This blog post comes from Liza Stacey, a psychologist and yoga teacher currently working in a mental health/psych ward in a men’s maximum security facility in Melbourne Victoria, Australia. She works there three days a week. Along with individual counseling and running programs on understanding and managing emotions, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and distress tolerance, she teaches yoga and meditation classes twice a week.
The classes introduce a new sequence of physical asanas each week, including poses for balancing mood, assisting sleep and helping with anxiety; as well as more invigorating asanas for assisting with depressive symptoms such as low energy and mood. After some physical yoga, different types of meditation techniques are taught, such as different breathing (pranayama) techniques, breath counting meditation, guided visual meditation and yoga nidra.
Says Liza: “The men have really benefited from these classes and those with diagnosed mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, have reported it has helped them manage their psychotic symptoms.”
The Blending of Yoga And Psychology Within Prison Walls
by Liza Stacey
Yoga has a direct link to the needs of people in the prison system; however, it still faces some blockers to the adoption in these environments. Through my experiences and training, I have seen the positive benefits of yoga in these environments.
I have been working in the area of mental health/ psychology for over ten years (including as a Registered Psychologist for over 5 years), have been a yoga practitioner since I was 18 years old and have now completed my training as a yoga teacher. I have been working within the prison system for nearly four years now. Most of that time has been within a forensic mental health unit within a maximum security men’s prison in Victoria.
When I first started practicing yoga, I experienced firsthand the amazing therapeutic benefits it had on my own stress levels, and started using yoga and meditation techniques to manage and cope whenever I had stressful times in my life.
Traditionally, psychological therapies have been based around trying to change your thinking to change your behaviour and mood (e.g., Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). From around the year 2000, other therapies have started to make their way into mainstream use, such as Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectic Behaviour Therapy/ Distress Tolerance. These therapies all use the basis of mindfulness meditation and breath awareness/ awareness of the present moment to assist in the change of mood and mental states. This is at the core of what yoga teaches, as well. Over the past few years I have seen more and more the openness of clients and also fellow colleagues to want to learn more about these therapies.
To me, the blend of yoga and psychology makes sense in so many ways. Bringing this blend into the prison environment made even more sense. There is more to Yoga than just the physical practice: it is also the practice of breath awareness, the practice of quietening and stilling the mind, the practice of sitting in discomfort to get comfort, and the practice of impulse control. To practice yoga is to practice mindfulness. It is about understanding and compassion to ourselves and others. Yoga is also about developing awareness of self. It teaches you to step back and observe your thoughts and feelings and witness these as an observer, rather than being entangled in the thoughts. Developing self-awareness is the key to change, and yoga helps with this. To practice all aspects of yoga, we practice strategies which will assist to reduce anxiety, depression, worry, excessive rumination and anger, and increase our focus on the positive – all strategies that psychology teaches, as well.
Think about what prison is: punishment and loss of freedom, leading to feelings of mental and emotional distress, distrust and agitation. This is coupled with men who have committed crimes and often have had a past of unhappiness, trauma and violence in the lives. What better place is there to be teaching yoga and the practices/ philosophies of yoga and meditation?
Most men in prison experience trauma. Often, trauma has occurred in their lives prior to coming to prison (such as the trauma of the loss of attachment from their parents during crucial developmental years, or physical or sexual abuse, or even the trauma that years of substance abuse and crime can also bring). Plus, there is the trauma often experienced within the prison walls (the loss of family and relationships, the daily stress of survival, physical and sexual abuse by other prisoners and the threat of this). It makes sense that a practice such as yoga/meditation can assist in helping these men deal and cope with the trauma.
There is more and more evidence mounting each year about the benefits of yoga practice to heal trauma. People who have gone through a traumatic period in their lives can be disconnected to their bodies, and so even the physical feel of a yoga mat underneath their hands and feet when doing downward dog can be hugely therapeutic for them. Most people who have lived through trauma experience high levels of anxiety, and so teaching breathing techniques and meditation can help to reduce anxiety significantly. Most people who have lived through trauma find it difficult to sleep at night — in fact, this is one of the most stated issues within the prison system. So practicing yoga nidra (deep relaxation exercise) and relaxation strategies/ relaxing yoga postures to do before sleep can help those who find sleep difficult. Teaching grounding exercises which men can practice in their cells at night if they cannot sleep can assist those who frequently wake with distressing nightmares.
American prisons such as San Quentin State Prison in California have understood the value of adding yoga to their mainstream prison programs, and more evidence is coming out about the benefits of these programs for the prison population. The Yoga Education in Prisons Trust is an organisation assisting prisoners in New Zealand to learn yoga and meditation and so more and more people are getting exposed to the benefits of yoga within the prison environment. Each year, there are more and more studies in psychology and psychiatric journals about how yoga reduces distress in prison populations (e.g., a UK study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2013 found participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population). Australian prisons appear to have not yet incorporated yoga and meditation techniques into the wider prison population.
There are a couple of challenges to yoga in prison being more widespread. The first is the perception of yoga, and having yoga being run in prisons – for staff, prisoners and the wider community.
Yoga may still be seen by men as being “for women only.” Yoga may also be seen by men as not being accessible to them, as they cannot “get their body into twisted pretzel shapes.” Men may also see meditation as being something that is “weak” and not for them.
Yoga may be seen by prison staff and possibly the wider community as being a “relaxation exercise,” and not something that people who are serving time for crime should have access to. They may see it as a reward, rather than as part of treatment and therapy.
To counteract this perception, more education should be done about the benefits of the programs and what they teach. Yoga should be sold more as a means of treatment for stress, anger, distress tolerance, anxiety, depression and trauma. Yoga should be seen as more than just the physical practice, but as a teaching of breath awareness, relaxation, mindfulness and meditation.
The empirical evidence of mindfulness is now understood and well known, and has been incorporated into many programs. However, this can be further incorporated by increasing the practice and teaching of yoga within the prison and within the programs.
I have seen and heard firsthand stories of men in prison who are suffering from psychiatric illness and PTSD reporting that since they have started practicing meditation, breath awareness and yoga nidra, their auditory and visual hallucinations have significantly reduced, and their nightmares have reduced and/or they are able to manage them much better.
I am hoping to begin measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of yoga within the prison population at the psychosocial medical ward of the prison where I work as a psychologist. The program I will be teaching, measuring and evaluating will incorporate the physical practices of yoga, as well as the teachings of mindfulness and distress tolerance — which in fact are the philosophies of yoga, blended into the teachings of modern day psychology and anxiety and depression management.
Bilderbeck, A.C; Farias, M, Brazil.I, Jakobowitz. S., and Wikholm. C.. Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 47 (2013) 1438-1445.
Van der Kolk, Stone, West, Rhodes, Emerson, Suvak, Spinazzola. Yoga as an Adjunctive Treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Randomized Controlled Trial. 2014:75, Journal of Clinical Psychiatry
Van der Kolk.B. The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. 2014. The Penguin Group.