Prison Yoga: A beacon of light
Yoga was a 'beacon of light' in prison for former prisoner, Richard, who will be sharing his experiences at the OM Yoga Show in London this year alongside The Prison Phoenix Trust
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Richard is one of two men who will be speaking about their experiences of learning yoga and meditation while in prison at the OM Yoga Show later this year. He describes yoga as a “beacon of light” during his time behind bars after being introduced to the practice by a charity, The Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT).
Richard spent most of his early life in ‘the system’ – growing up in care, getting into trouble, serving time in detention centres and borstal, and eventually prison. During one five-year sentence he was moved 12 times. It was during a move to a new prison, at three in the morning, crammed into a prison van with six officers, blue lights flashing, that he decided something had to change.
“I was looking around me thinking: how have I got into this situation? This is a battle I’m losing. I realised I needed to change the battle plan and look at why I’m here,” he tells OM.
He reached out for help to The Prison Phoenix Trust, the UK’s leading charity supporting yoga and meditation in prisons. He took the initiative and wrote to the charity, who then wrote back, offering to support and guide him from afar as he explored the healing practices of yoga and meditation.
“Prison isn’t a good place to drop your guard,” he recalls, “but through the letters I could talk more openly and look at myself more. I could put my emotions down on paper, things that I couldn’t say out loud to anyone.”
That was in 2011. In some of the prisons he was moved to there were in-person yoga classes, taught by yoga teachers trained and supported by The PPT.
“I was on a journey of total change and yoga helped to support it. The yoga classes in HMP Winchester every Tuesday and Thursday were fantastic and meant that I could keep going with stronger yoga that kept flowing. It got to the stage that when I was being moved to another prison, I’d be thinking, I really hope they've got yoga classes here."
The work of the PPT
There are currently yoga classes in more than 50 prisons across the UK and Ireland, supported by The Prison Phoenix Trust. The charity trains and supports teachers to adapt their classes for the prison environment, says The PPT’s director, Selina Sasse.
“There are high levels of trauma, physical and mental ill-health and neuro-diversity among people in prison and it’s important that yoga teachers are skilled at adapting their classes to make them accessible to all,” she says.
“It’s also important that teachers understand prison security, can recognise signs of conditioning (grooming) and know how to keep themselves and their prison students safe. Prisons rely on The Prison Phoenix Trust to ensure yoga teachers working inside are well
prepared. It’s challenging work, but also the most rewarding.”
As well as yoga classes, The PPT produces specialist resources, including handouts, books, DVDs and CDs to help people continue their yoga and meditation practice in their cells. The charity has grown to become an essential ‘beacon of hope’ for many others, while its work is increasingly recognised by experts and insiders familiar with the prison system. Here’s what some people familiar with The PPT’s work have said:
“I don’t think people realise how keen male prisoners are to do yoga. On our drug-free wing, they’ve set aside time to do yoga together using The Prison Phoenix Trust DVDs in the evening. They are very popular.” ~ The head of drug strategy provision at a male prison in England “Over many years working in prisons, I have seen people benefit from yoga and meditation. It has helped them on their journey towards health, happiness and realising their potential.” ~ Jamie Bennett, former prison governor and consultant to The PPT.
Life on the outside
For Richard, the yoga and meditation he learned in prison also helped him to make the transition to life on the outside. “As I got to the end of my sentence, yoga and meditation really helped. I’d do 12 rounds of sun salutations on the exercise yard every day and tell myself as I walked around, ‘Keep your feet on the ground.’ I knew my challenges on release were going to be massive. I had no home, relationships or anything for five years, and I knew this was going to be some journey. Whenever my mind started worrying, yoga helped massively, it kept me in my body.”
The challenges and obstacles faced by so many on release were all there for Richard as well. “I was lost and desperately looking for things to return to. I’d caused my family so much pain and when I came out it was difficult for them. I needed to be mindful of the suffering that I’d put my family through. It took about a year to start to rebuild those connections. I had to start a new life in a new town. I was 50 and had to start my whole life again. The Prison Phoenix Trust was a beacon of light that got me through some very difficult inner battles with myself. But it stayed with me wherever I went and it still does to this very day.” His experiences and understanding have helped in other ways too, bringing respite and relief during periods when he was unable to do a physical yoga practice. “Life has a way of slowing us down,” he says. “I had a prolapsed disc and had to stop training for two years, including yoga. But I carried on with the meditation. Even if you physically can’t do yoga, meditation helps you take every day as it comes, and keep your feet firmly on the ground. When you’ve done a long sentence you’re going to need many tools to keep you going, to take responsibility and to keep your feet on the ground. Now I’m back to yoga classes again but I’m more about calm, meditation, reading, and just listening.”
Support the work of The Prison Phoenix Trust at: theppt.org.uk
Meet Richard at the OM Yoga Show
Come and meet The Prison Phoenix Trust at the OM Yoga Show in London this October. Hear Richard speak about how yoga changed his life in prison at 1pm on Saturday 14th October. You can also sign up for the workshop ‘Teaching Yoga in Prisons’ with The PPT on Friday 13th October 2023 (details below). This workshop is an introduction to prison yoga teaching, and will cover a former prisoner’s experience, a taster practice of prison yoga, adapting your own teaching, and how The PPT can support you as a prison yoga teacher.
Friday 13th October, 2023
Tickets - £15, available from omyogashow.com