Prison yoga provides lasting benefits for those in for a stretch

Every week, Catherine Clancy, a self-professed “practical yoga teacher”, wakes up and puts on the same old grey tracksuit, hops into her car with her equally aged yoga mat and heads to meet her next class of unlikely enthusiasts.

For three years, Catherine, a PhD candidate in criminology, has been offering yoga classes to incarcerated people at a correctional centre in Brisbane.

As she enters the facility she is no longer fazed by the barbed wire or security protocols.

However, she does sense a “heightened atmosphere” as she navigates past clanging gates and buzzing alarms.

Up to 20 women, many carrying “scars on the inside” and dressed in light blue clothes, talk loudly as they wait, sprawled on well-worn, donated yoga mats.

“It can be chaotic when I arrive,” Catherine said.

“You never know who will turn up [and] nearly all [inmates] will have experienced either physical, sexual or emotional abuse … there’s trauma.”

Catherine sits in a yoga pose and smiles at the camera.

Catherine Clancy wants to share “the profound impact” that yoga has had on her life.(Photo: Supplied)

“You see the energy shift almost immediately,” Catherine said.

“It goes from high-octane, fight or flight to a calmer rest … I see the benefits.”

Catherine said she “dressed down” and adapted her teaching style to adhere to prison rules and life on the inside.

“It’s a hard cement floor in an open gym with chain-wire mesh, often filled with unpleasant odours from the nearby sewage plant,” she said.

A yoga teacher takes some women through their yoga poses.

A facilitator takes a group of women through their moves in the prison yard.(Supplied: Queensland Correctional Services)

Meditation, Catherine explained, might seem against the odds, but even in these challenging conditions, “peace has found a way to replace chaos”.

“Some tell me they feel safer now and look forward to seeing me again next week,” she said.

Catherine said she understood why some people questioned the appropriateness of yoga in prisons, but explained the research in America and Australia that supported the benefits.

“Many studies support the rehabilitative effects of yoga for reducing impulsivity and aggression,”  Catherine said in reference to two known risk factors for reoffending.

“A 2017 Swedish randomised controlled trial concluded that impulsivity and antisocial behaviour were reduced following participation in a 10-week [once- per-week] yoga group,” she said. 

Fellow ‘yogis’ answer call

A world away from the prison, women gather in a well-ventilated, warmly lit yoga studio with calming music and aromatherapy in the heart of Maroochydore on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

A female yoga instructor is in a yoga pose and smiles.

Belinda Locklier has filled boxes with shirts, hoodies, tank tops, shorts, pants, support undergarments, mats and blocks.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Janel Shorthouse)

Belinda Locklier, a yoga teacher and occupational therapist, expresses her gratitude as she collects quality-used donations, including colourful gym gear and rolled-up mats.

“I saw a post from Yoga On The Inside, appealing for donations and wanted to get involved,” she said.

“I know how yoga helped me, and how it can help others.”

“It’s a beautiful thing to share with fellow yogis in need,” Belinda says, as she boxes donations soon to find their way to people eager to embrace yoga within the prison walls.

Breathing, movement and focus

Yoga On The Inside founder Sonia Brown-Diaz understands the correlation between trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Diagnosed with PTSD following the stillbirth of twin sons, Sonia felt the “gentle yet transformative effects” of trauma-informed yoga through her own healing journey.

“Being aware of my body movement and breath is always a place I can come back to,” she said.

Eager to extend this healing process to others, Sonia’s mindfulness practices for incarcerated people led to the program being certified as a social trader in 2018.

“It can increase their sense of control and agency,” Sonia said.

Four and a half years since its inception, Sonia and a team of 10 facilitators attend 12 correctional facilities in Australia for women, men and youth in custody or detention.

A total of 21 programs are offered across the country. 

Similar classes are now being held in correctional facilities across Australia, (with the exception of the Northern Territory).

Sonia said research had linked trauma not only to addiction and mental illness, but also to criminal behaviour.

“Yoga can help counter these challenges,” she said.

“It’s proven to reduce anxiety, depression and can improve sleep and a person’s overall wellbeing.”

A poster shows some comments from inmates and correctional officers.

Testimonies from inmates and correctional officers give insight into how yoga is being received in prisons.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Janel Shorthouse)

Sonia says it is effective, inexpensive and it is catching on.

“It’s about supporting people in custody on their journey of rehabilitation,” she said.

There is also a flow-on effect for prison staff, Sonia said, because it encouraged less conflict with and among prisoners.

“With reflection comes responsibility, emotional development and rational decision making,” she said.

Sonia believes it can be life-changing for people who continue practising beyond prison.

The simple ability to take “one deep breath in and out” and regulate the autonomic nervous system provides individuals with the “pause” they need to respond to stressful situations mindfully,” Sonia said.

“Success depends on all of us, driven by research and heartfelt dedication by people like Catherine and Belinda.”

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