Master Teacher Roundtable: James Fox, Prison Yoga Project

“Everybody is worthy of redemption.”
~ James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project

In my twenties, I worked as a reporter-producer-writer for a documentary series called “Cold Case Files.”  My job often took me to jails and prisons across the country to interview killers, rapists and con men about crimes to which they’d either confessed or denied.

I sat just a few feet from these men, who were usually shackled and accompanied by two or more guards.  My job was to get them to talk, to reveal themselves, to lure them into a “false” sense of security with me while the camera was rolling.  It was about sound bites and ratings, after all.  I never empathized with them; they were criminals unfit to roam society at large, found guilty of horrific crimes.  Any emotional attachment I might have had with the stories resided with the victims and their families.

Even though I was a practicing yogini back then, never did I think to myself, “Wow, this serial killer might benefit from an asana and pranayama practice.”

James Fox, however, thought just that.  Founder of the Prison Yoga Project, a group of people who bring yoga into jails and prisons across the country, he has been teaching incarcerated populations for 11 years.  He brings yoga into a place that is dark and scary to most, to a group of people who are deemed “unfit” and “unworthy” to many.

“The United States does not need another yoga teacher teaching in a yoga studio,” James said with a reserved bluntness.  He explained that he followed his calling to bring yoga — and all of its benefits — to the underserved and ignored populations that needed it most.

“I have waiting lists for my life sentence classes [yoga classes for incarcerated men serving a life sentence],” James added.

It’s hard to believe that he penetrated the prison system with this brand of self-healing, especially considering the stereotypes associated with yoga.  But James circumnavigated the “sissy” connotations that most prisoners, guards and wardens often attach to yoga by approaching it authentically, and built a following — even at institutions as infamous as California’s San Quentin.  Note: It helps that James is an older man, with wavy grey hair, who looks like he’s seen his share of hard times.  A perky blonde in a ponytail might have had more hurdles with the prison community.

James’ big-picture “pitch” to prison officials on yoga’s benefits includes the following:

  • healing from unresolved trauma
  • stress and anxiety reduction
  • impulse control
  • aid in addiction recovery
  • assists with emotional issues
  • builds self-acceptance and self-worth
  • promotes greater sensitivity to self

All of these benefits, of course, apply to those outside of the prison walls.  But there is a special resonance to those within them.  By learning self-control on the mat, these prisoners can bring more self-control and patience into their interactions within prison — which is a reactionary and volatile environment that oozes angry and anxious energy.  The other hope is that by calming the mind, these men who have the option to be released might be freed sooner.

When I asked James if the freed men with whom he kept in touch continued practicing the yoga they cultivated in prison, even amidst the new challenges, responsibilities and priorities of “life on the outside” … he couldn’t provide me with a straight answer.  His eyes got a little emotional and he said it was hard to say.  It was somewhat heartbreaking to get this non-answer.  However, the benefit to prisoners while they are still in prison — that evidence is there.

Although I don’t think I’ll be working with inmates anytime soon, teaching to this niche population is a compassionate option to consider.  It’s clearly one with yogi appeal: James is leading a training at Moksha this weekend, and it’s been sold out for weeks!

For more information about the Prison Yoga Project, click here.

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