really about. When I started viniyoga I just knew it was special. I now know it is very much a science and one of the most advanced methods of yoga available to lead us from “darkness to light”.

    As to the prisoners, I only hope that those who were administering the practices and those evaluating them won’t be too quick to judge Yoga. There are too many variables to make any conclusions from this one case. I hope it wasn’t about giving the inmates something to do that was “supposed” to relax them. It’s like giving a dog a bone. He’ll be quiet while he’s knawing on it, but after the juice is gone, he’ll be the same dog. Nothing really changed. Yoga offers far more than that.

    With respect,

  3. Energetically the way most people practice hatha yoga greates imbalances. When we stand with 2 straight legs we direct energy up (yang). When 2 standing legs are bent, energy is directed down (yin). When we stand on 1 leg we send energy up, but if the one leg is bent, equal energy is sent down. Man is a conduit between Heaven and Earth. We become a fully charged conduit that is both negative (yin) and positive (yang) when we stand on one bent leg, or when we shift from one leg to the other when we walk. This energetic position is how the cell(s) become properly charged. When we are properly charged we are full of grace, we radiate through the ebbs and flows of life. When legs are stretch straight, energy only goes up (yang), with nothing going down (yin) to balance the practitioner. This condition can create dis-ease within the body, breath and mind. Practicing on one bent aligned leg allows gravity to make all necessary therapeutic adjustments.

  4. My questions to this are: who is teaching the class and what are the qualifications? We teach our yoga practice. What is great for us may not be the practice others need ultimately creating imbalance.
    Sharon commented that it did not surprise her- what came to mind was a perplexing thought. If yoga ultimately leads us to freedom, and the prisoners are not free on this physical plane while in jail will the practice of yoga lead them to peace or aggitation??

  5. I am hearing a lot of blaming of the teacher here – but as Martha pointed out, “yoga in prison” might be a flawed, and not just because there is no possibility of “freedom”. Perhaps there is just so much rage and aggression already there in the prisoners, that yoga simply will not have the effect on them that it has on people outside of prison. Or perhaps a specific, agression-lite yoga sequence can be developed, one with lots of forward bends, and no urdhva dhanurasana (which can definitely cause feelings of anxiety and rage) at all.

    Also, with regard to breathing, I think it could be unfair to blame the teacher for leading “shallow” or “unbalanced” breathing. I have taught my share of pranayama and have noticed that most beginning yoga students cannot handle much more than simple “breath awareness”, and if that goes well, then gently venturing into a very very basic “samavritti” (lengthening the in and out breaths to at MOST three counts). My own sister, who is a health care professional, noted to me that anything more than three counts made her feel really anxious and angry because she found it so difficult to “do it”.

    Thus, the teachers may have been doing everything right, but the model, itself may have been flawed.

  6. Interestingly, I just returned from the National Qigong Conference where Gaspar Garcia, a highly respected qigong teacher, reported on reseach done in prisons in Spain, and read the reports of many prisoners who were taught qigong. Contrary to what was said in the yoga report, these prisoners made amazing transformations–all the in the direction of peacefulness, relaxation, and self-control. I’ve also seen and heard of other studies with qigong in prisons that confirm that there is always the possibility of inner freedom through such approaches, even for so-called prisoners. Blaming the poor results on the rage and aggression (which most of us feel at many points in our lives) of the prisoners is, indirectly, saying that yoga doesn’t really work when the going gets tough. That would be a huge mistake–since there are yoga, qigong, and many other teachers who do work successfully with prisoners.

    What the yoga or qigong student receives, prisoner or not, does in fact have a lot to do with the quality, understanding, sensitivity, and being of the teacher, and it also has a lot to do with how breathing is taught. Trying to get someone to breathe into a specific count of some kind before actually helping them to make actual contact with their own deepest levels of awareness, and without helping them to open up the breathing spaces of the body, can result in overbreathing and unbalanced breathing, which will often bring the symptoms described.

    In any case, “breath awareness” is not a technique, but is rather a new, more open and direct relationship to ourselves. And it is this new relationship that is transformative, not some counting technique. Unfortunately, some yoga teachers, as good as they may be at performing and teaching asanas, only give breath awareness lip service, since they themselves have never experienced the new relationship to oneself that is needed. And the actual amount of time that is spent on breath awareness in a yoga class is sometimes minimal, which is unfortunate.

    By the way, some people are unable to breathe to a simple count like 3-3 without anxiety, health care professionals or not, because they already have a breathing or other emotional problem of some kind. A teacher who prematurely teaches such counts to such a person will only make the problem worse, and the perception will be one of “difficulty.”

    So there are many questions that need to be looked at here, and every teacher, yoga or otherwise, needs to be honest about what she or he really understands before teaching others.

    What’s more, we know nothing about how the prison classes were conducted, by whom, how large they were, what was actually taught, and so on to come to any real assessment of the results of the research. Yoga is taught in many different ways by many different people–some helpful, some not so helpful. All we know is that in this case the results were not particularly good. I’m sure there has been or will be other research that proves how beneficial yoga can be in prisons.

