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Meditating behind bars: How yoga in prisons could cut overcrowding

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“It’s so important for teaching yoga in prison to make it practical, applicable to issues that prisoners face,” explained Fox, reflecting on his decade of teaching yoga in places like San Quentin in California, the country’s largest prison. (San Quentin has an official capacity of around 3,000 people, but generally holds over 5,000.)

“People in prison have not learned how to manage their impulses, or in some cases their addictions to drugs or alcohol. One of the main advantages of yoga in prison is learning self-discipline. Yoga requires a great deal of self-discipline and self-control,” said Fox.

At first, Fox found it very challenging to get prisoners to take the yoga classes. They are voluntary, so only the men who are motivated would come. Little by little, however, he learned better how to work with them, and gained their respect.

Now, he receives letters from former inmates who say that his yoga teaching changed their lives and helped them become calmer, happier, and ultimately more able to fit into society.

A few years ago, Fox founded the Prison Yoga Project, which provides trainings for yoga teachers who want to begin working in prisons. He wrote a book for prisoners on how to practice yoga on their own, and to date has received requests for around 5,000 copies, which he sends out for free. He is now guiding trainings all over the US for yoga practitioners who want to teach inmates. And eventually, he wants to start a scholarship fund to help former inmates do teacher training, so they can make a career out of the practice.

Yoga has helped Fox deal with his own emotional challenges.

“Yoga has the potential to heal the world. It’s had a tremendous impact on my life, helping me deal with anger issues, and typical male violent tendencies that I inherited from growing up in Chicago in the '60s. I carried that with me as I grew older, and it was impacting me and the way I operate in the world,” he said. Perhaps if Fox had not been a white male, but an African-American or Latino male, who represent around70  percent of the prison population in the US, he may not have been so lucky and could have ended up in jail himself.

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