An October 2 article published by Laurent Thomet of the AFP news agency detailed the increasing popularity of a new spiritual practice for incarcerated teenagers in Mexico City: Yoga. The young criminals are imprisoned for a wide range of charges: kidnapping, drug-trafficking, murder. They range between the ages of 14 and 19. They come from places where drug wars and gang violence are part of the daily scenery.
Behind bars at the Comprehensive Teenager Diagnostics Community, these youths are educated in vocational work programs that give them skills and experience to take back to the real world. The Yoga program is a new feature that is taught by volunteers. Like all types of correctional facilities, the CTDC is filled with dejected young men trying to move on from their poor decisions in the past. The meditative exercise of Yoga gives them a way to relieve their anxieties and improve their physical health while confined to tight spaces. Just like the vocational work programs, it can give them a new purpose and build self-esteem.
At the beginning of 2013, I wrote about a similar initiative taking place in correctional facilities in Virginia. The increasing visibility of Yoga and its practical applications demonstrate a growing awareness that this ancient practice - combining stretching and breathing exercises - can be extremely beneficial on several levels. When Yoga becomes a lifestyle decision, rather than an occasional form of exercise, it can offer distinct benefits to mental and emotional health.
Thomet’s article detailed the Yoga instructor, an ex-prisoner. The instructor, a 38 year old ex-convict named Fredy Alan Diaz Arista, said “I have very little to feel good or proud about, and the little that I have is this work that I do, which makes me feel good about myself.” As a form of meditative exercise, Yoga can reshape the life philosophy of its practitioners, promoting stable thought patterns and emotional responsibility. Diaz says “Yoga was like a window for me, and as I practiced it more and more, it became a door.” This eloquent statement comes from a man who has seen the cruelty and injustice of a crime-riddled country firsthand. Now, he is an inspiration to young men facing the same challenges and promotes positive growth in those who have nowhere to turn.
Yoga should be more seriously considered as a holistic and low-cost alternative to the standard exercise regiments that are provided to convicts and even the public at large. For inmates especially, learning to assess and control emotional impulses can be vital to a healthy reentry into functioning society. Considering that correctional facilities have operating costs figured at millions of dollars per year, introducing Yoga on a wider scale could be an efficient way to improve the emotional well-being of prisoners and decrease the financial strain of overcrowded prisons by reducing recidivism. The more prisoners we teach to be peaceful, the less people we need to imprison.