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Experts highlight yoga’s impact in criminal justice

The positive effects of yoga within criminal justice are being recognised by practitioners and researchers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yoga as a vehicle for diversion or rehabilitation from crime or violence is an under-supported area compared to the use of traditional sports in such settings.

As well as the physical benefits, its close links to mindfulness, meditation, self-awareness and emotional regulation are having a positive impact on those whose behaviour may be rooted in stress, trauma and dysfunction.

Mark Norman, a Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, specialises in sport and physical recreation in prisons and youth custody facilities. He has recently begun studying the impact of yoga and its distinct effects with this cohort.

“Yoga programmes tend to be more explicit about trying to develop skills that translate into anger control or capability to deal with tough situations – which can be especially useful at that critical time when people leave prisons and go back into the community. I don’t always see that intentionality with other sports but with yoga it’s a clearer link between physical activity and desistance outcomes,” Mark told the Alliance of Sport.

“In male prisons, clear hierarchies are often very much tied to stereotypical ideas of masculinity, physicality and being a strong, athletic male. Sports which reinforce those ideas aren’t going to challenge that status quo.

“From the research I’ve done talking to yoga teachers in prisons, they say it benefits from being a level playing field because most participants have never done it before. Sporty guys find it really challenging as it’s a very different way of moving their bodies.”

Urban Yogis was founded in March 2020 and uses yoga to engage and divert 9-18 year-olds away from crime, gangs and anti-social behaviour in the boroughs of Lambeth and Croydon in South London.

Co-founders Ben Eckett and Adam Ballard discovered yoga’s positive impact when they incorporated it alongside boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and fitness as part of programmes they run through their award-winning Gloves Not Gunz organisation. It prompted them to launch Urban Yogis as a separate CIC (taking over as Directors and bringing operations to the UK after it had originally been set up in New York in response to the trauma associated with rising gun violence in the Queens area of the city).

Ben explains: “Yoga is an excellent tool for helping young people who have experienced trauma and might be living that experience daily. It has a great impact on them mentally and physically. It relaxes the heart rate and teaches techniques to slow and deepen breathing and regain control. It gives them time to rest the mind and not think about other things.”

Urban Yogis is partly funded by Sport England’s Tackling Inequalities Fund, money which was distributed by the Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice to local delivery partners working on its Levelling the Playing Field project.

Urban Yogis’ classes are either open-access or targeted, the latter being for young people referred by Youth Offending Teams and social care staff. Youth workers work alongside the yoga teachers and deliver workshops specific to the issues faced by the participants, such as education, violence or county lines. The youth workers offer mentoring for anyone identified within the classes as requiring extra support.

Urban Yogis

Engaging at-risk young people in such an unfamiliar activity isn’t a problem, as staff are relatable: local, young and from similar backgrounds as the participants. Having been through similar issues, they act as role models. They have also built strong pre-existing relationships with many of the young people on Gloves Not Gunz programmes.

Urban Yogis have big future plans: expanding into schools and prisons and organising a four-day retreat in Cornwall in summer 2021. This will be for six older children who have especially benefited from the programme, and who have the potential to become volunteers. They will learn more about yoga philosophy, physiology and anatomy, then volunteering will hopefully be a path to becoming a trained yoga teacher on the programme.

This clear route to positive prosocial outcomes is another aspect of yoga that has impressed Canadian researcher Mark, who has also studied the role of sport in prisons, youth detention settings and refugee camps, as well as the part it can play in successful reintegration post-custody.

“As with all these things, there’s no one size fits all solution,” he admits. “Yoga is not for everyone just as football isn’t for everyone. Sport’s ideas of teamwork, leadership and competition can be helpful for some people but there’s a lot of sociological research showing young people in custodial settings didn’t always find a really disciplined, structured, competitive environment very helpful.

“That’s why yoga is so interesting as an activity with its elements of self-awareness, mindfulness and emotional control. Plus, a bit like orienteering or Duke of Edinburgh award type activities, there are fewer authority figures, and no aggression or competitiveness, yet it retains those physical elements as well as being able to work alongside others.

“I’m really excited about doing further research around the subject and discovering what further potential it has.”

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