Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga?

Via Anneke Lucas
on Mar 12, 2011
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This is the first article in a series. The second can be viewed by clicking here. The third here.

CDCR Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI), Tracy, California

When photographer/artist Robert Sturman received an invitation to come and take photos by warden Ms. Salinas of Deuel Vocational Institution, DVI, a reception center in Tracy, California, he felt ready.

Robert Sturman became known for the vibrantly colored Polaroids that he manipulated to create impressionistic photo-paintings. The last series was on asana, like the one above of Vinnie Marino, the popular L.A. teacher who counts Robert Downey Jr., Kate Hudson and David Duchovny among his students. The dungeons sent Robert Sturman to the other side of fame, into the heart of pain. He made a drastic cut from his signature style: “I hadn’t used a regular camera since high school,” he says. “I was using natural light with the polaroids, but that beauty wasn’t prolific enough for the prison shoot.”

One photo of an inmate meditating on the bare prison floor was posted on Robert’s Facebook page. It quickly accumulated 82 likes and a string of admiring comments, until someone wrote: “I think you’re all in la-la-land… Get a grip. I would like to know if he killed someone… or if he raped a young girl before I got all sentimental… But… maybe it’s good to live in your head and the Lotus position and not in the real world…” Robert replied: “My hope is minds will be opened to a new paradigm that is neither uneducated new age la-la, or massive generalization. … We are not trying to shorten this inmate’s sentence.” Three People liked this comment. The dissenter fired back: “Admirable sentiment. However, I doubt that would mollify his victims or their families.”

“Are they actually getting it?” someone commented on the photo on Facebook of a convict doing Jyoti Mudra.

Prisoners have to deal with condescension and disrespect all the time, from correctional officers (the correct term for prison guards) and from each other, but they are also subjected to constant projections of darkness from the population at large. Inmates are finely attuned to all nuances of vilification. Possibly, this kind of transference is at the root of the psychological problems that landed them in jail in the first place. ‘Being bad’ may be a childish way to protect a parent’s skewed perception of them.

Judgment at a distance translates to fear up close. Inside the cage, Robert Sturman was briefly confronted with his own fears when he had each prisoner sign a release form. “As I was squatting down and talking and giving them the pen to sign,” he says, “I realized that every time I’m giving someone a pen I’m giving them a weapon that they can jab in my throat. But after that I thought: ‘Okay, no more Oz! No more Dexter! Too much television!’ I took a few breaths, and got over that stuff.”

He continues: “I was a little startled when I came face to face with someone who had eight teardrops tattooed on his face. In the gang world each teardrop represents a murder, and that threw me, but it passed quickly. He was actually the most responsive student, and spoke eloquently about how peaceful he felt from doing yoga. It was a beautiful experience. I realized that these men went astray for whatever reason, let their anger elevate to an uncontrollable level that is punishable and not okay in our world, but it’s the same kind of warrior energy and intelligence that, if directed properly, produces something entirely respectable and productive.”

Swapan Munshi (whose first name means ‘dream’ in Hindi) works as a Therapeutic Recreation Therapist at DVI, and also teaches the yoga class there. He says: “I feel yoga can be even more powerful than any psychological approach… Prison yoga offers solutions to a broken system. It can reduce medical costs of prisoners, decrease violence, reduce recidivism, [70% in California – the highest in the nation] and transform individuals and society.”

But what do you think?


About Anneke Lucas

Anneke Lucas is the director of Liberation Prison Yoga in New York. She currently teaches or supervises yoga and meditation classes at five facilities, to both male and female inmates and youth, and places trained yoga instructors in prisons and jails. Serving in prisons synthesizes Anneke’s experiences with psycho-therapy, meditation and ashtanga yoga, bringing physical therapy, mindful awareness and peace to students whose backgrounds often resemble her own - in spite of appearances. Anneke graduated from the American Film Institute as a screenwriter and published a novel in her home country Belgium. She is currently working on a memoir about her childhood.


102 Responses to “Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga?”

  1. Very interesting topic. Considering that most prisoners eventually get out of prison and try to get back into "normal life" I would say its important that a path like yoga should be open to prisoners. Yoga provides not only physical health but makes an attempt at emotional and spiritual health. Hopefully thats the sort of health that prevents them from committing the next crime.

  2. Nadine says:

    Anneke, this is an AWESOME piece! Thank you for having the courage to take on controversy. For me, this is the ULTIMATE punch line: Judgment at a distance translates to fear up close. 'Nuff said. Bless Up, UniversalEmpress

  3. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Beautiful. When it comes to hurt, and noisy minds, we all have something with which to relate to anyone in prison. I think being faithful to the term correctional system is the goal. Thank you.

