Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Yoga behind bars: Helping prepare criminals for life back in the community

Yoga Education in Prisons Trust director Adhyatma outside Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Supplied
Yoga Education in Prisons Trust director Adhyatma outside Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand's toughest criminals are doing yoga behind bars in a bid to reduce recidivism and help turn their lives around.

Yoga teachers are inside six jails and the aim is one in every prison.

The Yoga Education in Prisons Trust says it helps violent inmates deal with anger issues, stress, deep-seated trauma, and helps prepare them for life back in the community.

"Yoga helps them to slow down, stop and breathe. It's about self-awareness and controlling their emotions," said the charity's director Adhyatma.

Yoga has become increasingly popular in New Zealand in recent years.

It has shed its "girly" and "hippie" stereotypes with top athletes such as ex-All Blacks Dan Carter and Ma'a Nonu, as well as Scottish tennis star Andy Murray and boxing great Evander Holyfield, taking up the physical and mental conditioning discipline.

Adhyatma heard of the concept of prison yoga while studying at an ashram in India.

Later, while running a Hamilton yoga centre, she contacted Waikeria Prison management in Waikato who saw its potential benefits.

"Before my first visit, I was a bit nervous, but I felt very safe," she said.

"I spoke to 80 prisoners about all aspects of yoga, not holding back on the spiritual side, and they listened -- they really listened."

The Trust was formed in 2009 and now has 15 trained instructors.

Last month, an Auckland training course was booked out with 40 instructors.

Yoga and meditation classes are now being offered at Mt Eden, Paremoremo, Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility, Rimutaka, Hawke's Bay Regional Prison and Christchurch Men's. The trust is also in discussion with four other prisons.

Yoga Education in Prisons Trust director Adhyatma outside Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Supplied
Yoga Education in Prisons Trust director Adhyatma outside Rimutaka Prison. Photo / Supplied

Barbara Jennings, Corrections' national advisor of volunteers said yoga is "particularly beneficial" in helping prisoners rehabilitate.

"It can help them relax and they can practise in the privacy of their cells," she said.

"It is another tool to help them keep focused and on the right track."

The response from inmates has been overwhelmingly positive, says 43-year-old Adhyatma. She has "only been sworn at a couple of times".

"I get full respect from the men," said Adhyatma.

"Many of them are victims of circumstance, born into gangs or drugs.

"We show them we are a caring person coming in from the outside and they often remark, 'Oh, there's someone out there who cares about us'."

The power of yoga has helped turned around many lives, she said.

Adhyatma cited the case of one inmate who became hooked on yoga and started practising in his cell every day.

He then taught his girlfriend yoga on the outside and his whole family was "blown away with the change" in him.

"That was pretty amazing," Adhyatma said.

"Prisoners often say they had nearly had fights but 'did that breathing thing you showed me' and were able to walk away."

Howard League for Penal Reform spokesman Jolyon White welcomed prison yoga.

"I really like the idea. Anything that helps prisoners gain self-reflection or anger management skills is a good idea."

- NZ Herald

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