Doing Yoga Behind Bars: A Sociological Study of the Growth of Holistic Spirituality in Penitentiary Institutions

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Irene Becci and Olivier Roy (eds.)Religious Diversity in European Prisons10.1007/978-3-319-16778-7_9

9. Doing Yoga Behind Bars: A Sociological Study of the Growth of Holistic Spirituality in Penitentiary Institutions

Mar Griera  and Anna Clot-Garrell 

Sociology Department, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain



Mar Griera (Corresponding author)


Anna Clot-Garrell

Holistic spiritualityNew religious diversityCatalan prisonsEthnographySelf-imagePrison staffWeber

For me yoga is one of the things that everyone should try in their life before dying. No one should miss out on the feeling of this connection that you have with yourself, because you work in a mental, physical and spiritual way. Yoga opens a door towards your inner self by moving away from the material and everything that is external. (Inmate)

I want to show them [inmates] their potential as human beings so that they can construct their own reality. (Social worker)

9.1 Introduction1

In her book Saving the Modern Soul (2008), Eva Illouz states that ideas and meanings can become dominant when they fulfil three conditions. First, they have to help actors to make sense of their everyday social experiences. Second, they have to offer direction and patterns in uncertain or problematic societal spheres. And third, the carriers of such ideas and meanings must be able to take root and institutionalise those ideas and meanings within society. Taking Illouz’s stance as a point of departure, this chapter explores the emergent and relevant presence of the holistic symbolic universe in prisons as an exercise framed within a cultural sociology perspective. We aim to engage with Illouz’s interpretive conditions critically so as to examine the success of holistic activities in the Catalan penitentiary context—understanding “success” to mean the non-problematisation, acceptance and rapid diffusion of such ideas and practices.

With this approach the purpose of the chapter is twofold. First, it considers the role and significance of these holistic practices for inmates. Second, the conditions that have enabled their emergence, legitimacy and dissemination in the penitentiary sphere are explored. Along similar lines to Illouz, our principal argument is that the success of holistic activities within penitentiary institutions is mainly explained by their consonance with the two most important functions of a prison: discipline and rehabilitation. Holistic activities and therapies become symbolic resources through which inmates can make sense of their uncertain situation and (re)construct their self-image while also working as a “peace-making mechanism” that fits in with the institutional order. Prison staff—specifically social workers—plays a crucial role as carriers, in the Weberian sense of the term, of the ideas and values that underlie holistic activities. Without their initiative and support, these practices would hardly be present in the penitentiary context nowadays.

The research upon which this chapter is based is a result of serendipity and continuous sociological questioning. In September 2011, we began a research project that aimed to explore the role of religion in Spanish public institutions by focusing on Catholicism and religious minorities . While carrying out this study, we visited several prisons in Catalonia and Andalusia. During some of our fieldwork, we came across signs of what has been called the “holistic milieu” (Heelas et al. 2005). To our surprise, this presence was usually normalised, even unnoticed, by prison staff and management, in contrast to “problematic” religious issues with Muslims or Evangelicals. Holistic expressions manifested as a self-evident aspect of the everyday educational and leisure activities in prison that had no specific scientific interest for our interlocutors. This initial evidence, particularly regular yoga activities, attracted our sociological attention. A more careful and attentive subsequent exploration of this apparently trivial and irrelevant presence of the holistic milieu in prison revealed the existence of a complex and diverse entanglement of holistic practices and techniques—from yoga to Reiki, Qigong or transpersonal meditation—in the Catalan penitentiary setting .

Recent studies have documented the remarkable rise of holistic expressions in the Spanish religious environment (Cornejo 2012; Prat et al. 2012; Griera and Urgell 2002) in parallel with the results of other research in European contexts and elsewhere (Roof 1999; Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Aupers and Houtman 2006; Dawson 2007; Fedele 2013). However, little attention has been drawn to the presence of holistic expressions in public institutional domains. While the study of the holistic milieu has been developed by looking mainly at the popularisation of “alternative” spiritualities through market and/or personal networks, social scientists concerned with the interface of religion and the public sphere have basically focused on traditional religion in their analyses. This is certainly true of research performed specifically on religion in public institutions such as prisons, where interest has focused mainly on visible and institutionalised forms of religion (Beckford and Gilliat-Ray 1998; Martínez-Ariño et al. 2015; Furseth and Aa Kühle 2011; Becci 2012) while omitting, in many cases, other less explicit layers of the increasingly religiously diverse reality in prisons. Once noted, the growing significance of holistic practices in Spanish penitentiary settings provides clues to this fact and leads us to a more careful examination of this rarely explored reality. In this attempt to analyse the success of the holistic milieu in prison, we adopt a social constructivist approach (Beckford 2003) in order to examine the emic taken-for-granted separations of what is considered religious and non-religious in the penitentiary environment. The emergent presence of holistic activities challenges these limits. Accordingly, from the perspective of Beckford’s conception of religion as “a social construct that varies in meaning across time and place” rather than as a fixed category and immutable expression (2003, p. 7), we look at the unmistakable boundaries that our informants establish when talking about the division between religion and spirituality. Along a similar line to Fedele and Knibbe (2013), we consider these terms analytically as complexly interrelated and situated within the same continuum rather than diametrically opposed.

