Yoga Research and Projects

Sari Fried - Special Page Editor
Hello fellow yogis and yoginis!  This blog is to share my exploration of yoga as the path to healing: to open up about my own journey, my personal discoveries and ponderings, as well as findings through research as I work to bring you information and resources on the main page. I also wish to create a place for discussion and support on this beautiful path. Sari.

This page explores how yoga is reaching far beyond studios and retreats, into underserved communities to alleviate suffering and give people the tools to turn their lives around. This is a place for you to get a background into what is going on in the world of service and find out how you can get involved to make a difference.

As decades of research accumulate, yoga and meditation continue to gain recognition as the prevailing prescription for transforming mental and physical pain. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is occurring all over the world as a result of personal trauma as well as larger scale events affecting communities and nations. PTSD is inextricably linked to subsequent mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and panic disorders, which in turn may lead to chronic physical illnesses, addiction, and incarceration, causing further trauma.

These realities affect millions of people worldwide and become a perpetual cycle for many. Yoga has the powerful ability to go against this current and help people to heal. As human beings, we are blessed with powerful minds and tremendously resilient bodies; however, when there is disunion and they are not working in synchronicity, the affects can impede our ability to experience our full potential.

Internationally, yoga teachers and healers are working to end this cycle and are providing these communities with the invaluable opportunity to develop the tools to repair wounds, rebuild strength and restore hope.

Yoga means union, or “to yoke,” the practice of which re-establishes and nurtures the connection between the mind, body and spirit. It is the practice of looking inward and diving down, little by little, through our many layers to reach the core essence of our being: boundless and everlasting bliss. It is the discovery that the power for transformation already exists within us.

“Yoga is not about self improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world.” –Donna Farhi

 PTSD, Depression, Anxiety and Panic Disorders

Trauma appears in many forms and affects people in different ways, manifesting both physically and mentally. Whether in veterans of war, civil service units, refugees of acts of terrorism or natural disasters, survivors of mass violence, victims of sexual assault or child abuse, people are suffering from PTSD and accompanying mental illnesses.

Psychology and mental health are slowly becoming less stigmatized in society just as the transformative capacity of yoga is rapidly being recognized. As the shame that was associated with mental illness dissolves, there is a growing understanding and openness to the causes of disorders such as anxiety and depression and the direct connection they have to trauma.

An interview with Dr Bessel Van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading authorities on PTSD and a leader in the use of yoga as therapy, dives into the reasons as to why yoga is so well suited to help sufferers of PTSD. He explains, “Trauma is the residue of imprints left behind in people’s sensory and hormonal system.

Traumatized people are often frightened by sensations they experience in their bodies and yoga helps them to regain a sense of safety in their own body. Time stops in people with PTSD, making it very hard to take pleasure in the present because the body keeps replaying the past.

This creates a duality between mind and body and that is where yoga comes in. Yoga helps to reintegrate and synchronize the mind-body connection, which is an essential part of healing PTSD.”

 Research on yoga therapy has been a rapidly growing field since the 1970s. Studies consistently proving successful trials, in which yoga has a significant positive affect on those recovering from trauma and suffering from mental illnesses, have finally convinced the world that yoga is not only a legitimate form of therapy but truly preeminent.

It is such a ripe and precious time because this current acceptance can connect to the ancient wisdom of yoga, which has been there waiting all along.  Mental health has been kept in the dark but with yoga we are bringing it into the light.

In addition to Van der Kolk’s insight in the above interview, into the storage of trauma in the body, we must bring our focus to the role the mind plays in PTSD, anxiety, depression and associated disorders. Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutras: yogah citta vrtti nirodhah (1:2), which translates to ‘yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind,’ or otherwise translated, ‘yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field.’

Then the seer rests in its true and fundamental Self: tada drastuh svarupe-vasthanam (1:3). This is the central goal of yoga, for the veil of illusion to be lifted and false identity dissolved, to allow the true and perfect Self to shine through.

The ability of yogic practices to treat mental illness is explored in a 2016 article in the International Journal of Yoga, which acknowledges that researchers today are discovering that contemporary interventions in psychology may not actually be modern concepts but in fact have roots in ancient yogic psychological wisdom. “Their rich insights can help deepen our understanding of mental health, and the practical psychological guidelines, described centuries ago, may enhance positive mental health and stabilize us in happiness.”

A 2012 study published by Elsevier, entitled “Effects of Yoga on the Autonomic Nervous System, Gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and Allostasis in Epilepsy, Depression, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,” hypothesized that stress induces:

“(1) Imbalance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) with decreased parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) increased sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity,

(2) Under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, gamma ami- no-butyric acid (GABA) and

(3) Increased allostatic load. It is further hypothesized that yoga practices

(4) Correct under activity of the PNS and GABA system in part through stimulation of the vagal nerves and

(5) Reduce allostatic load resulting in symptom relief.”

We know that yoga creates balance and returns the body to homeostasis and as this occurs, function improves in the parts of the brain that process and perceive fear and regulate emotions.

Further reading

Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial May 2, 2013. Dr Bessel Van der Kolk and his team conducted a study on the ability of yoga to decrease PTSD symptoms in women following physical and sexual assault.

