The Week

Breathing True

01 October, 2000

Yoga reforms prisoners in Tamil Nadu jails                                     

Last year around this time the Coimbatore Central Jail had all the characteristics of a typical prison. Desperate and distraught prisoners were wrestling with life and authorities found them tough to handle. One year of 'Sahaja Sthiti’ yoga has brought about a transformation that's almost magical.

Inspired by yoga, Madras Pandian, 45, studied nutrition from the Indira Gandhi National Open University and is now doing his Masters in history. Prison mates Palanivel and Raju are also pursuing a Masters degree while Amir Khan looks forward to doing a fruitful business after release. For murder convict Rajaram, yoga has been a calming experience.

"I would not have come here if I had known this truth, but if I had not come here I would not have known this truth," says Radhakrishna, another inmate. The classes were conducted by the Isha Foundation's Isha Yoga centre, which began teaching prisoners in 1992. Only last year the sessions became a part of prison life. The visible changes in the first batch of  67 prisoners prompted DIG Prisons B. M. Ezra, Superintendent of Prisons Senthoor Pandian and IG Prisons K.V.S. Murthy to ask the Foundation to conduct yoga sessions at the Central prisons in Madurai, Salem, Tiruchi and Palayamkottai. "The attendance was thin in the beginning," recounts Pandian. "Soon the number increased." There has been no looking back ever since.

The monthly sessions last 13 days and during the three-hour class "the prisoners are taught postures, breathing technique and meditation," says Kiran Brahmachari of the Foundation. Around 500 inmates in each prison participate in the sessions.

"We first train the worst of the convicts so that he sets an example for the others to follow," says Ezra. "Yoga has changed them so much that they now volunteer to work in prison activities like laying roads, planting trees, and taking care of the patients at the prison hospital. Earlier it was difficult to make them follow behaviour codes. Now they respond easily."

Yoga has pacified even the rowdiest of the prisoners, feels Pandian. Some prisoners also had problems sleeping at night and used to scream and howl, says the guru of the Foundation, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. Thanks to yoga, today they sleep well.

Brahmachari Somu, who has conducted 11 sessions at the 2,300 strong Coimbatore prison, says prisoners, unlike people outside, are easy to teach because they have no commitments.

The changes have inspired plans for a meditation hall in the prison. The authorities are also putting together an all-convict music troupe. The 'probation wing' in the prison keeps track of the released convicts and makes sure they find a new life.

Besides training prisoners, the Foundation, which has 50 centres in Tamil Nadu besides centres in the US, Canada and Lebanon, conducts monthly medical camps in association with the Sri Ramakrishna Hospital in Coimbatore. The Foundation's 'Samyama' programme early this year brought together 90 meditators including 20 from the US.

"It is ridiculous to talk yoga to the poor who do not have the basic amenities in life," says Jaggi Vasudev. "So we help them with medical camps, educational aids and scholarships." In the pipeline is a proposal for flexible prison rules so that the inmates can interact with the society.

"Around 1,000 prisoners have benefited from the yoga sessions," claims Kiran. As Pandian says, "It is now for the society and the industrialists to accept them and offer jobs."

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