  4. Karen Alderete says:

    Anneke –

    Thank you for this article. It seems to me that embracing the whole, not just what is easy to look at, is what strengthens our community and takes us into our hearts. We are all connected – and everything lives in us – light and dark, as it lives in the world. Peace.

  5. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Gaura Das, thank you for sharing! I thought I was the greatest Beatles fan. That your love for the band led you to Bjaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada only speaks for you!

  6. Anneke_Lucas says:

    I love how you attribute your deepening interest in yoga to pop culture. Honest and refreshing!

  7. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Yes, the teacher makes all the difference, for all of us, not just prisoners! Mindfulness is not necessarily taught by holding a challenging asana! I'm glad you have found your path as a Bhakti Yogi. Your devotion shines from the page!

  8. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Yes, we are all under the spell of Maya, attached to our identities to a certain degree, but it is nice to be reminded as often as possible that this world is not what it seems!

  9. Juliet says:

    I first heard about Vipasana and the Southern California Vipasana Center in 1997. A co-worker, the same on who introduced me to Brian Kest's Power Yoga, didn't tell me anything about either, but suggested that I might consider doing them. At that time in my life I had serious depression issues stemming from early childhood abuses that continued throughout high school as well as adult partner abuse situations and drug and alcohol problems.

    It has taken years and assistance from many angels in the form of healers and body workers to come to where I am now, sober and happy to be free of the insecurities I allowed to control me. I can only thank my God that the many times I have been pulled over drunk or high in a vehicle that was not registered, uninsured and even with a suspended license that the officers had mercy on me because I look like an upstanding citizen. I can't imagine having to experience incarceration due to my dis-eases of the mind and body.

    Back to Vipasana, I had heard from a friend who attends the 10 day miditation annually that it was originally used for prisoner rehabilitation before it hit the US Prison System and that they are shown a documentary at the Center at some point during the 10 days. I have yet to make the pilgrimage to the Center, and I don't really have a desire to as of yet, but I am so happy that prisons are utilizing its potential to heal and inform with their inmates. It is proof humanity is alive and that compassion is possible.

    Here is a case study article if you're interested:

  10. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Yes, we are all imprisoned by our bodies, by our material desires. And it is indeed very difficult to get out of this material world. All one has to do to know that is try! Following your spiritual path is constant struggle, climbing the mountain while most others are pleasantly descending.

  11. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Couldn't have said it better myself! Thank you, Gaura Das, for your thoughts on this subject. If you don't mind I will forward my future posts to you as well. I love bringing the yoga philosophy into the discussions!

  12. Juliet says:

    I would also like more information on your project. I am applying to volunteer at Sojourn, a center for battered women and their children, where I hope to teach yoga to women. The requirement to volunteer is 40 hours of domestic violence counselor training. I am looking forward to sharing the tools I have learned over the years that have helped me immesurably.

  13. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Exactly. Are you the husband of Claudia Altucher who posted an account from Mysore? If you are, I am a big fan of your writing!

  14. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Nadine, thank you. 'Bless Up, Universal Empress' is definitely the coolest salute!

  15. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Yes. We are all connected. Whatever means we can employ to be reminded of this are worthy. In my next post, I am letting the prisoners speak. I interviewed several inmates with life sentences at San Quentin (and Robert Sturman took amazing picturesof them) and I can't say I've met more courageous or humble men. They taught me yoga! Thank you, Karen, for your comment!

  16. Anneke_Lucas says:

    This post was meant as a reply to Karen's comment, but Juliet must have posted just before me, and that is why this makes no sense.

  17. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Juliet, your story moves me beyond words. Thank you for sharing. And yes, the point: "I can't imagine having to experience incarceration due to my dis-eases of the mind and body." So many of the incarcerated do suffer mental health problems, besides the drug and alcohol problems that so many of us have or have had in common.

    One of the articles in this series is focusing on the Prison Dharma Network, a worldwide organization bringing Vipassana meditation and yoga to prisons. The founder, Fleet Maull, was incarcerated for 14 years, and his story is a great inspiration for all of us.

    Thank you again; it takes courage to speak openly about personal pain, and you have plenty of it!

  18. shaktidiva says:

    Thank you so much for this article. In 1999 I produced a film called Animal Factory written by Eddie Bunker. At that time we were given unprecedented access to San Quentin and took a tour guided by a trustee who had been in SQ for over 30 years for murdering someone in a bar fight. Two of the people involved in the film had spent over 40 years combined in SQ. As I moved through the facility past the cells and spoke with the prisoners, I couldn't help but think about how much they could benefit from yoga- even though many would never see the outside world again. And what I understood the most is that yes they most definitely deserved it. I was had a teacher tell me that on of the biggest sins we can make is to stand in the way of someone else's enlightment.