Managing Mental Health Disorders Resulting from Trauma Through Yoga June 19 2012. Here we find a comprehensive overview of different types of trauma and the various ways these traumas can manifest following the events. It then breaks down studies conducted, in which yoga was utilized to help survivors to overcome their symptoms of PTSD, depression and anxiety, such as coping with natural disasters, exposure to terrorism and interpersonal violence

Yoga for anxiety and depression This Harvard mental health letter summarizes research on yoga’s therapeutic benefits and how it succeeds in treating PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Trauma-sensitive yoga as an adjunct mental health treatment in group therapy survivors of domestic violence May 9, 2014. This study is a feasibility test of whether incorporating trauma-sensitive yoga into group therapy for female victims of partner violence improves symptoms of anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder beyond that achieved with group therapy alone.

The Effect of a Yoga Intervention on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Risk in Veteran and Civilian Women with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder October 1, 2014. Individuals with PTSD often exhibit high-risk substance use behaviours. This study investigates the role yoga can take in intervening and breaking this cycle.

Breathing-Based Meditation Decreases Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in U.S. Military Veterans August 26, 2014. This is an investigation of the impact of a breathing-based meditation, Sudarshan Kriya yoga, in Afghanistan or Iraq veterans with PTSD symptoms. It hypothesized there would be reductions in PTSD, anxiety, and physiological startle response.

A Yoga Program for the Symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Veterans August 8, 2013. This study explores the effectiveness of yoga in improving hyper-arousal symptoms of PTSD, including some elements of sleep quality.

Effects of Sensory-Enhanced Yoga on Symptoms of Combat Stress in Deployed Military Personnel January/February 2012. According to a 2008 research study nearly 20% of combat troops returning from Iraq or Afghanistan met criteria for either posttraumatic stress disorder or depression. In this study, seventy military personnel who were deployed to Iraq participated in a randomized controlled trial over a three-week period of sensory-enhanced hatha yoga.

Here and now: Yoga in Israeli Schools July-December 2010. In the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, a project was initiated and designed to reduce tension in the children living in the area under bombardment. This study assesses the impact of yoga intervention in a group of Israeli school children affected by the Second Lebanon War.

Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Postwar Kosovo Adolescents Using Mind-Body Skills Groups September 2008. This preliminary study examined whether the practice of mind-body techniques decreases symptoms of PTSD in adolescents. 139 high school students participated in a 6-week program that included meditation, breathing, movement techniques, etc.

Feasibility and Preliminary Outcomes of a School-Based Mindfulness Intervention for Urban Youth May 4, 2010. Youth in underserved, urban communities are at risk for a range of negative outcomes related to stress, including social-emotional difficulties, behaviour problems and poor academic performance. This study hypothesized that the 12-week mindfulness and yoga intervention would reduce involuntary stress responses and improve mental health outcomes and social adjustment. Stress responses, depressive symptoms and peer relations were assessed at baseline and post-intervention.

“It helps you relieve stress when you really feel stressed out or you’re really mad and focus on what’s inside of you and just make sure that you stay calm,” -5th grade girl.

Systematic Review of Yoga Interventions for Anxiety Reduction Among Children and Adolescents November 2015. An estimated 21% of children and adolescents in the United States have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder and anxiety disorders are the most prevalent among them. This study examined the evidence base for yoga interventions addressing anxiety affecting children and youths between 3 and 18 years old.

Posttraumatic stress symptoms and heart rate variability in Bihar flood survivors following yoga March 2, 2010. A week of yoga practice was given to the survivors a month after this natural calamity and the effect was assessed.

Effects of a yoga breath intervention alone and in combination with an exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in survivors of the 2004 South-East Asia Tsunami 2009. The focus in this study is the effectiveness of yoga breath-based interventions in relieving psychological distress following mass disasters.

A Pilot Study of Meditation for Mental Health Workers Following Hurricane Katrina October 5, 2008. This study examined the effects of a meditation intervention for PTSD, depression and anxiety symptoms among 20 African American and Caucasian mental health workers in New Orleans beginning 10 weeks after Hurricane Katrina. They participated in a 4-hour workshop followed by an 8-week home study program.

The union that yoga creates between the different levels of our being extends beyond each individual’s process. It teaches oneness and builds unity within communities, bringing people together for healing and rising consciousness. Now let’s find out about trauma experts and trailblazer yogis who are doing phenomenal work in bringing this research to life and into our communities!

Yoga and Psyche: The Birth of a Field “In April 2014, a group of 200 yoga teachers, practitioners, psychologists, neuroscientists and trauma researchers representing over a dozen countries, gathered together in San Francisco, California for The Yoga and Psyche Conference – the first academic conference in the Western world on the integration of yoga and Western psychology.”

Dr Mariana Caplan is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher and the author of eight books in the fields of psychology and spirituality. In 2010 she became a certified practitioner of Dr. Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing and has since developed the Yoga and Psyche Project.

Here is a full video of Dr Mariana Caplan in conversation with Dr Peter Levine about the intersection of Somatic Healing and Yoga.

The Trauma Center Yoga Program Since 2003, the Trauma Center Yoga Program at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline Massachusetts has been providing yoga to a diversity of trauma survivors, including war veterans, rape survivors, at-risk youth and survivors of chronic childhood abuse and neglect.

The Trauma Center combines David Emerson’s devotion to trauma sensitive yoga with Dr Bessel Van der Kolk’s clinical expertise to create an extraordinary program, the first of it’s kind. The Trauma Center Yoga Program also trains yoga instructors and clinicians in how to offer yoga to trauma survivors.

