Connection and Transformation with the Prison Yoga Project

Article by Rachel Preibisch

We do not usually associate trauma rehabilitation with the criminal justice system, but since 2008 Josefin Wikstroem, program director and training coordinator of Prison Yoga Project (PYP) in Europe, has been facilitating healing connections in this extraordinary setting. Through visionary and deeply personal work facilitating trauma-informed yoga and dance in prisons, Josefin and the Prison Yoga Project team have not only been discovering that yoga can be used to support trauma rehabilitation in incarcerated populations, but are also using their evidence-based work to encourage social change. The impact of this is becoming evident throughout the world. Recently, Josefin has worked internationally teaching at San Quentin State Prison in the US, as well as holding prison yoga training with Prison Yoga Project founder James Fox in Europe and on her own in Mumbai, India, Israel, and Mexico.

Josefin has practiced yoga since the age of 18, and it has had a profound effect on the direction her own life has taken. She spent many years living and working in India, where she deepened her practice and understanding of the therapeutic potential of yoga. Upon returning home to Sweden, she desired to share what she’d learned with those who wouldn’t normally have access to it, a wish that led her to the criminal justice system.

Josefin took her first steps through a prison door in 2008. Since then she has been coordinating and teaching yoga classes funded by the prison and probation services in the Swedish prison system, in what is the largest nationally implemented yoga program in the world. She is developing programs and training materials in the Prison Yoga Project, and she has co-developed the Swedish Krimyoga program, which today is evidence-based through research done in correctional facilities by Professor Nora Kerekes. Additionally, she has studied with renowned trauma expert and author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” Bessel van der Kolk and his wife Licia Sky, amongst other prominent trauma researchers. Most recently she has been co-developing trauma-informed yoga programs for Swedish forensic psychiatry units, H.M Prison and Probation Services in the U.K, the juvenile justice system, and programs to be used within Swedish children and youth psychiatry and in schools to reduce stress for children.

In 2016, the Swedish Krimyoga program was the subject of the largest randomized research study in the world on the effects of prison yoga. The findings showed that after ten weeks there were significant changes in various areas of incarcerated individuals’ inner and outer lives, including increased psychological and emotional well-being, improved impulse control, reduced anxiety and less aggression. Results from the latest published articles from the Swedish study continue to show the benefits of yoga in the rehabilitation of incarcerated populations, with effects including decreased fearful thoughts and difficulty in decision-making, increased capabilities to take responsibility, as well as feelings of purpose and self acceptance. Even though we see these results on mental health, many prison systems still regard yoga as a leisure activity. It is not being prioritized in yearly budgets, and the understanding of the therapeutic effects from a regular yoga practice is unfortunately still lacking in many places.

The incredible impact that yoga can have on vulnerable populations such as incarcerated people has become apparent. These individuals have often been exposed to trauma since early childhood, and typically do not have access to psychoeducation and methods regarding how to process their experiences. They often self-medicate with drugs and human connection in gangs. A regular yoga practice can return a sense of wholeness and connection with others, an idea which is part of the yoga philosophy.

Because not just anyone can walk into a prison, the team in Sweden had to find creative ways to instruct the prison yoga classes. A unique aspect of this program is that it trains the prison staff to become yoga facilitators, which means that the staff are guiding the classes and participate in the movements along with the incarcerated men and women.

When asked about this aspect of the program, Josefin expresses the changes she’s observed: “We saw the health impacts from regular yoga practice not only in the inmates but also in the staff, who felt humble trying something new. Stepping out of their usual roles, not having prison employee clothes on, and facilitating the classes bridged the ‘us and them’ mentality between the men and women in the classes and the staff. However the best results are seen in facilities in our international programs where trained trauma-informed yoga teachers and therapists are facilitating these classes and the ideal would be to collaborate with and mentor the less experienced staff.

“The power dynamic becomes more equalized because the staff are themselves doing the practices and are sweating as much as the people in the class. There is also the humbleness of them being insecure, and some of the men and women in the program are encouraging the staff like, ‘come on, you can do this, you don’t have to be nervous.’ There has been a sense of compassion and empathy toward the staff, which has been amazing to observe. You can connect easier with others when you have a common experience, move in synchrony, go through challenges together. You breathe together and you have this kind of a sense of knowing each other, even though you actually never really communicate with words.” Josefin emphasizes how this, as well as her consistency in appearing for the classes, creates a safe space for the men and women she encounters weekly.

