Amidst the cat fights, mind games, racial tension, and sexual promiscuity, there stands one prisoner in Orange is the New Black who seems to bring a much needed zen to the chaotic environment. Yoga Jones is one of our favorite characters on Netflix’s hot new series, which gives a seemingly painful depiction of life in a minimum security women’s prison.
The women are often free to moderately pursue their passions during their incarcerations, and for Yoga Jones, that’s following the tenants of Buddhism with regular yoga practice. And like any good yoga instructor, she shares that practice with all who will join her.
The juxtaposition of the serene yoga practice against the hardened, extreme prison environment may be a surprising scene for viewers of Orange is the New Black, but it’s actually a reality in prisons throughout the country.
Bo Cox told us the benefits of yoga in prison were very evident. Incarcerated in an Oklahoma prison for nearly two decades, the author of God is Not in the Thesaurus, said, “I can say that people who did [yoga] were above and beyond model prisoners. Peaceful and serene in a world anything but. And, not pushovers or victims either. Good examples of quiet strength.”
Litchfield’s women’s prison, the setting for Orange is the New Black, is not the only place where inmates can be found practicing yoga. It’s something available to some prisoners in the US and abroad, like in these Mexican prisons, and coincidentally is being lauded with some exciting new research out this month.
Yoga has been found to be a more affordable and effective way to improve behavior and mental health within prisons, according to a newly released study by Dr. Amy Bilderbeck of Oxford University. Not only could these programs “save significant amounts of public money,” according to the study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, but a 10-week yoga course with 90-minute sessions was also found to reduce prisoner stress, impulsiveness, and improve mood and behavior. Not to mention, yoga keeps the prisoners physically active.
“We’re not saying that organizing a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates,” Bilderbeck said in a piece at Huffington Post. She said that they do see it offering a multitude of health benefits to the prisoners, while helping to manage “the burden of mental health problems in prisons.”
It’s not clear exactly how many prisons have instituted a yoga program, and it’s believed that many wardens are pursuing such programs, according to a story at the New York Times. With or without a formal yoga class, like the ones Yoga Jones holds in empty activity rooms at the prison, there are untold numbers of prisoners doing the practice on their own. James Fox, founder of PrisonYoga.org, has sent more than 7,000 copies of his yoga manual to prisoners.
Allison Moore, a former repeat offender, known now as the Prison Break Coach, told us she practiced yoga every day on her bunk. “It has changed my life for the better and I continue to practice.” Her prison, like many, didn’t have the budget to support implementing a formal program, but she was committed to her practice regardless.
“I felt like I needed something different to help me change my state of mind in order to live life differently after release,” she said. Allison called attention to the isolating environment that is prison, typically a far cry from what we see in Orange is the New Black. Having to spend most of the day in lock down with no activity other than reading, she became “extremely disciplined in sitting quietly and paying attention to sensations in my body and choosing my thoughts as opposed to allowing my thoughts (habitually negative and criminal) to take over.”
Where reality seems to break from the TV portrayal of yoga in prison is that these instutions don’t typically have the budgets to install formal programs. If prisons are open to it, local instructors will donate their time and visit the institutions to hold classes. To further support Bilderbeck’s study’s report that yoga is a low-cost way to add a lot of benefits to these boiler room environments, the yoga program can actually be completely free after yoga mats are donated.
Weight rooms are common in prisons, and until budget restraints kicked in, the women at Litchfield even had a running track. The far-reaching benefits of fitness have long been employed by prisons. When a low-cost or free option like yoga exists, with proven benefits for the prisoners, introducing these programs at every point of criminal rehabilitation should be as much a no-brainer as adoring Yoga Jones.
image via washingtonpost.com