Va. jail using yoga to give inmates 'life balance' and reduce recidivism
The nationwide Prison Yoga Project aims to improve impulse control and decision making
By Peter Coutu
NORFOLK, Va. — In a small, hot room inside the Norfolk City Jail, four inmates ditched their shoes and took a seat on a yoga mat. For the next hour, they stretched, meditated and breathed deeply, as they’ve done once a week for the last three months.
And after Monday night’s session, the four men became the first graduates of the jail’s new “Balancing Your Life” program. The class – which aims to improve impulse control and decision making and, ultimately, reduce how many participants reoffend after release – is part of the nationwide Prison Yoga Project.
The program is not always easy – the class dropped from 12 participants to four over the three months – but research shows similar ones have been effective. A 2002 study in Seattle, for example, showed recidivism rates dropped by 25 percent for those who took a 10-day meditation course.
Norfolk's instructor, Christine Harrell, will start teaching a similar class for women inmates Sept. 12 and is looking to expand the program to other Hampton Roads jurisdictions.
To end Monday’s session, she told the men to focus on how their chests rise and fall when breathing. She stressed that for the past 12 weeks she’s been guiding them – rather than teaching or fixing them – because she knows they will have to make positive changes on their own.
“Allow yourself to find forgiveness for yourself,” she told them.
For Terrance Jones, it has already made a world of a difference.
At first, he said, he joined just because it was something to do and he wanted to become more flexible. After three months, though, he has become less impulsive and found a sense of well-being.
“I didn’t even know how to stretch before,” he said. “Now this is something I want to do the rest of my life.”
Also at the graduation was Messiah A. Johnson, a Norfolk resident who was wrongly imprisoned for robbery for more than two decades. He's out on parole after receiving a conditional pardon in April 2018 but came back to give a speech at the class' graduation. He started doing yoga while in prison, calling it a tool that helped him get through his sentence.
“The one thing incarceration teaches you more than anything is the practice of patience,” Johnson said.
He said people have to start making changes while behind bars, because it’ll be too late once they get out.
While in jail, Jones said he’s worked hard to improve himself, as have the other graduates. Two earned GEDs.
Jones has dropped more than 150 lbs., going from 450 to 280, and said he's been feeling great. He said he’ll likely be behind bars for another four years, but he already has plans for once he gets out. He wants to be a personal trainer, chef and nutritionist – three jobs he said are intertwined.
“I just want to continue down this journey,” Jones said.
©2018 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)