The best results are seen in facilities in our international programs where trained trauma-informed prison yoga teachers and therapists are facilitating these classes. Ideally, these teachers would collaborate with and mentor the less experienced staff.

When asked how this work contributes to social change, Josefin explains the role that practicing trauma-informed yoga has in establishing self-regulation as a means for self-rehabilitation. Learning this form of yoga helps incarcerated people to increase resilience. It strengthens the nervous system and impacts affected areas of the brain, as well as receiving control and insight over their mind, body, and reactions. “Many come from the fringes of society. They have been falling through the fingers of the social system. Instead of receiving the support and help they needed as children going into good psychiatric care, they end up as adults inside the criminal system where many do not receive effective rehabilitation. Many are returning to society with unresolved trauma held within the body, worse than when they arrived at the prison. At the end of the day, who do we want re-entering society?”Josefin emphasizes how yoga allows these individuals to feel secure and relaxed in their bodies. Many who feel this change want to go out and share it with others when they are released from prison. This has led to previously-incarcerated men training to become youth yoga instructors in Sweden as well as in the US.

Another aspect of healing and social change has emerged through specialized practices for incarcerated parents and their visiting children. These classes are facilitated to co-regulate and strengthen connection, and also nurture healing between children and their absent parents. In this setting the children can learn ways to regulate their stress and anxiety from their parents, in order to break the cycle of trauma. These practices can be found in the recently published book “Freedom from the Inside,” authored by Josefin and James Fox, which is being distributed without cost to prisons internationally.

The Covid pandemic exacerbated feelings of isolation and trauma, something that Josefin has identified with all of her colleagues. The men and women on the inside involved in her yoga courses were no different. Josefin was the only one in her project who facilitated courses throughout almost the entire pandemic. She describes witnessing the men and women’s feelings of exacerbated anxiety and of worry for their families, as well as the shame and guilt of not being able to be with their children and to soothe them during the pandemic. The increased restrictions on movement within prisons, the inability to hug loved ones, and the worry over what would happen to themselves and their families had all these feelings at a maximum.

“You’re confined in this really small area and you’re really stressed and anxious about the situation in the world and about what’s going on with your family. What’s going to happen to me? Am I going to get sick here? There were so many levels of frustration and extra anxiety,” Josefin describes the prisoners’ feelings of isolation. “There was a lot of grief coming up in the yoga classes, especially when they finally relaxed,” Josefin says, alluding to not only the vulnerability but also the powerful connection and sense of safety the participants were able to express in the groups. She reminds us of the yoga philosophy that we all carry an inner strength and guiding light that is beyond our past actions and behaviors, and which remains intact: “You’re still a whole human being with a value here. That’s where we connect. And that’s the philosophy that brings this to life.”

She adds, “We are aware that harm has been done to the person that is hurting others – ‘hurt people hurt people’ – and that there are survivors of crime living with the negative and traumatic impact from the actions that our participants have committed. Yoga can be a really valuable method to support other rehabilitation programs within correctional facilities in order to reach the whole human being and to be of support after release. Complex trauma needs many interventions for healing; trauma-informed yoga has the potential to be one of them.”

Prison Yoga Project funded by James Fox at San Quentin Prison in 2002 is a non-profit organization and depends on donations. For those interested in supporting this important work, there are several opportunities available through the organization’s website. Prison Yoga Project runs a book program, which supplies a free book to any inmate writing to request one. Anyone is able to support this program by purchasing a book on the website and choosing to donate an extra amount, which will go toward the costs of supplying these books. The website also offers the possibility to donate to the mission as a whole, to be used as needed. Finally, for individuals interested in a trauma-informed approach to yoga instruction, Prison Yoga Project offers a foundational training for yoga teachers who wish to facilitate classes inside prisons and anyone interested in deepening their knowledge about trauma-informed yoga for purchase on the website.