For centuries swamis have peddled yoga as a means of unshackling the mind. Now jail inmates have found that sun salutations and the cobra posture are the keys to a more tangible freedom. Prison authorities in India have agreed to an early release scheme for convicts who regularly practise the ancient exercises.
Inmates in the central state of Madhya Pradesh will have up to 15 days taken off their sentences for every three months that they do yoga. The offer is being extended even to the hardest cases, including murderers serving life terms, in a startling vote of confidence in the calming effects of stretching routines, deep breathing exercises and chants of “Om”.
“We’ve seen that meditation and yoga work our inmates into good shape physically, mentally and spiritually,” Sanjay Mane, the region’s inspector-general of prisons, who oversees more than 100 jails and 50,000 inmates, told The Times.
“Since we began the project last month we have seen their behaviour change . . . prisoners are learning to manage their emotions. The ambience in the jails is improving.”
Inmates have to complete an hour of yoga every morning to qualify for early release. About 4,000 have signed up and several have claimed that it has rehabilitative effects.
Narayan Sharma, an inmate at Gwalior central jail who wants to become a yoga instructor, said that the sessions had helped to banish the “angry thoughts” in his head.
“It was these thoughts that made me commit crimes,” he said. “I hope that after we are released, we can use what we have learnt and promote yoga in society so that people no longer commit crimes.”
A strategy to cut tension levels in India’s prisons — institutions that could have been designed to plant “angry thoughts” into the most placid of minds — was overdue. Most jails are overcrowded, underfunded and filthy. About two thirds of the 350,000 inmates are awaiting trial for minor crimes.
For those awaiting trial, the state of the Indian legal system is enough to trigger a deep existential despair. The High Court in Delhi is so behind that it would take up to 466 years to clear the backlog, it was revealed last year.
Prisoner yoga has precedent. During his eight spells in prison under British rule, the first of which was in 1921, Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India’s first Prime Minister, improved his yogic skills.
The Indian Army found in trials that giving meditation precedence over physical drills produces a deadlier fighting force. A prison in Norway found, however, that some prisoners became more aggressive after being offered yoga classes.