June 7, 2011

Interview with San Quentin Yoga teacher: Video and class photos.

This is Part 4 of a series on Prison Yoga. Click here to see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

All photos of San Quentin prisoners by Robert Sturman.

Sara Neufeld is a freelance writer and anusara-inspired yoga teacher in Brooklyn, NY. She recently interviewed James Fox for YogacityNYC, here reprinted.


Prison Yoga Project founder James Fox has been teaching yoga for nearly a decade at San Quentin State Prison in California, where his three weekly classes have waiting lists. More than 5,000 prisoners nationwide have written to request copies of his book, Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery.

SN: How did you get involved teaching in prisons?

JF: I’ve been practicing yoga for 24 years, and when I became certified to teach in 2001, I knew that I didn’t want to teach in yoga studios… In one of the teacher trainings I did with Erich Shiffmann, he said something that really impacted me, something to the effect of, ‘Don’t be so concerned about teaching someone else’s teachings. Find what it is that you have to offer.’ … There was a monk who was in that training who had been teaching homeless people, and I was very impacted by that… There was a residential treatment facility for boys in the town where I lived . I thought, ‘Well, there’s the perfect opportunity.’ … I went to this residential facility called Full Circle and presented that I would like to teach yoga to the boys. At first they said, ‘It would be impossible. We can’t keep their attention for more than five minutes.’ I taught there for five years until Full Circle lost its state funding and had to close…. (Meanwhile) the Insight Prison Project, a nonprofit organization, was setting up a multidisciplinary program at San Quentin and asked if I would set up a program.

SN: What was a typical class like for you when you started? What’s it like now?

JF: When I first started going I’d walk in with my yoga mat under my arm, the guys on the yard would whistle at me… Yoga was brand new to them. It was looked at as some kind of pursuit for sissies. At the beginning I only had a very few brave souls sign up for the class…. I was like a Martian showing up in their world. I remember one guard saying to me, ‘Man, I’ll give you six months.’ … After about a year, more and more guys started showing up… Now I’m teaching three classes and about to start a fourth: two for guys with life sentences and two for (those with) determinant sentences, beginner and experienced, (filled to capacity at) 16-18 students each.

SN: How do you draw  prisoners to your classes?

JF: Word of mouth in prison is everything. If something good is going on, the inmates spread the word…. Oftentimes I’ll get a guy who will come to the class and say, ‘I’d really like to stretch.’ And I’ll say, ‘This is not a stretching class. You’ll get plenty of physical exercise here, but it’s really more about your mind.’

SN: What poses and meditation techniques have worked particularly well with your students? Which have you eliminated through trial and error?

JF: Iʼve been a Vipassana practitioner for many years…. I always do a short period of meditation to begin the class and a short period of meditation at the end. Working with this population, oftentimes slower is better. It instills mindfulness. Mindfulness isn’t just sitting and meditating, but something you want to carry through the entire practice…. Iʼd pretty much been an Iyengar and Ashtanga-trained yogi, and about four or five years ago I started studying Taoist yoga… It corresponds to a particular teaching topic I am fond of, the warrior spirit, what are the real attributes of a warrior. Really warrior-ship is not about fighting but developing the emotional and spiritual discipline to be a defender of your community and your tribe. I started incorporating the Taoist practice, both the Yang part, which is more assertive, and the Yin, and the men have really liked it a lot.

When I started working with youth, I thought, what are the common denominators? Addiction and violence. How can I apply yoga to those issues? Of course the addiction part plays into the violence.

So a lot of work and the asana practice is focused on supporting impulse control and addiction recovery.

SN: Tell me about the book project, how it started and how it’s evolved.

JF: The book started primarily because … I was getting a lot of requests: ‘What can I do when I get out?’ It’s not very realistic that a lot of men are going to get out and enroll in yoga classes…. Sometimes I would copy different asana practices, and I realized it was an incomplete way of giving them information. It just became obvious to me that I needed to write a book. I thought I’d so something that was maybe a dozen pages with a meditation practice, a couple of pranayama practices and an asana practice.

When I started, I realized I should do this the right way, put together a complete book for prisoners. I was also getting more inquiries from yoga teachers around the country interested in teaching yoga in prisons…. And then I thought, if it’s good for the men in my classes, why not make it available to prisoners everywhere? … I needed to see if I could get some grant money so I could print more books, and that’s when I got connected with the Give Back Yoga Foundation. In talking with the Human Kindness Foundation, they have a prisoner newsletter that goes out on a quarterly basis…. We did an announcement in the holiday newsletter of 2009…. Initially I printed 1,500 books, and I had 1,500 requests in six weeks…. In 2010, I sent out about 4,500 books to prisoners, all in response to handwritten letters…. I am still getting a couple hundred requests a month…. I’m out of books right now. I’m waiting to print the second edition. I’ve added 36 pages to it with a couple of (new) asana practices, including a non-impact asana practice because I got a number of letters from prisoners who said, ‘I’m not in very good health or physical condition, and I like your book but I find the asana practices to be too difficult.’ … Give Back is granting some money toward the printing of the book, but the majority I raise on my own through grassroots fundraisers, so that’s the importance of doing the fundraiser in New York.

SN: We’re excited to have you coming to New York City. What can participants expect from the training?

JF: They can expect to get a really clear insight into the prison system, the need for rehabilitative programs and how yoga can be applied to the specific issues that prisoners are confronted with…. (There will be) lots of practical suggestions and information about how you can take the philosophy of yoga and apply it to people who come from such dramatically different backgrounds and are dealing with entirely different circumstances.

SN: You’ve become a passionate advocate for prison reform. Please explain.

JF: There are two areas. One is looking at the criminal justice system itself and the way it’s set up to keep sending more and more people to prison….  If somebody is a nonviolent drug offender, I think we should be spending money on drug programs rather than the amount of money we spend keeping them incarcerated…. The second area is looking at the prison itself and what is being done for prisoners. Since most of the major states have these huge budgetary issues, this is a call for the community to become more involved. Most people look at prisoners as out of sight out of mind, but 80 percent of them are coming back. You’re going to run into them in a grocery store, you’re going to run into them in traffic, you’re going to run into them on the subway. What kind of people do you want them to be? A lot of guys will tell you they go into prison a nonviolent drug offender, and they become violent because prisons are violent. You can get any drug you want in prison…. A person has to have a very strong commitment to rehabilitate.

James Fox will be in New York on June 18-19 to lead a workshop at Ashtanga Yoga New York/Broome Street Temple for those interested in providing yoga to the incarcerated and other at-risk populations. He will also be the featured speaker at a June 18 benefit for the Prison Yoga Project.

Watch the Time.com video of James Fox’ yoga program at San Quentin:

Photographer Robert Sturman on left


More photos of San Quentin yoga on Robert Sturman’s Facebook album D I G N I T A S

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