Integrative Yoga Therapeutics (IYT) Bo Forbes developed IYT over the last 15 years with her community in Boston. Her approach integrates her background in psychotherapy with her yoga practice, combining emotional and physical healing in both therapeutics groups and as individual sessions. Bo has opened a school, the New England School of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics, which offers teacher trainings and yoga therapy programs and she is also the founder of Embodied Awareness, an online education company whose mission is “wellness through embodied education.” Click here for an interview with Bo to learn more about her approach and the work she is doing.

Art of Living was founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in 1981 and has since been spreading peace through diverse humanitarian projects including conflict resolutions, disaster relief and empowerment for women. The organization operates globally in 155 countries and runs programs using Sudarshan Kriya techniques, meditation, and Sri Sri Yoga. Earlier this year, following the Orlando Massacre, Art of Living rolled out mats for approximately 1100 New Yorkers affected by the tragedy, to help them cope with PTSD and relief from grief.

The International Association for Human Values (IAHV) is a non-profit organization, which since its founding by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in Geneva in 1997, has been offering trauma relief programs worldwide to reduce stress and develop leaders so that human values can flourish in individuals and communities.

Its programs combine Sudarshan Kriya Yoga Breathing Practice, meditation, yoga postures, and education on stress reduction specifically designed to strengthen internal coping mechanisms. IAHV initiated trauma-relief programs just days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, the 2004 South Asian Tsunami in India and Sri Lanka and the 2003 Kosovo Conflict, to name a few.

Since 2006, Project Welcome Home Troops has been operating and running workshops to bring stress and trauma relief to veterans suffering from PTSD. It is a program of the International Association for Human Values.

The Power Breath Meditation Workshop is a 20+ hour mind-body resilience-building program, which teaches the techniques of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga to provide veterans with practical breath-based tools that decrease stress, anxiety, anger, insomnia and depression.

Yoga Activist, Inc is a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C., which partners yoga teachers and social service organizations. It runs programs for trauma survivors with a high sensitivity and awareness of how the aftermath of trauma might show up on the yoga mat and what might trigger reactions. Yoga Activist creates a safe environment in each yoga class and promotes self-empowerment of individuals and communities through yoga and mindfulness.

Anahata International is an international nonprofit based in Washington D.C. whose mission is to share the physical and mental health benefits of yoga and holistic wellness services with individuals in conflict and trauma affected countries. They provide teacher trainings and sustainable wellness programs to vulnerable communities around the world.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation Rob Schware is the Executive Director of this nonprofit organization, which supports and funds certified yoga teachers of all traditions to bring yoga and mindfulness techniques to underserved and under-resourced segments of the community.

Programs helping people to recover from trauma include yoga for men and women in homeless shelters, veterans both in active duty and post-duty, UN workers in crisis and post-conflict contexts, survivors of sexual assault and yoga for first responders.

Check out their website to find out about the programs happening all over the world, read interviews with the remarkable yogis leading the initiatives, and how to get involved.

Check out this page on The Trauma Therapist Project: The Yoga Series to read about and listen to the remarkable work of leading yoga teachers who are bringing trauma-sensitive therapies to individuals and communities in need.

Our Mala is a UK based charity founded in 2011 to help refugees and asylum-seekers rebuild their lives, by creating a safe space to breathe and find stability through yoga and community. Most are recovering from atrocities such as torture, sexual violence in conflict and human trafficking.

Veterans Yoga Project is an educational and advocacy organization dedicated to improving the health and well being of military veterans. Through programs such as the Mindful Yoga Therapy Program, which teaches self-regulation skills such as breath, meditation and mindful movement, as well as multi-day retreats and advanced training for yoga teachers and healthcare professionals, Veterans Yoga Project supports recovery and promotes resilience among veterans, their families and their communities.

Yoga Hillsboro Brant Rogers is providing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to the Hillsboro Police department aimed at long-term officer wellness and more effective service to the community. First responders are in the business of trauma and are under a high level of occupational stress in addition to unpredictable and potentially dangerous situations.

These trainings are a shift towards preventative intervention, helping officers to establish and maintain a practice to help them stay balanced and clear in any situation.The programs are also offered to other first responders, such as firefighters, dispatchers, and paramedics.

Prison Yoga Projects

Yoga, Meditation and Mindfulness in Prisons

“There are simple universal laws of human life, which cannot be violated without paying a painful price. Every great spiritual, philosophic and religious tradition has emphasized compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and responsibility.

These are not suggestions, they are instructions. If we follow them we will thrive, if not we will suffer. The socially sanctioned hatred and rage, which we express toward criminals in modern times, violates these timeless instructions.

We are breaking a fundamental spiritual law, and the price we are paying for it is increased crime, violence, depravity, hopelessness, and of course, more hatred and rage.”
– Bo Lozoff

The deeper I delve into my journey on the yogic path, the more passionately I feel about the power of yoga to heal. We read in scriptures, in libraries and on websites that yoga means union, which begs the question, “union of and with what?” We can intellectually grasp that it means union of the mind, body and soul, which leads to oneness with our true Self and Universal Love.

But it is so much more than that. Being a yogi means we have the ability to unite all aspects of what it means to be human – yes, union of the different parts of our being, including accepting the parts of our self that are harder to embrace, but also finding acceptance and compassion for all people, despite any differences that may appear on the surface.

In the previous entry, an exploration of yoga’s role in PTSD and mental illness led us to a compilation of research on veterans of war and victims of physical and sexual assault, natural disasters and terrorism, and the discovery that yoga is a beautiful healing path to help survivors mend what was broken.

