A Peek Inside South Africa's Prisons to See What Yoga Can Do for Inmates

In overcrowded facilities, inmates struggle to find and stay in touch with the goodness in each man.
Jul 7, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John Walsh is an editorial intern at TakePart.

Without mindfulness, yoga is just a series of stretches, and we can just go through the motions without gaining all the benefits. Similarly, without a bit of introspection and calm, prison is just physical captivity with little opportunity for real reform.

Since 2010, the Prison Freedom Project has introduced yoga classes in prisons all over South Africa, a country that has the third-highest ratio of prisoners to population in the world. More than 100 inmates are enrolled in the classes; the aim is to create an environment conducive to the peace, well-being, and wholeness achieved through mindful awareness.

“All I could see in the world was violence, jealousy, and anger," says Bradley Hess, an inmate and a participant, in the above video from Eyewitness News. "We learned about the body, mind, and soul. To me, because I came from a really harsh background, it really wasn’t something that I learned from my parents or from my society in general.”

Overcrowding is a severe problem in South Africa, where prisons operate at near 137 percent capacity, according to a report published last year by a South African NGO tasked with crime prevention.

So, Why Should You Care? Prison overcrowding is a problem all over the world, and even costly efforts to reform criminals rarely succeed. In the U.S. alone, more than half of convicts return to prison within three years of release. South Africa reports rates closer to 70 percent. Implementing yoga is an effort to limit recidivism rates by helping students manage personal stress and enter into a community built on a principle of peace. It's an effort to subvert the reputation of prisons as places of violence and shame.

Prisoners wake early in the morning with the hope that taking a moment to meditate and attend to their feelings will improve their ability to change.

“There is an audible difference in the room. That by the end of the class, it’s dead, dead silent. Everyone has gone inside, and when you encourage people to close their eyes, they do. In an environment like this, that’s not so typical,” says Leela Codron, the program's cofounder and instructor, in the video.

With regular practice, instructors say, inmates are developing self-awareness, forgiveness, and personal enlightenment. Kevin Weiss, an American volunteer who has been teaching yoga to prisoners through the project for two years, says the awareness yoga brings helps develop empathy for the effect that our words and actions have on others. (Disclosure: Weiss is a close friend.)

“Is it powerful enough to stop someone from hijacking a car or abusing a substance and breaking parole? Actually, it can be,” Weiss says. “Through yoga, and really through the awareness practices that yoga rests on, I’ve seen offenders reflect on the harm they have caused through their criminal acts.”