Author revisits prison yoga classes

The story surrounding the virtues of yoga instruction in prisons is incomplete, according to a UC Riverside professor who has spent years teaching yoga in prisons and has written a book about the experience.

“There’s a false narrative, ‘if you improve yourself, you don’t get locked up,'” said Farah Godrej, an associate professor of political science. “Within prisons, this idea of ​​self-improvement is used in an insidious way. It becomes a device to tell inmates that incarceration is their own fault.”

Farah Godrey

“Freedom Inside” is Farah Godrej’s reflection on prison yoga classes after four years as a volunteer instructor for inmates. Photos by Stan Lim.

In her recently published book ‘Freedom Inside? Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral State,” the author argues that the power of yoga and meditation can be taught more thoughtfully by incorporating an awareness of the structural and systemic injustices that lead so many to the prison system.

Godrej’s first exposure to yoga was in her native India when she was in her twenties. At that time she read the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the canonical texts of Yoga, along with the Yoga Sutras and other similar texts. These texts teach inner spiritual pursuit, acceptance without reaction, and detachment from worldly circumstances. Also aided by her study of Buddhist traditions, she initially adopted the view that the key to happiness is not changing external circumstances, but rather one’s internal state.

But that message also got her thinking: “What about collective suffering? Should we accept inequality and injustice as part of life’s fluctuation, or worse, as created by our own minds?

Godrej’s book is a compelling case for considering the “prison-industrial complex”. That is the term many use to describe the system of interests that profit financially from prisons, including labor unions and lobby groups, private prisons, and companies that provide goods and services (including bail) to prisons.

Godrej cites evidence showing that 2.3 million people are in US prisons, ten times the number in comparable democracies. One in 23 American adults is part of the system in some way, most of them from underrepresented demographic groups. And one in two American adults has a close relative incarcerated. She also cites evidence regarding the discretion of prosecution and sentencing laws, along with discrimination and structural rules that trap people from certain communities in cycles of repeated incarceration.

Coinciding with her research on mass incarceration, Godrej became aware that many organizations offered yoga and meditation in prisons. She found that the teachings offered were consistent with those from the yoga and Buddhist traditions she was familiar with: downplaying external causes, focusing on internal ones. Prison yoga advocates preached being non-reactive to injustice and accepting it.

Godrej had then become more receptive to a message more akin to that of Mahatma Gandhi, who advocated non-violent but disruptive action.

She explored volunteering to teach yoga in prison while also seeking approval to conduct research. Prisons are notoriously closed to outside surveillance, and gaining scientific access for research required two years of appeals and commitments to prison officials.

Between August 2016 and March 2020, Godrej’s weekly routine included driving to various prisons in Southern California, often traveling long distances, where she led yoga and meditation sessions. During that time, she writes, she became “immersed in the landscape and logistics of prison life” while getting to know many students.

Godrej’s approach to instruction was informed by her extensive immersion in the prison landscape, including in-depth interviews with other volunteers, and attending training courses offered by various organizations operating in prisons. She was drawn to approaches that linked yoga and meditation to their potential to address structural and systemic inequalities, including race, gender, and socioeconomic inequality.

Godrej found that many who practiced yoga while in prison echoed the words of Alex, a formerly incarcerated practitioner who held to the notions of personal responsibility and accepting consequences.

“One thing Buddhism and meditation have done for me… whatever you do, it took a decision and everything has consequences. I manned it and accepted responsibility for my actions,” Alex told Godrej.

Another practitioner, Lucas, said, “Maybe it was through meditation that I was able to accept (my punishment) enough that it didn’t bother me as much.”

Godrej came out of her four years teaching yoga in prisons with a lesson that was much more nuanced. She said there are indeed many benefits to a basic lesson in spirituality, to accepting responsibility as a step toward self-improvement. But she believes acceptance, while a valuable lesson in prison yoga, should not be the last lesson.

“Too often… I saw how teachers and students in prisons view acceptance as the end goal of these practices, neglecting to mention that acceptance need not mean resignation, reconciliation or passivity in the face of injustice,” she wrote.

Her book features interviews with 36 other yoga and meditation prison volunteers. Godrej wrote that most volunteers believe in the need to transform prison into a vessel for personal change, to make prison time “productive, introspective and redemptive.”

Godrej prefers what she calls “the deviant story.”

“I found that practices of self-control and self-discipline could help incarcerated practitioners develop an internal strength and sense of freedom that defied the institution’s ability to define their lived experience,” she said.

Or in the words of Michael, another prisoner quoted in the book, meditation “teach us to see our conditioning; it taught me to think and investigate, not only internally but also externally.” He said it provides “a moral compass” for navigating the world.

Godrej’s book concludes by urging yoga instructors to think more thoughtfully about the messages they spread in prisons. It also offers beginner-level classes on various traditions and yoga and meditation classes and explores prison culture and volunteer dynamics.

“Freedom Inside” was published by Oxford University Press. It is available through online retailers and at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena and Skylight Books in Los Angeles.

On January 25, 2023, UCR’s Center for Ideas in Society will host a book launch by Godrej. The center also provided research funding for the book.

Key photo by John Moore, Getty Images

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