Whether someone has lived through a deeply traumatic and horrifying experience, or is just trying to navigate this world as a sensitive being, we all need help to breathe through the pain stored in our bodies, control our minds and be reminded what and who we are at our essence.

Special Feature -Prison Yoga Project
Prison Yoga Project:
Special Feature by Josefin Wikström

I have seen and experienced many special moments over the past 9 years teaching yoga and dance at a Swedish high security prison for women and also meeting the life sentence men at San Quentin prison in the yoga program. Sometimes I feel that the yoga practice was made for working in these environments as a therapeutic method as many are experiencing high levels of anxiety and also depression. Common reactions comments from prisoners are ”I feel like I can understand my reactions and behaviour better”, ”I can finally sleep better”, I feel more connected with others and also more calm within myself” and even ”For the first time in my life I feel free”. Yoga has been shown effective in releasing deeply held, unresolved trauma and is addressing the resultant behavioural issues. This is something our study in Sweden -”Yoga in a correctional setting” also confirmed. (see link below) The Prison Yoga Project was founded by James Fox at San Quentin prison in California US in 2002.Today the Prison yoga Projects methods are implemented in prisons and jails internationally, with programs in Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, India and the U.K. Prison Yoga Project trains local teachers to work with local prisoners in local prisons. Teachers who take our Training usually bond together and form Chapters. Their work in the Chapter influences the emotional wellbeing or prisoners, and since 93% of all prisoners are eventually released, their work has an impact on neighbourhood safety. Most prisoners suffer from Complex Trauma, chronic interpersonal trauma experienced early in life such as abandonment, hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, discrimination, and witnessing crime – including murder. We call this “original pain.”These experiences, imprinted by the terrifying emotions that accompany them, are held deeply in the mind, and perhaps more importantly, in the body, with the dissociative effects of impulsive/reactive behaviour, and tendencies toward drug and alcohol addiction as well as violence. Carrying unresolved trauma into their lives impacts everything they do, often landing them in prison, where they experience even more trauma.By using yoga as a mindfulness practice it serves as a tool for reengaging prisoners with their bodies to restore the connection between the mind, the heart and the body. The Prison Yoga Project is using a yoga practice to develop the whole person, increase the sensitivity toward oneself and empathy for others. By putting the men and women back in touch with their bodies, they begin to care more about themselves and understand the harm they have caused. Our objective is to provide prisoners with a mindfulness tool to draw on their yoga practice when they’re not doing yoga. If they’re tangled in a confrontation on the yard, or upon release, or tempted to go back to using, they can draw on what they have learned from yoga for practical solutions. They can do it without actually having to do a yoga pose to get the value. That’s the transformational, rehabilitative value of yoga.
Josefin Wikström
(Text by Josefin and James Fox)
The Swedish study:

Interview with James Fox

When space for healing is not held, the fragmentation of mind, body and spirit grows and one’s purpose for being recedes into the shadow self. Exposure to trauma creates a complexity of emotions and samskaras (a record of our past in the form of mental impressions that make up our personality) and can lead to high-risk behaviour, substance abuse and criminal activity. As we explored in the research on PTSD, Bessel van der Kolk emphasizes the crucial benefit yoga has on the nervous system by regulating physical movement. This helps those suffering from mental illnesses by improving the sense of connectedness between mind and body, which gives rise to enhanced control and understanding of one’s inner sensations and state of being.

“A man who is unconscious of himself acts in a blind, instinctive way and is in addition fooled by all the illusions that arise when he sees everything that he is not conscious of in himself coming to meet him from outside as projections upon his neighbour.” –Carl Jung

Incarceration is the direct result of the collective unconscious and lack of integration, with high percentages of prison populations coming from backgrounds of trauma or suffering from psychological disorders.

Many prisoners suffer from attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD), which further heightens this sense of lack of control over one’s actions and experiences. Even without these added difficulties, prison would be an extremely frightening and traumatic place to be.

Inmates are confined within six foot cells in a high-stress environment, left to cope with fears of the unknown, thoughts around the circumstances that got them there, loss of freedom, minimal contact with loved ones, and lack of safety and privacy.

Mike Huggins, founder of the Transformation Yoga Project and a former inmate himself, explains that beyond the sentence there is another significant piece: shame, self-judgement and feelings of unworthiness, which gets masked by anger and violence.

Rather than receiving help, which they desperately need in order to understand and manage the root of their suffering, they are rejected from a society standing in judgement, which is ultimately fighting the same demons within itself.

Instead of breaking the cycle of detachment and violence, prison culture reinforces it, with approximately two thirds of those released from prisons in the United States re-incarcerated within three years. Once released, many are too traumatized to rebuild their lives and either reoffend or fall into homelessness and mental illness.

It is essential that there be an effective form of emotional and spiritual assistance for inmates in order for this cycle to be broken and for rehabilitation to occur. Imprisonment provides a great deal of time for self-reflection, which creates immense potential for healing and growth; however, reaching this potential is very hard when immersed in an environment in which the more negative you are, the more validated you are.

There needs to be support and guidance in a way that the inmates feel seen – universally, human beings simply want validation that they matter.

Yoga helps us to bring breath, and with that life-force, into the blocked areas of our bodies that hold trauma and to slowly begin to trust that being in our body is the safest place to be. Meditation provides invaluable tools to guide practitioners into the seat of awareness, creating space between one’s essence and thoughts and emotions. Yoga and meditation work together in supporting the exploration of the mind-body-spirit-emotion connection and the balancing of all of these aspects of one’s being.