  19. Joe Sparks says:

    We need to publicly expose, challenge, and organize against the open use of violence against males, beginning in childhood and continuing during adult life. Expose the connection between childhood abuse and adult patterns of violence. Police brutality, harassment, suppression of political dissent, and torture, particularly of men from oppressed groups, need to be targeted and exposed. Organize to bring political pressure to eliminate these behaviors.

  20. Sarah says:

    wow. yes. prisoners, and all people, regardless of how they are self- or externally-identified, deserve dignity, and the opportunity to learn and improve themselves.

  21. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Animal Factory is a great movie, and I think realistically portrays life in prison. I interviewed a prisoner for the next article on prison yoga who, like the Edward Furlong character, had been sentenced for a minor drug charge — possession of crack cocaine in his case, about $100 worth on the street. Under California's three strikes law, he got 25-life, with no possibility for parole for 25 years. When someone like him overcomes bitterness and anger (he already knew how to stay out of trouble in prison before he began yoga classes) I think we can all learn what yoga is really about. Thank you for posting!

  22. Anneke_Lucas says:


  23. […] might have recently read the thought-provoking article on Elephant Journal Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga? , featuring striking pictures of inmates practising yoga in jail by […]

  24. Beautiful post. Beautiful pictures. Everyone is somebody's child. Everyone needs to be loved. If yoga is offering yourself love then there is nothing bad that can come of that for these prisoners. They already have hate. If we believe that violence is an extension of frustration or confusion about who we are or how to get what we want then yoga is a great choice for us, both those prisoners incarcerated and we prisoners of our beliefs.

  25. Anneke_Lucas says:

    There is indeed nothing bad that can come out of it for these prisoners, as for all of us. A common mistake is when yoga is taught as a purely physical practice. So I would add that in the prison system, the teachers are key. I think the San Quentin yoga teacher and founder of the organization Prison Yoga Project James Fox, who I've interviewed for another article in this series, is extremely balanced and wise, and I'd highly recommend a teacher training with him to anyone who is interested in this. The link to the site is <a href="” target=”_blank”>

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts.

  26. […] their whitewashed perfection, half man-built, half nature-made, then spits them out with a timidly criminal question of “Why me?” Second, one that looks across the water and at the rising numbers of […]

  27. Monique says:

    Love this:)

  28. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Thank you, Monique.

  29. Roblynn says:

    Beautiful article, brought tears. My son has been incarcerated since age 17 and he has been practicing yoga as well as meditation since being arrested. He has written three books and at the age of 20 is teaching the GED prep classes.
    Do prisoners "deserve" yoga? They are people aren't they?

  30. Anneke_Lucas says:

    Hi Roblynn, Yes, of course they are people. Your son sounds like he has used his time like a true yogi, transforming himself with the tools available, and providing service to others. You must be proud of him, however painful the fact that he has been incarcerated for 3 years now (in New York, I wonder? NY is the only state to sentence 17 year olds as adults).
    The question "Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga?" is not one that I ask myself, but it is a question I've heard and read often, and I wanted to raise the issue of prejudice against prisoners in the article. I've spoken to some very courageous men who, like your son, have been able to use the yoga and meditation classes to their greatest personal advantage.

  31. […] Serving where it matters most. This is the second article in a series. The view the first, click here. […]

  32. […] Keeping things simple by living in areas that have been developed is the most beneficial to occupants. Staying away from jails, hospitals, cemeteries, high traffic areas, and other places that may upset the nervous system are ideal for ensuring great health and wellness. After all, who wants to live next to a cemetery, a hospital, or a jail? […]

  33. heather says:

    I so agree with you. Thank you for writing.

  34. […] objectionable; b) supports the growing movement to bring yoga to those who need it most, including adult prisoners and children and youth in detention […]

  35. […] recommended is Anneke Lucas’ Prison Yoga Project page on Facebook or her brilliant article Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga? […]

  36. […] the growing movement to bring yoga to those who need it most, including adult prisoners and children and youth in detention […]

  37. […] Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on […]

  38. […] is Part 4 of a series on Prison Yoga. Click here to see Part 1, Part 2 and Part […]

  39. […] Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga? In this part one of a series on Prison Yoga Project‘s training, the value of bringing restorative vs. retributive justice will be explored along with James Fox’s philosophy around the “mind, body, heart” connection and how getting prisoners in touch with their feelings is an essential step in the process toward recovery, for both the perpetrator, the victim, and society. […]

  40. Just reposted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Braja Sorensen
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    Editor, Elephant Spirituality
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  41. […] is part 6 of the Prison Yoga Series. Read Part 1: ‘Do Prisoners Deserve Yoga’ with photos by Robert Sturman; Part 2: ‘Serve Where it Matters: Yoga and Meditation to […]