Shortly after moving to South Africa almost a year ago, I started volunteering in prison.
The mission of the organization I volunteer with is to catalyze “selfless service” to alleviate suffering and reduce violence.
Our flagship work is the Prison Freedom Project, through which we teach yoga and meditation in prisons throughout the country and develop courses for implementation in prisons around the world. This experience has opened my eyes to a world very different from the one I know; an experience that has challenged me in unique ways and proved deeply enriching.
South Africa has the third highest ratio of prisoners to population in the world and the prisons operate near 150% capacity. Globally, the recidivism rate—or rate of re-offense—is around 75%. This means that on average ¾ people who get out of prison go back within a short time. In South Africa, as in the United States, the economic resources required to support this revolving door pulls government budgets away from other desperately needed programs, without showing any return on investment in the form of reduced crime. While I have become broadly interested in reducing recidivism at scale, this experience imparted on me the importance and difficulty of changing behavior on the individual level.
So how does yoga fit in? To begin, yoga means unity or oneness. The most fundamental aim of yoga, as I have come to understand it, is to become unified with ourselves so we can ultimately unite with others. This is achieved through mindful awareness. Indeed, sometimes we forget that without practicing mindfulness, yoga poses are just a bunch of stretches. Through awareness though, yoga can help us be more mindful about our bodies, our thoughts and our actions. Taking a moment to attend to our feelings or step back from our thoughts inadvertently improves our interactions with others. Hence, there is a snowball effect: When we are more aware of ourselves then we can become more aware of the impact our words and actions have on others. This makes sense, but is it powerful enough to stop someone from hijacking a car or abusing a substance and breaking parole? Actually, it might be.
After many conversations with people in prison (though without formal research), I believe that many addictions and criminal acts stem from a deep lack of connection. There is an increasingly apparent link between a lack of connection with others and a lack of connection with ourselves. Through yoga, and really through the awareness practices that yoga rests on, I’ve seen offenders reflect on the harm they have caused and on what they sought (and usually failed to achieve) through their criminal acts. As one of our students put it:
“Can I help another when I cannot even help myself? And can I truly love another, as myself if I cannot and truly do not love myself, or even know what love is? Of course not. In the past I idolized my deceased father who was a renowned gangster. I resided to be just like him. That is, I adjusted my way of thinking, my belief system and became gangster orientated. I’ve come to realize that my prison experience is my own creation. (I asked myself) do you like what you have turned yourself into? Do you like to live like this? My answers were no. From then on, my path on the journey of enlightenment began. I can either choose to be happy or unhappy. Successful or unsuccessful. Free or bound. Life asks us only one question, and that is ‘what do you choose to be now?’ ”
Hearing students’ stories and listening as they introspect on their own lives and choices has been a stark reminder of how fortunate some of us are, how big our small problems seem and how, deep down, we share a yearning for many of the same things in life irrespective of race, geography or economic status.
My time in prison has imposed on me two divergent ideas: We are not as different from one another as we think and simultaneously, we underestimate the impact of our differences.
Before this experience, I would have failed to see any link between a nineteen year old who stole a car at gunpoint to move up in his gang and my internships on Wall Street—but perhaps we were each seeking challenge and prestige through actions our peers and mentors deemed valuable. In that light, my students and I are not so different.
Becoming aware of these similarities has simultaneously made me more aware of our differences—a fundamental one in particular. I believe in free will and that we are accountable for our own decisions. I also value meritocracy and the remarkable human capacity to shape our own destiny. However, I am now unable to overlook the fact that one reality—where and to whom we are born—is inseparable from the course of our lives.
One inmate has been in my class since I started teaching seva yoga in South Africa. He has spent most of his life—including all of his 20s—in prison. In stark contrast, I’d characterize my 20s by a deep sense of freedom. Of course, Bradley has committed serious crimes and I have not. That said, I have been surrounded by love, mentorship, educational and professional opportunities throughout my life. He has not. Irrevocably, we make choices and face the consequences accordingly, but arguably, our lives are determined by more than simply the sum of our own actions.
I do not know how I would have fared in the gangland that this student was raised in, nor do I doubt that he could be further ahead than me if afforded the same opportunities.
In this vein, my experience teaching yoga in prison has been a deeply humbling one. Based on the feedback from inmates and wardens, the seva yoga we are teaching is leading to positive behavioral changes. Students are engaging in self-reflection, becoming less violent towards themselves and others and taking responsibility for their actions.
Personally, the students have been my teachers as much as I have been theirs. I am more aware of and grateful for the extent to which my life has benefited from the positive influence of others and I am more compassionate for those without such positive influencers and opportunities. Admittedly, it is daunting to consider the depth and scope of crime and recidivism along with the many challenges our world faces, but if even one inmate refuses a single harmful act upon his release, the implications will have been life changing and our work worthwhile.
Author: Kevin Weiss
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: Courtesy of Author