These practices can guide inmates in using their sentence in a self-reflective and rehabilitative way. It helps them to gain control over their experience behind bars and ultimately deepen their relationship with themselves. Yoga also has great value in improving general fitness and helping with physical ailments, which is an important benefit for prisoners due to the sedentary lifestyle, as well as lack of access to nutritious food and healthcare.

Prisoners have lost their personal freedom but with yoga they are able to gain mental, emotional and spiritual freedom. The reasons as to why we, as human beings, are drawn to yoga are the same for everybody. We are all trying to find out who we are, at our core: who we really are beneath the layers of wounds and disconnection, beneath how we experience ourselves and how we are perceived by the world and regardless of anything we have done or has been done to us. It comes down to forgiveness: forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others.

“There have been times when each and every one of us has needed to forgive. There have also been times when each and every one of us has needed to be forgiven. And there will be many times again. In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.”
Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving

In the studies and organizations detailed below, there is a heavier emphasis on incarcerated populations in the United States, primarily because although the U.S. is only home to 5% of the world’s population, it currently has 2.2 million people incarcerated in correctional facilities, which represents 25% of the world’s prison population. I have however extended my research beyond the U.S. to reflect the impact of prison yoga projects across the globe.

Research Studies

Former Inmates Perceptions of the Prison Yoga Project: This case study from a student at the University of Colorado examines perceived impacts of the Prison Yoga Project and its prison-based yoga intervention, among released inmates. It includes interviews with former prisoners who participated in the PYP program for at least 18 months prior to their release. The results are categorized in the following areas: Effects of Non-Physical Practices, Impact on Aggression, Physical Health/Medical Impact, Social and Community Impact, Psychological Impact and Lifestyle/Continued Effects.

Low Re-incarceration Rate Associated with Ananda Marga Yoga and Meditation: This is a five-year study of 190 inmates at Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was found that of those who attended more than four voluntary Ananda Marga Yoga classes, only 8.5% were re-incarcerated, while 25.2% of those who attended fewer than four classes were re-incarcerated during the same period. To provide a sense of how significant these numbers are, re-incarceration rates in the United States are often 40-70%.

Yoga in Prisons: Can downward-facing dog really change the lives of the incarcerated? This article covers a 10 week study conducted by the University of Oxford, in conjunction with the Prison Phoenix Trust involving 170 prisoners in seven prisons across the U.K. The participants were from all age groups and different categories of inmates, including young offenders and women prisoners. They were randomly assigned either 10 weekly two hour sessions or to a control group with no yoga. The results were significant, such as improved sleep, reduced depression or anxiety, less anger, positive mood, decreased stress and better attention.

A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation in Prison: Effects on Psychological Well-Being and Behavioural Function This article examines whether prison yoga and meditation programs are significantly related to psychological well-being and improvements in the behavioural functioning of prisoners. It identifies the fact that although yoga and other mindfulness-meditation techniques are widely recognized as having positive effects, it is not yet known exactly how these effects are had and further research is needed to understand the specific effects of yoga in the prison setting. This analysis aims to build on recent research and narrative reviews on yoga and meditation programs.

Effect of Iyengar Yoga on Mental Health of Incarcerated Women: Many imprisoned women live with mental illness due to social, environmental and behavioural circumstances before their incarceration, such as limited education, poverty, homelessness and lack of access to healthcare. The primary aim of this investigation, on the basis of the gender-responsive framework, was to test the feasibility of introducing a 12-week Iyengar yoga intervention in a women’s correctional institution and to find out the affects of Iyengar yoga on mental health. Those who completed the course reported a significant reduction in levels of depression symptoms and marginally significant reductions in levels of anxiety symptoms.

Benefits of Yoga on Female Prisoner Population: Female inmates have historically been a minority population in prisons, but are currently outpacing men as the fastest growing prison population. This research explores the particular circumstances that surround female inmates, such as emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse both prior to incarceration and within the prison system. This study uncovers psychological benefits of Prison Yoga Project trauma-focused yoga intervention on the female prisoner populations at two correctional facilities in South Carolina. To create control and experiment groups, inmates were selected from those who applied to participate in the yoga program and assigned to be either in the 10 week class or placed on a waitlist. Inmates in the yoga group reported a significant decrease in depression and stress and improved self-awareness.

Gender-Specific Programming for Female Offenders: What is it and Why is it important? In the context of the above studies, here is some information regarding women involved in the criminal justice system and more specifically female offenders in programs in community correctional settings. The focus is finding out who these women are and how they differ from their male counterparts (for example: non-violent property offenses, single motherhood and physical and sexual abuse) so that effective programs for women and girls can be developed.

Outcomes of a Recreation Therapy Yoga Meditation Intervention on Prison Inmates’ Spiritual Well-Being The purpose of this research was to analyze a recreation therapy yoga meditation intervention, the Sanatana Yoga Prison Project (SYPP), at a California state prison. The SYPP had three interventions: pranayama (breathing techniques), asana (physical postures), and dhyana (meditation). Two overarching categories emerged with four themes each: (a) concrete outcomes with themes of physical benefits, escape, quieting the mind, and reflection, and (b) psycho spiritual development outcomes with themes of epiphany, connection to self and others, psychological and behavioural change, and coping skills.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Massachusetts Correctional Facilities: Here you can find an overview of the results from the mindfulness-based-stress-reduction courses offered in drug units in six Massachusetts Department of Corrections prisons. 1,350 inmates completed the 113 courses and highly significant pre- to post-course positive changes were found, specifically in terms of hostility, self-esteem, and mood disturbance. Inmates included women and men in both minimum and medium-security facilities.

Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population: Participants in this study were recruited from 7 British prisons and randomly allocated to either a 10 week yoga programme or a control group. Measures of mood, stress and psychological distress were recorded before and after the intervention period. The participants of the yoga group showed increased self-reported positive affect and reduced stress and psychological distress, as well as better performance in the cognitive-behavioural task given at the end of the study, compared to participants of the control group.

Doing Yoga Behind Bars: A Sociological Study of the Growth of Holistic Spirituality in Penitentiary Institutions Drawing on a qualitative research conducted in Catalan prisons, this chapter in ‘Religious Diversity in European Prisons’ explores what role holistic spiritualities such as yoga, Reiki and meditation activities play in contemporary Spanish prisons. They argue that holistic activities and therapies become symbolic resources through which inmates can make sense of their uncertain situation in prison and (re)-construct their self-image while also working as a “peace-making mechanism” that fits in with the institutional order.

Mindfulness and Rehabilitation: Teaching Yoga and Meditation to Young Men in an Alternative to Incarceration Program This study used participant/observation and open-ended interviews to understand how male participants (age 18-24 years) benefited from yoga and mindfulness training within an Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) program. Findings suggest that the male participants (age 18-24 years) benefited from the intervention through reductions in stress and improvements in emotion regulation. Several participants noted the importance of the development of an embodied practice for assisting them in managing anger and impulse control. The young men’s narratives suggest that mindfulness-based interventions can contribute positively to rehabilitative outcomes within alternative to incarcerations settings, providing complementary benefit to existing ATI programs, especially for clients amenable to mindfulness training.

Effect of Yoga and Meditation on Stress Management of Female Prisoners in Delhi: This paper traces the positive and encouraging changes in health of female prisoners in Delhi reported after practicing meditation, yoga and such techniques aiding stress management. The research it draws on helps in establishing how yoga can boost the quality of imprisonment by improving mood, reducing stress and helping to manage anger, aggression and anti-social behaviour. Its aim is also to show how yoga shall enable prisoners to return back to normal social life post imprisonment.

Gender and Trauma: Somatic Interventions for Girls in Juvenile Justice: Implications for Policy and Practice This comprehensive article details unique factors for girls who experience trauma based on important variables such as different types of trauma, race and ethnicity, social and cultural context and sexual orientation and gender identity. It then explores the use of yoga for girls in the juvenile justice system as taught by the Art of Yoga Project, to support self-esteem and emotional development, neurological and physical health and relationship and parenting practices. Concluding summaries recommend reviewing some of the general curriculum yoga programs to “incorporate trauma-informed, gender-responsive elements that address the needs of girls and promote their development, culturally adaptive elements that embody a respect for and understanding of cultural difference, and a commitment to demonstrating respect and support for sexual orientation.”

There is constantly a growing number of charities and non-profit foundations supporting incarcerated populations through mindfulness, meditation and yoga. Enjoy a selection below:

Great Yoga in Prisons Projects

Mike Huggins: Transformation Yoga Project

The Transformation Yoga Project Mike Huggins spent nine months in incarceration during which he found yoga to be instrumental in helping him find comfort, process his mental, physical and emotional challenges and ultimately return to his core, to his true Self. He started a grassroots effort, which evolved into a comprehensive yoga program within the prison and, upon his release, founded the Transformational Yoga Project. It focuses on “Healing Through Empowerment” and serves people impacted by trauma, addiction and incarceration through trauma-sensitive, mindfulness-based yoga. They have active programs running throughout the greater Philadelphia area with each one being tailored to the specific needs of the participants and staffed by instructors trained to teach trauma-sensitive yoga.

“The intensity of the environment that you’re in seems to have a direct relationship to the intensity of the breakthrough – you can literally see their eyes open and stress leaving their body.” –Mike Huggins, Founder at Transformation Yoga Project

Ananda Marga Prison Yoga Program For almost ten years, Ananda Marga volunteer Steven Landau has run a weekly yoga program at Wake Correctional Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The program involves yoga philosophy, teaching inmates about yamas and niyamas, codes of conduct, relationships, meditation and mantra, as well as opening discussion to anything the inmates wish to talk about. The students are also introduced to kirtan (devotion), asana, self-massage and relaxation. Joined by Stephen Ordog (a.k.a. Shiva) and a growing number of volunteers, the program has expanded to six jails and prisons for both men and women across the state of North Carolina, with plans to expand even further and reach inmates at every correctional facility in the state.

Prison Phoenix Trust

The Prison Phoenix Trust Founded in 1988, is an Oxford based charity offering 150 weekly yoga classes in 90 prisons across the U.K. The organisation responds to letter requests by sending books and CDs to inmates. Through teaching, workshops, correspondence, books and newsletters, they help prisoners in the development of their spiritual welfare as well as cultivating tools to lead positive, crime free lives once they are released.

The Human Kindness Foundation was founded in 1987 by Bo and Sita Lozoff to operate the Prison-Ashram Project, which developed in 1973 when Ram Dass was sending his spiritual book Be Here Now into prisons and receiving countless letters back. People wrote about their personal transformations and also asked their tough spiritual questions. At this time, Bo and Sita teamed up with Ram Dass to help him reply to mail from inmates.
The Human Kindness Foundation now serves 40,000 people a year with books, notes and newsletters. It is led by Sita, the Spiritual Director and Catherine Dumas, the Executive Director. Bo passed away in 2012, but his book, “We’re All Doing Time,” along with his three other spiritual books, are still requested by hundreds of inmates on a weekly basis and continues to have a profound impact on people’s lives.

