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Free Your Mind – Issue 34

OM Yoga and Lifestyle Magazine Articles - September

A new study by Oxford University shows that offering yoga to prison inmates could provide a big boost to society

Yoga has been offered in prisons up and down the country for some time now. And with good reason: studies show that regular yoga and meditation can ease away some of the tension, stress and anger that permeates through cell blocks. It’s a tough environment to work in too, which is why prison staff are also encouraged to find space on the mat and get some quiet time

Wellbeing boost

A new study by one of the country’s flagship universities confirms that yoga can improve mood and mental wellbeing among prisoners, and may also have an effect on impulsive behaviour. Oxford University researchers found that prisoners after a 10-week yoga course reported improved mood, reduced stress and were better at a task related to behaviour control than those who
continued in their normal prison routine.

“We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention,” said Dr Amy Bilderbeck and Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study at the university’s Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry. “The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.”

The Oxford University researchers, along with colleagues from King’s College London, the University of Surrey and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, have reported their findings
in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. Dr Bilderbeck added: “This was only a preliminary study, but nothing has been done like this before. Offering yoga sessions in prisons is cheap – much cheaper than other mental health interventions. If yoga has any effect on addressing mental health problems in prisons, it could save significant amounts of public money.”

Mental health

Prisons see rates of mental health problems that are many times higher than the general population, and high levels are often recorded of personal distress, aggression, anti-social behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse among prisoners. Yoga and meditation have been shown to be beneficial in reducing anxiety, depression and improving mood in other areas and settings, so the Oxford researchers carried out an initial exploratory study to look at a range of possible benefits of yoga among prisoners. The researchers were supported in the study by the Prison Phoenix Trust, an Oxford-based charity that offers yoga classes in prisons. Inmates of a range of ages were recruited from five category B and C prisons, a women’s prison and a young offenders institution, all in the West Midlands, and were randomly assigned to either a course of 10 weekly yoga sessions of 90 minutes run by the Trust, or to a control group.

In sessions with the researchers before and after the yoga course, all the prisoners completed standard psychology questionnaires measuring mood, stress, impulsivity and mental wellbeing. A computer test to measure attention and the participant’s ability to control his or her responses to an on-screen cue was also used after the yoga course.

Wider implications

If yoga is associated with improving behaviour control, as suggested by the results of the computer test, there may be implications for managing aggression, anti-social or problem behaviour in prisons and on return to society, the researchers note. Dr Bilderbeck, who practises yoga herself, said: “We’re not saying that organising a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce re-offending rates. We’re not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.”

It’s a familiar theme for those already taking yoga into the nation’s prisons and young offender institutions. And there could be great potential benefits, reckons Sam Settle, director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. “Almost half of adult prisoners return to prison within a year, having created more victims of crime, so finding ways to offset the damaging effects of prison life is essential for us as a society,” he said. “This research confirms what prisoners have been consistently telling the Prison Phoenix Trust for 25 years – yoga and meditation help them feel better, make better decisions and develop the capacity to think before acting, all of which are essential in leading positive, crime-free lives once back in the community.”

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