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From Violence to Vinyasa: The Prison Yoga Program

Types of Yoga | Yoga

The word “prison” conjures up a lot of familiar, possibly clichéd images: tiny, barred cells, convicts pumping iron, and a few hours a day in the exercise yard. California State Prison in Sacramento, however, is trying something a little different.

Yoga for Inmates

For over a year and a half, Zach Pasillas, a certified yoga instructor and founder of the nonprofit Yoga Seed Collective in Sacramento, has been giving yoga lessons to the men at the prison. Along with another instructor, he visits the prison twice a week for rigorous 90-minute sessions of Vinyasa yoga.

Classes at this Level IV facility are a bit different from classes on the outside. According to the Sacramento Bee, supplies are basic, and each class can accommodate about 20 men. While some participate in both the Tuesday and the Thursday class, members of rival gangs must be kept separate, and therefore take the class only once a week.

"Transformation is Real"

Pasillas tells the Bee that the prisoners at California State Prison, Sacramento, are some of his “best students.”

“These men here are having realizations in a really powerful way. It’s really inspiring to see and it’s convinced me that transformation is real,” he says.

Pasillas and his fellow instructor Iwona have both been trained in the Prison Yoga Program—a program developed 12 years ago by James Fox, who began teaching yoga to inmates at the notorious San Quentin State Prison. The primary focus is on yoga as a way to transform the anger and violent impulses that led many prisoners into a life of crime, into stress tolerance, nonviolence, and emotional control.

During Passilas’s time at the prison, he believes he’s seen positive change. Inmate Kevin Lewis of Oakland, who has been in prison for 20 years after being found guilty of second-degree murder, told the Bee,

“Yoga gives me a way to combat the things going on in The Yard. If you can relax through the painful positions, you can relax through painful situations in life. It also helps spiritually and keeps you calm and tolerant.”

Although it’s likely still a long way off, maybe someday the new prison cliché will be calmness, tolerance, and exercise yards full of prisoners doing yoga.

Image credit: Lezlie Sterling, Sacramento Bee

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