  7. You do make a good point about this being one particular instance where yoga didn’t work for prisoners. The article does not give much info about the program. And I believe there are many prison programs that did work. I still don’t think that it is necessarily the fault of the teacher or that it even had to do exclusively with the breathing methods being presented to the students; the students were criminals, people with difficulties with authority, people who have a predisposition toward rage. This could not have been a simple situation. Lauren

  8. Namaskar, all.

    I’ve been teaching yoga and meditation at the Wake Correctional Center for 3 years. Our inmates report a sense of calm, increased behavioral control, and happiness unmatched by their previous existence. Of 17 who took at least 4 of my weekly classes and were subsequently released, only 1 returned to prison after an average of 14 months out of the street. This 6% rate compares to a usual 40-60% rate for the facility.
    “Without Yama and Niyama, Sadhana is an impossibility” — Shrii Shrii Anandamurti.
    I always incoporate philosophy, morality, group consciousness, total body self-massage, success awareness, and shavasana in every class, along with a meditation session. Sanyasins from Ananda Marga Yoga Society visit every 2-3 months to give individual instruction in mantra meditation. We only do pranayama in the form of breath-holding during asanas and when associated with the mantra during meditation. This system works.

    You may contact me at any time for further details.

    Pashupati Steven Landau MD FAAFP ABHM RYT
    Yoga Alliance Board Member
    County Governor, Ananda Marga Yoga Society
    President, Ananda Marga Universal Relief Team (AMURT)

  9. yet another example- quite banal,really- of mis-directed and uncontrolled prana.
    dealing with prana, as in practicing pranayama (as those inmates probably did)- is like opening a damm. better be prepared and get all the guidance and help available- in advance. have a plan,man..
    pranayama is better practiced together with asana practice- and both practices should match in intensity and strategy. then there is less danger of “friendly fire”.
    raising prana in an uncontrolled way is “bad medicine”. medicine-yes, but like any other medicine. it can cause a lot of damage.
    there is no right breathing or wrong breathing. there is only an appropriate breathing. find out and use it. otherwise, it wil use you…

  10. Watched a good documentary about the successful use of meditation in prison (vipassana). The teacher said it was useless for the prisoners to go through the program and then continue to live in a such a hostile atmosphere. As a prerequisite, he insistd that the prison staff (guards) had to go through the program first.

    I’m guessing it’s the technique used in the Norwegian prison that failed–my teacher often warns that even asana can serious trouble if your mind isn’t settled (yamas, niyamas first).

  11. Watched a good documentary about the successful use of meditation in prison (vipassana). The teacher said it was useless for the prisoners to go through the program and then continue to live in a such a hostile atmosphere. As a prerequisite, he insistd that the prison staff (guards) had to go through the program first.

    I’m guessing it’s the technique used in the Norwegian prison that failed–my teacher often warns that even asana can serious trouble if your mind isn’t settled (yamas, niyamas first).

  12. So, you have to have studied and be practicing the yamas and niyamas before you can practice asana? Oh. That would pretty much exclude most of the population from practicing yoga, including children, who certainly do not know their yamas and niyamas. If you had to have settled your mind before practicing asana, then no one would ever make it to a yoga class at all because asana is one of the PATHS to YOGA, which is the quieting of the noise in the mind. If you can’t practice asana until you have already settled the mind, then I guess there is no point to practicing asana at all.


  13. I did some research and it turns out it was the PrisonSmart program. There is a focus on breathing exercises, which I suggest can be more dangerous than asanas.–>

  14. Prisoner No More

    As a previously incarcerated individual who developed a yoga practice
    in prison…I thought I might comment on this apparently stale thread.
    First I would like to point out that the prison population in a
    socialist nation like Norway is quite different than it is here in the

    The majority of prisoners in the United States are not
    incarcerated for violent crimes, many are jailed for medical
    (substance abuse), or social reasons and the vast majority here are
    non-violent and even victim-less “crimes” that put people behind bars.
    However in Norway there are extensive social programs that resolve
    most of these issues without resorting to such extreme methods. I
    believe this is probably a huge factor that most folks are overlooking
    on this thread.

    To directly address the practice of yoga in prison, I
    can attest personally to the benefits. In my observations the only
    problems I saw were with acceptance from prison staff. Prison is an
    incredibly difficult environment in which to maintain spiritual
    development of peace of mind, I’m sure you can all imagine the reasons
    this would be so.

    Coincidentally I’m a student of a previous
    contributor to this blog…. Pashupati (Steve Landau) and his weekly yoga
    lessons were a guiding light in a very dark place. I practice both
    asanas and pranayama as well as yama/niyama and before I met Pashupati
    and joined his program I was practicing alone and even teaching to a
    small group in a medium security facility, and encountered great
    resistance, and was even threatened with disciplinary action for such
    things as teaching martial arts, conspiracy in gathering a large group
    and loitering on the yard…I’m in backwoods NC.

    I took a great deal
    of diplomacy and education to be allowed to do something as simple as
    sit for 20 min. in meditation or lead a small group of 5 inmates
    through a vinyasa such as “sun salute”. So I must say I’m disappointed
    in what I have read in this thread as a whole. Prisoners are as
    individual as any other human being. Yoga will mean something
    different to them all and will affect them all differently, keep this
    in mind. I can’t imagine any specific practice causing any certain
    kind of behavior…and I even wonder in such a hostile and unjust
    environment if a little bit of “righteous anger” wouldn’t indeed be
    “right thinking”…just a thought and I don’t believe violence is ever
    justified by anger even if the anger itself is justified.

    All I ever
    saw was yoga bring peace, balance, and hope to a miserable microcosm.
    For what it’s worth, that’s my two cents…

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