Prison Freedom Project The Prison Freedom Project is part of SevaUnite and has been running since 2010. Starting initially with one yoga and mindfulness class at the admissions centre of Pollsmoor Maximum Facility in Cape Town, it has expanded to include classes in the admissions centre, male juvenile section and the women’s unit and now operates in 15 prisons across South Africa, with over 350 inmates enrolled. The Prison Freedom Project includes volunteer-lead yoga classes, distributing yoga manuals and course materials and mentoring inmates through letter writing. They also partner with The Human Kindness Foundation in the USA (see above) and distribute their book, “We Are All Doing Time” to inmates all over Africa.
Follow the link to their website to watch a wonderful Inside Short Documentary!

“Through yoga, one’s whole life perspective is miraculously changed. You start to see prison as a blessing and not as a curse.” –Prison Freedom Project participant

Check out founder, Brian Bergman, on the Tedx Stage talking about the Prison Freedom Project and SevaUnite.

Yoga Behind Bars Yoga Behind Bars (YBB) is driven to find a way to fundamentally change the current course of the American corrections system. Since 2008, YBB has helped thousands of incarcerated women, youth, and men transform their lives through their programs. In 2016 YBB offered an average of 37 classes a week in 15 prisons, jails and detention centres throughout Washington State and launched a Yoga Teacher Training Program for inmates at Washington Corrections Centre for women. They also offered 15 full scholarships for formerly incarcerated people and people of colour to attend their Trauma-Informed Teacher Trainings!

The Prison Dharma Network (Prison Mindfulness Institute) works to provide prisoners, prison staff and prison volunteers, with the most effective, evidence-based tools for rehabilitation, self-transformation, and personal & professional development. In particular, they provide and promote the use of proven effective mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s). The dual focus is on transforming individual lives as well as transforming the corrections system as a whole in order to mitigate its extremely destructive impact on families, communities and the overall social capital of our society.

Sivananda Prison Outreach Program The Sivananda Prison Outreach Program was initiated in 1996 when an inmate read Swami Vishnudevananda’s Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga and expressed his appreciation in the magazine Prison Life. Shortly after, hundreds of prisoners started writing to the Sivananda organizations expressing their interest and requesting books on yoga. For the last two decades, through fundraising and donations, the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in New York has been sending books on yoga to inmates across the United States, responding to letters received on a weekly basis. The program also brings weekly yoga classes to inmates in the local maximum and minimum-security prisons and in 2015 the Ranch launched a Yoga Teacher Training Course free of charge in FCI Otisville.

Sahaja Yoga Meditation in Prisons was started by Shri Mataji who founded the Sahaja Yoga meditation technique. The course has expanded and is now practised in 22 countries all over the world, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Columbia, New Zealand, Italy and Russia. The inmates follow the courses on a free will, led by organizers who are all volunteers. Sahaja Yoga meditation helps prisoners to reduce the stress of lack of freedom, find peace and positive feeling inside and heal from addictions.

The Art of Yoga Project Based in California, focuses on early intervention to help marginalized and justice-involved girls prepare for a positive future by offering gender-responsive, trauma-informed, culturally-responsive, and strengths-based programming. Their mission is to lead at-risk, exploited and incarcerated girls toward accountability to self, others, and community by providing practical tools to effect behavioural change. They send specially trained yoga teachers, art therapists, creative arts and writing educators into facilities to deliver their mindfulness-based curriculum.

Freeing the Human Spirit is a non-profit organisation of the John Howard Society that aims to promote and advance the physical, mental, and spiritual development of inmates in Canada through the practice of meditation and yoga. They also train, develop, and support meditation and yoga teachers who offer classes in correctional facilities, as well as develop and deliver a program of volunteer correspondents who will reply to letters from inmates to support them in their practice.

Vipassana Meditation Courses for Correctional Facilities Vipassana meditation as taught by S.N. Goenka has been successfully offered over the last 25 years within prisons located in India, Israel, Mongolia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Thailand, U.K., Myanmar and the United States and Canada. Since all courses are 10-days in length and residential in nature, they are held within the walls of a corrections institution with the teachers and the volunteers who are managing the courses living with the prisoners for the duration of the course. Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills.

Yoga Outreach Yoga Outreach is a Canadian charity, founded in 1996, based in British Columbia. They partner with volunteer yoga instructors, community organizations, social service agencies, and correctional facilities to provide mindfulness-based yoga programming to often overlooked adults and at-risk youth. Yoga Outreach programs are strengths-based and trauma-sensitive serving men, women, and youth facing challenges with mental health, addiction, poverty, violence, trauma, and imprisonment. Yoga Outreach currently has programs in 2 prison locations in the Lower Mainland area – Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (classes in both medium & maximum secure areas); and Burnaby Youth Custody Services.

Liberation Prison Yoga Liberation Prison Yoga is a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization based in New York City that serves prisons and jails, bringing trauma-conscious yoga programs to incarcerated women, men, LGBTQ, youth, staff, and those whose lives are affected by incarceration; to train yoga instructors to work inside the prison system; and to educate the public about trauma-conscious yoga. Their mission is to “bring yoga and meditation to US prisons, moving towards integration instead of isolation, healing instead of punishment, and peace amid unrest – inside ourselves and inside the prisons.”

