By Hoa Quach
James Fox teaches yoga weekly to students in the Bay Area. It’s a typical class where students do a flow of postures, meditate and walk away receiving the same benefits any student would. The only difference is his students are inmates.
Fox is the founder of the Prison Yoga Project, a nonprofit organization that trains certified yoga instructors to work with populations behind bars. The Prison Yoga Project will train its next class of instructors in San Diego next week.
The Prison Yoga Project is about 14 years old and began when Fox was asked to teach at San Quentin State Prison.
“It was very challenging because there wasn’t a yoga program already at the prison,” said Fox, a former executive in the wine industry who became a certified yoga instructor in 2000. “I was chartering new territory and the prisoners were a little hesitant about the practice. It took a lot of commitment and perseverance on my part.”
Fox’s determination paid off. He saw the benefits of yoga immediately among his students. He said students have learned how to deal with their past and cope with addiction.
“I’ve taught a lot of violent offenders who were given a life sentence,” Fox said. “Yoga has taught them to take a non-violent course in their life.”
Today, the Prison Yoga Project has trained more than 1,200 teachers to work with inmates in more than 100 jails and prisons in the U.S. Fox estimates that more than 20,000 inmates have now benefited from yoga.
Bill Brown, who serves in the volunteer role as the San Diego regional coordinator for the nonprofit, is just one yoga instructor who took the Prison Yoga Project training. He said he immediately felt the urge to get involved in the organization after meeting Fox in a yoga class in 2012.
Brown now coordinates the yoga classes taught in San Diego County, including at the Vista Detention Center, the South Bay Detention Center, the San Diego Central Jail, among other local facilities.
A former web developer, Brown has worked with more than 100 inmates and has seen first-hand the benefits yoga has given them.
An inmate who has been in prison for decades stands out to Brown the most. Brown recalls a time when the inmate was late to a yoga class because the guard wouldn’t let him out.
“He could feel the anger rising inside of him and he knew not to react because of his meditation practice,” Brown said. “He’s a guy who was in a high-security yard, which means it’s likely he killed somebody or was involved in a killing. Yet, he mastered himself through this. He had a realization that there was a better way to deal with this.”
But yoga isn’t just making a positive impact on the inmates. Brown said he’s seen a positive shift among the administrators at the jails and prisons too.
“I think people are really getting that it is helpful and a useful thing to be doing,” Brown said. “The biggest misconception is that there is something different about (the inmates) but they are no different than you or I. I’ve seen how sincere the prisoners are and how they are wanting to do something better for themselves.”
For more information about the Prison Yoga Project, go to prisonyoga.org.
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