A week and a half ago, Mark Fry ventured, heart racing, into a prison common room full of inmates — and no guards.
The Art of Living yoga instructor was greeted by the sight of 21 men sitting on the concrete floor of the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre in Brockville, Ont.
The residents were poised on bedding they carried in from their cells. Yoga mats, Fry said, are hard to come by in prison.
“The inmates washed and swept the floor, and set the whole room up,” Fry said. “Then they all brought their sheets in, and were just sitting there.”
Prison nurses, who Fry said laughed at the program, looked into the room through a bubbled window, wondering how the “kooky” encounter would play out.
“They thought it was the stupidest thing they’ve ever heard of in their lives,” Fry said.
The instructor introduced himself to the 21 inmates — one of the biggest groups ever to sign up for an activity at the centre — and the healing began.
For the next six days, prisoners breathed, meditated, and stretched their way through the first yoga course ever taught in a Canadian prison.
Seventeen of them completed the privately funded course — and Dr. Colin Cameron, the residents’ physician, said yoga didn’t leave with the instructor.
“It was kind of neat to see — they’re continuing to do this, as a group, even after the course is over,” Cameron said four days after the program ended.
“There’s about eight of them that, every evening, get together … and it was their initiative.”
An unexpected inspiration…
Cameron, who brought the pilot project into the prison, said he had never thought of using yoga to treat prisoners until a special birthday outing in Ottawa last year opened his eyes — and his lungs.
“My mother is 83, and she’s been doing yoga for years, and she wanted to go to an Art of Living seminar,” Cameron said.
“I accompanied her, quite unbeknownst that I would have a particular interest in it. I found it personally quite pleasant, and did a basic course shortly after.”
Cameron, who works out of a hospital in Ottawa, said yoga seemed like a good fit for the provincial correctional centre.
He had seen literature about it benefiting patients with mood disorders, and realized it may have the same effects on troubled prisoners.
“I do a weekly group (at the prison), and a lot of these guys are at rock-bottom — this is a low point of their life,” Cameron said.
“There’s a thirst for something, they’re ripe for change — and when you work with them using different avenues, they’re often quite receptive.”
Getting yoga behind bars
After deciding he wanted to bring yoga into the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre, Cameron contacted the Art of Living Foundation, whose leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spoke at the first seminar he attended.
The international non-governmental organization, which offers yoga programs to eliminate stress for people from all backgrounds, had done similar prison projects in the United States, Africa, India, and South America.
Cameron was put in touch with Fry — who was trying to get the program into prisons in Canada, but was struggling because he didn’t have any statistical proof the program was effective — and offered to evaluate a pilot project in the Ontario prison.
“We’re kind of a unique facility … we have a lot of front-line healthcare professionals, and we’re affiliated with an academic hospital, so we are able to do program evaluation,” Cameron said.
The doctor put his recommendation behind the venture, and it was approved by the province.
“When it comes to treatment, we trust the hospital’s judgment,” said Stuart McGetrick, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
“We’re always open to new treatment tools to work with these individuals.”
Because the course just wrapped up, Cameron has yet to compile any hard data — but feedback from forms filled out by 18 of the prisoners after the course was overwhelmingly positive.
Some highlights from the inmates’ comment sheets:
* 15 said they found the course helpful;
* 17 said they would recommend the course run again;
* 14 said they’d practice the main breathing technique, Sudarshan Kria, on a regular basis, and;
* 14 said they’d be interested in attending yoga sessions in their community after they got out of jail.
Some quotes from the feedback forms:
* “It was a great experience, and I will be doing this for more time;”
* “It helped me relax. It helped me get in touch with my body and mind;”
* “It helped me sleep;”
* “It helped me to become calm and free-minded,” and;
* “The breathing has been awesome. I do it every day and I feel like another person.”
Fry said the middle of the program was rough, and some of the men became frustrated trying to get the yoga techniques down — but it was worth it in the end, when he could sense a positive change.
“A lot of them said that was the hardest thing they’d ever done, but they were happy they got through it because they felt so great,” Fry said.
“Some of them couldn’t close their eyes on the first day, and on the fifth day, they could close their eyes — that was the biggest transition.”
Of the four who didn’t complete the course, Cameron said one said he was too lazy, one suffered from auditory hallucinations during a session, one said it just wasn’t for him — and the fourth wanted to complete the six sessions, but a sore ankle held him back.
One member of the group, who ranged from age 19 to about 52, had a suggestion to make it a little less painful next time.
“Some mats in the future — it was hard on your bones.”
Will yoga take off in prison?
Once the data from this pilot project is compiled, Fry hopes the evidence will lead to more prison classes.
“Once we get the outcome measurements, I’d like to do five different facilities next,” Fry said.
“We could have 30 inmates doing yoga, and 30 not doing yoga, and see what the outcome is.”
Fry said getting the program into more Canadian prisons will probably take a long time — but it’s worth the effort to bring hope to more troubled lives.
“My mom, who died when I was 15, was a nurse who dealt with everyone in society. No one was better, no one was worse — everyone was just a human being with their own issues,” Fry said.
“I had a drinking problem, so I can relate to most of the guys in there … and I’m not judging them. I just accept them as they are and want to teach them.” Nicole Tomlinson, CTV.ca News