Recovery Yoga Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) service organization dedicated to healing and personal empowerment through yoga programs in South-western Connecticut and Rhode Island. Recovery Yoga’s misson is to establish, develop and maintain yoga programs in residential, rehabilitative and other facilities, primarily for women and teens working to recover from substance, physical or other abuse, or who are at risk or otherwise in need. Recovery Yoga programs increase yoga practitioners’ feelings of self-worth, harmony and empowerment, as well as health and well-being, thus allowing and empowering them to become calm, centred and grounded, so they can move forward with hope, strength and a positive outlook.

Prison Yoga and Meditation Foundation

Prison Yoga and Meditation is an organization whose aim is to bring yoga and meditation to prisoners to promote healing and rehabilitation. They teach women, men, gay men, transgender individuals and juveniles who are serving few days in jail up to life sentences in facilities spread out over the greater Los Angeles area.

Shanthi Project Founded in Easton, Pa., in 2010, Shanthi Project teaches more than 1,000 therapeutic yoga classes throughout the Lehigh Valley each year to hundreds of at risk-youth and trauma survivors, including children in the foster care system, veterans and the incarcerated. Through controlled movement, breathing and meditation, students learn valuable coping and life skills that cultivate self-awareness, enhance self-esteem and promote positive emotions, helping them establish healthy and productive relationships with themselves, their families and their communities. The Shanthi Project facilitates twice weekly yoga and twice weekly mindfulness programs for both men and women in Northampton County Prison.

Yoga Impact is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, based in both Colorado and New Jersey, which brings the science and art of a yoga lifestyle to a variety of demographics. The components of a yoga lifestyle include yoga postures, breath work, relaxation techniques, nutrition and positive mindfulness. Since 2010, Yoga Impact has been running programs in Morris County Jail, NJ, and Boulder County Jail, CO, as well as homeless shelters, rehab centers, at-risk youth, transitional facilities and beyond.

Further Interesting Reading: Interviews with some of the key players

Rob Schware, founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation has published an interview series on Huffington Post, highlighting some truly special people who are doing incredible work bringing yoga into prisons and beyond. Follow the links below to find the full interviews:

Josefin Wikstrom – Yoga and Dance programs for incarcerated women and refugees in Sweden “This is an interview with Josefin Wikstrom, who has been practicing yoga for the past 24 years. She has been dancing since she was a teenager, and teaching yoga the past 10 years in Sweden and internationally. She is studying dance and creative movement therapy with Tripura Kashyap in India, and has been a part of the Swedish Prison Yoga Team since 2010. Currently, she is developing a collaboration between the Swedish Prison Yoga Project and the one established in San Quentin State Prison in CA by James Fox. She has spent part of the each past nine years supporting dance and yoga programs in Mumbai for underprivileged children, youth, and women, where she works with Indian dance therapists and yoga teachers.
Last year Sweden took in over 160,000 asylum seekers, the most per capita in Europe. Josefin is also working with some of the refugees fleeing increasing conflict and deprivation in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.”

Michael Lear – Expanding the Practice of Yoga and Mindfulness to Prisons “This is an interview with Michael Lear, whom I met at the Yoga Service Conference at the Omega Institute last May. I learned that we both had former lives in international development. Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in finance, Michael had some serious health issues, and discovered The Trager Approach, which had a dramatic impact on both his approach to life and to back pain. Eventually Trager led him to biofeedback, floatation tank therapy, yoga, and Vipassana meditation. He has been a certified Trager Practitioner (therapeutic movement education and mindfulness practitioner/bodyworker) for 24 years, a yoga practitioner for 23 years and a yoga teacher for 15 years, with a primary focus of Ashtanga Yoga, Mysore style. In addition, Michael is active with Shanthi Project, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit which offers trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness classes to many underserved and at-risk populations suffering from trauma, as well as classes at area schools. Michael works primarily in the Northampton County Prison and Juvenile Justice Center in Easton, PA.”

Jill Weiss Ippolito – Yoga: How we serve Incarcerated Youth “This is an interview with Jill Weiss Ippolito, who is the founder/director of UpRising Yoga in Los Angeles, a nonprofit program that brings yoga to incarcerated youth and communities that can benefit from yoga. Her organization holds weekly yoga classes for boys and girls incarcerated in Central Juvenile Hall, as well as group homes, mental health facilities, and schools across Los Angeles County. Jill is helping to change policy and culture by bringing UpRising Yoga Life Skills training to probation staff, mental health, and social workers, teachers, and the general public. Like others interviewed for this series, Jill says, “Yoga saved my life from a past of jails and institutions, addiction and medications, depression and hopelessness.””

Elizabeth Carling – Why Teach Yoga and Mindfulness in Prisons “This is an interview with Elizabeth Carling, who offers a free community-based yoga program with the support of her employer, Patricia McKeen, owner of A New Awakening counseling agency in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Elizabeth started a free class at A New Awakening as a way to offer the mindfulness-based tools of yoga to clients who struggle with the challenges of addiction, mental health imbalances, domestic violence, and reintegration following incarceration.”

Perri van Rossem – Bringing Yoga and Meditation to a Canadian Prison “This is an interview with Perri van Rossem, who began teaching yoga as a volunteer in 2005 at Collins Bay Medium Security Institution in Kingston, Ontario; she has been teaching there ever since. In addition, she coordinates yoga programs being offered in three other institutions. Says Perri, “I am trying to build a greater profile for this work in our community of yoga teachers. It is not an easy sell, I don’t mind telling you.”