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Yoga can benefit prisoners, study says

02 August 2013

by Shirley Lancaster


AN OXFORD University study suggests that yoga can be beneficial to prisoners, and may have an effect on impulsive behaviour.

The study, "Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population", was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research last month. The study found that, after undertaking a ten-week course of yoga run by the Prison Phoenix Trust charity, prisoners reported less psychological stress, improved mood, and reduced impulsivity.

The Director of the Trust, Sam Settle, speaking at a recent seminar on the spiritual dimension of justice, said that the study validated years of anecdotal evidence. Prisoners, he said, felt measurable benefits from a spiritual practice that helped to address attitudes, thinking, and behaviour - the pathway to reduce re-offending identified by the National Offender Management Service.

The two-day seminar, organised by Meditatio - an outreach pro- gramme of the World Community for Christian Meditation - brought together judges, lawyers, lawmakers, and prison workers. It was chaired by Fr Laurence Freeman, a Bene-dictine monk and director of the World Community for Christian Meditation.

The keynote address was given by the President of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Lord Myners. Prisoners were victims of society before they became prisoners, he said. Social deprivation and chaotic home lives were the norm for many. When the prison population was one of the highest in Europe, and half of released prisoners reoffended within a year, they needed to rethink a dysfunctional system, he said.

Baroness Kennedy QC said that children struggled to define justice, but they knew instinctively what was "fair". When an MP improved a second home at taxpayers' expense, and later sold it at a profit, what was "legal" was not necessarily "ethical", she said. What was the responsibility of those who had enriched themselves at another's expense, she asked.

The founder of the Citizenship Foundation, Lord Phillips, said that the disjunction between the law and ethical values had increased. They commonly asked not if something was right, but was it legal? There was £1-trillion tax evasion in Europe, but little was done about it, Lord Phillips said. He asked: if the Fair Trade movement could work, why not introduce a Fair Tax movement? A just society, he said, needed to be a "connected" society.

The Director of the Legal Department at the International Monetary Fund, Sean Hagan, suggested that the human values of fairness, honesty, courtesy, and compassion should direct institutions. His thinking is rooted in a daily practice of meditation - a spiritual practice that, he said, helped him to think more clearly and act with better judgement and less ego.

In ex-prisoner, James Bishop, spoke of his recovery from alcoholism and obsessive-compulsive disorder when he discovered Christian meditation in prison. Many prisoners began to feel good about themselves, perhaps for the first time in their lives, he said, when they connected with an inner self that is free from what is going on outside.

Meditation gave ground for optimism, Mr Hagan said, because it helped people to control and attend to what happened on the inside. A spiritual discipline could help them to live by shared values that led to human flourishing: fairness, honesty, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion.

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