The results presented and discussed in this chapter are derived from qualitative research divided into two phases. First, an exploratory phase was developed as part of the GEDIVER-IN project2. This included eight prisons (six in Catalonia and two in Andalusia) where we conducted interviews with institutional actors and prison staff along with observations in communal spaces, religious activities and, occasionally, holistic activities3. Second, a subsequent phase centred on two prisons in Catalonia that were selected as case studies in order to examine the presence of holistic activities in depth. This second part of the fieldwork consisted of participant observations in a yoga quarantine regularly performed in a prison (from July–August 2013) and an intensive yoga course in a preventive prison (three days per week during June and July 2014). Both participant observations were complemented by surveys of all participants and semi-structured interviews with a group of selected inmates, holistic actors, social workers and other professionals involved in the development of yoga activities in prison4.

9.2 New Therapeutic-Spiritual Geographies in Prison

Over the last few years, yoga has become more common in Catalan prisons . A good illustration of this growing phenomenon is the agreement, signed in 2011, between the Justice Department of the Catalan government and a yoga organisation presented as “a non-profit and independent organisation centred on disinterestedly providing yoga benefits to disadvantaged groups”. The purpose of this accord was to regulate yoga activities in prison through the following: “organisation of yoga practice, comfort to inmates, collaboration in treatment teams and participation in cultural weeks and other activities”. What is remarkable about this arrangement is not the activities themselves, but the fact that the formalisation of this agreement represents official institutional recognition of the practice of yoga in prison. Yoga is a voluntary activity that has been practiced in different Catalan prisons since approximately 2000 and is gradually gaining prominence. In some penitentiary centres, yoga is coordinated as part of the formal agreement between the government and the aforementioned yoga organisation but, in other cases, some local yoga teachers offer voluntary classes to inmates without being formally affiliated with any yoga organisation or having any institutional agreement.

However, it is worth noting that yoga is not an isolated activity but rather the tip of the iceberg of a broad, complex and multilayered holistic reality. Diverse practices from Reiki to Sophrology, along with meditation or positive thinking courses, currently exist in Catalan prisons . These are conducted by either individual volunteers of different ages and backgrounds or more organised groups such as Brahma Kumaris, Reiki organisations or even Catholic volunteer groups. According to our findings, social workers play a key role in fostering these activities,we will discuss it in further detail in the fourth section, though sometimes the impetus comes from particular individuals and non-profit associations who attempt to gain access to a prison to propose this type of activity. In all cases, whether it be yoga, Reiki or meditation, they are generally considered by prison staff as suitable activities for inmates. They are commonly perceived as practices halfway between psychology or emotional education and physical exercise that can indirectly help to rehabilitate inmates or to support the programs specifically designed with this aim in mind.

The growth of these holistic expressions that we have observed in Catalan prisons is not an isolated phenomenon but rather one that is widespread in other European contexts, as Becci and Knobel have demonstrated (2014). These scholars have analysed the emergence of what they call the “grey zones”, which they identify as those practices situated between spirituality and religion that are gaining grounds within penitentiary centres. They note the growing presence of actors related to “New Age” milieus that have training in yoga and other holistic techniques and highlight the fact that “while these actors define themselves as spiritual practitioners, they are never considered as religious actors by the penitentiary institution” (2013). We have found similar patterns in the Catalan penitentiary context, where holistic practices are incorporated in educational and leisure programmes and neither these activities nor their volunteers are considered or regulated as a spiritual–religious in nature. As a social worker commented concerning yoga: “We have to guarantee neutrality, it is not a religious activity despite its spiritual dimension. These are two separate things”. This is representative of an oft-repeated answer of prison staff when asked about the spiritual-religious dimension of yoga. They usually downplay this aspect and regard it as secondary.

Nonetheless, the boundaries are vague. The fact that some holistic activities are conducted by groups which are registered as religious by the Spanish Justice Ministry, for instance Brahma Kumaris, or that in some sessions religious leaders such as Buddhist Lamas are invited, is proof of these blurred boundaries. The inmates themselves also acknowledge the subtle conflation of the religious, spiritual and leisure components. In this regard, one of the regular attendants said, “although I am Evangelical, I have enjoyed the course”, while another inmate told us that some Muslim or Pentecostal inmates refused to participate in the course due to the perception of its incompatibility with their faith. Needless to say that if these activities were labeled as religious, the regulations and bureaucratic control would be much stricter (Griera and Clot 2015). However, as most of these activities occur during less structured periods, such as weekends or leisure time, they receive less institutional attention and remain formally unnoticed. This, in turn, translates into less oversight over the contents taught, although the prisons’ minimum levels of supervision still apply. In any case, despite their relative invisibility, the presence of holistic practices has had a positive reception among inmates while also fulfilling important institutional functions, as we will show in the next two sections.

9.3 The Participants: Narration, Meaning and Transcendence

It is ten in the morning and the yoga class is ready to start. The group of inmates make a lively little crowd while waiting in front of the theatre where the yoga classes usually take place. Matías5, the head of the social workers, opens the door and everybody goes in and waits for his turn to take his mat from a large box that one of the inmates brings from a room next to the main hall. Meanwhile, the arts teacher lights several sticks of incense and places them in the corners of the large room. Ruben, the Friday yoga teacher, turns up his iPod and the sound of mantras fills the air. The arts teacher and Maria, a social worker, also lay out their own mats, take off their shoes and prepare themselves for the start of the session. Two minutes later, everyone is silent and in place. The hall’s door is closed and Ruben smiles, offers a greeting and starts the class. He is a demanding teacher and the session will not be easy: “Today we are working on our will, the will that lies inside us, forgetting our environment, bringing the mind to the breath and holding the asana”, he says loudly while asking the twenty-seven attendees of the session to hold an uncomfortable posture for more than three minutes. Most of the inmates take up the challenge and follow Ruben’s class with a combination of devotion, concentration, intensity and intent. They sweat. In fact, some of them sweat a lot. During the class, Ruben intersperses his physical instructions with some existential comments, such as “Prepare to take a new path, open your mind to new endeavours and forgive yourself”. Ten or fifteen minutes before ending the session, an inmate turns off the lights and the relaxation–meditation time begins. Ruben’s strong voice guides the meditation and, as on some special Fridays, the voice of Violeta, a slender yoga singer, accompanies him together with a group of musicians who play the didgeridoo and other instruments. About that moment one of the inmates remarked: “They [the yoga teacher and the musicians] turn the old, dirty and decadent theatre into a paradise, into a space of peace and take us into a floating state”. When the meditation ends, the lights are turned on again and everyone returns to the ordinary reality of everyday life in prison.

9.3.1 The Centrality of the Body

This ethnographic episode took place in a specific preventive prison but it could have occurred in most of the voluntary yoga courses offered in Catalan prisons . We will not analyse this particular interaction in detail but it does serve to give a general feel for the practice of holistic activities in prison. As aforementioned, yoga, along with other holistic practices, is becoming more prominent in penitentiary settings and a very popular practice among inmates. In the course of this research, the participant observation that we have done in prison yoga classes has helped us to grasp the reasons behind the appeal of holistic practices to inmates. Their oral as well as written narratives have provided us with new insights. The goal has been to understand the specificity of these practices compared with other leisure and educational ones carried out in prison and the meanings that inmates attach to them.

At first sight, the fact that prisons are close to Goffman’s ideal type of “total institution” (1961) has clear implications on how these holistic practices are experienced and rendered meaningful in this context seems obvious. In his work Asylums (1961), Goffman describes in great detail what entering a total institution signifies. For individuals, it involves being gradually divested of all that socially identifies one’s self when the institution starts to activate different procedures of “self-mortification”. He refers to these processes in terms of isolation from the external world, limitation of autonomy, depersonalisation and, particularly, the loss of control of the territories of the self (Goffman 1961; Nizet and Rigaux 2005). In the penitentiary space, these territories are constantly questioned and violated as well as open to “contaminating exposure to people, objects and activities that one would rather avoid” (Scott 2010, p. 216). The institution regulates these territories and imposes their rules upon them. Within a total institution, individuals lose their own autonomy over spaces, objects and even over the possibility to narrate their own lives. Inmates’ own self-narration is constructed and imposed on them by others—judges, psychologists, social workers and other professionals—which clearly affects their self-image , self-esteem and agency.

Part of the popularity of holistic activities among inmates is that to some extent they enable inmates to counteract these impositions and offer room to recover the sense of the self. The most evident element, which is frequently emphasised by the inmates themselves, is that these practices create spaces of calm and quietude in the midst of the chaotic, noisy and cluttered penitentiary environment. The time dedicated to relaxation and meditation is one of the most valued moments as it offers an opportunity for introspection. Finding “safe” and silent contexts where one can feel intimacy with oneself is not easy in prison. In a way, through yoga, participants regain control over their private space and a way to access what is perceived and defined as the “inner self” or “authentic self”.

The particular scenography of the yoga class—with the music, incense, mats laid out around the room and lights turned partially off—also aids inmates in crossing the threshold of the everyday reality of prison. The setting, the “scenic parts of expressive equipment” according to Goffman (1959, p. 23), plays a decisive role in facilitating or disturbing actors’ performances and experiences. In the case of the yoga sessions observed, the specific disposition of the class and the sensory elements, like the sounds, the fragrances, the light or the touch, perform a crucial ritual function as symbolic transgressions of the penitentiary order and norms. They acquire a fundamental meaning and symbolic weight due to the context of the total institution where they take place (Goffman 1961

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