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A Pilot Study Examining the Effectiveness of Yoga in Supporting the Rehabilitation of Incarcerated Teen Boys

Jennifer Ater
Antioch University Midwest

This pilot study explores the efficacy of yoga practice in influencing the rehabilitation of teens convicted of felony offenses. Over a two month period, a group of 10-15 teenage boys were exposed to weekly yoga classes that lasted forty-five minutes. With the consent of the boys and the administrators at the facility, the outcomes and effectiveness of the yoga practice were measured through written surveys. Based on the evidence presented in the surveys, it can be concluded that yoga practice does produce positive outcomes and offers substantial benefits.

The following quote from the rehabilitation center’s website explains the approach of the program, the name of the facility was removed in order to preserve the anonymity of the boys involved. “[The facility] offers a cognitive-behavioral and social skills development program in which problem solving strategies are modeled, practiced, and reinforced. Youth are encouraged to re-define themselves in socially responsible and personally fulfilling ways. The program targets criminal thinking as well as the effects of trauma and victimization by challenging cognitive distortions, pro-criminal attitudes/values, negative peer associations, substance abuse, and unhealthy expressions of anger.” According to the director of the program, cognitive-behavioral therapy takes the approach that changing one’s thoughts will lead to a change in behavior. Yoga principles and practices directly support this concept because yoga has the potential to help teens develop the self-awareness and clarity it takes to shift thoughts and behaviors toward a more positive direction. More specifically yoga practice has the potential to facilitate an individual’s healing and transformation by guiding them to identify with positive thoughts and behaviors and to release a connection to negative thoughts or traumatic experiences.

In addition to supporting the cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approach, the objectives of the pilot study were to offer the boys an introduction to yoga practices and principles while at the same time measuring their efficacy. Over the course of 7 weeks, the boys were taught Vinyasa yoga which is a flowing style of yoga that attempts to create a “meditation in motion” by linking the movement of the body with the breath. All classes began with some discussion, feedback, and centering breathing exercises. Then they progressed into fairly challenging vinyasa sequences that functioned to warm the body and create a calm and focused mind. All classes ended with cooling down through forward folds and gentle twists and a final relaxation and meditation. The classes varied from week to week, while at the same time offering a consistent format. The instructor offered explanation of the therapeutic and energetic effects of each posture and technique when possible.

The centering breath work consisted of deep belly breathing and 3-part breathing, with an explanation of the benefits, including calming the mind and nervous system. The warm-up generally included core-abdominal strengthening and spinal warm-ups like cat/dog tilts. Variations of the sun-salutation and standing postures were offered to warm the body up even more. Throughout the two months the boys were taught balancing postures like tree and warrior-3 as well as arm balances like crow and twisted crow. Inversions like head-stand, hand-stand, box pose, and fore-arm balance were also taught with great success, always counter-posed by locust for spinal extension. They were taught viparita karani (legs up the wall) and several variations of forward bends as a way to cool down and calm the body and mind. In addition to a final relaxation and meditation, the boys were also exposed to a systematic relaxation technique called 31 points twice at the end of practice.

The boys were asked to fill out surveys before and after practice which asked the following the questions: Please rate on a scale from 1-5 how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements: (The spacing is off in this section)

Strongly Disagree Agree Strongly Agree
1. I feel calm and peaceful 1 2 3 4 5
2. My mind is clear and focused 1 2 3 4 5
3. I feel valued and have a strong sense of self worth. 1 2 3 4 5
4. I feel in control of my actions 1 2 3 4 5
In 1 or 2 sentences describe your overall sense of self as it relates to your yoga practice (body, mind, emotions): ______________________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________

The original paper displays the data in graph form. However, I was unable to transfer the graph images to this blog. I am working on it, but for now, all I can offer is the following discussion of the data collected, without the visual of the graph…

The graphs showed that the results varied slightly from week to week with the most profound effects showing in the categories correlating to the first two statements. In the category “I feel calm and peaceful”, the average score increased by 28% from before to after yoga practice scores. In the category “My mind is clear and focused”, the average score increased by 32%. The results for the last two categories showed more subtle improvements from before to after scores, yielding an increase of 16% in the category “I feel valued and have a strong sense of self worth” and an increase of 18% corresponding to the statement, “I feel in control of my actions”.

In addition to the numbered scores, the boys wrote short statements about how they were feeling before and after practice. Examples of statements from the surveys collected before and after the yoga: ( the spacing is off in this section )

Before After
“I feel stressed and tense” “I feel at peace and relaxed.”
“I feel like I’m doing good with yoga” “I feel better about myself”
“I feel stressed out” “I am less stressed”
“I’m starting to use this in my cell, it helps a lot” “This is really amazing, I’m going to do this when I get out”
“I feel a little sore and tense” “I feel relaxed and calm”
“[I feel] tired stressed and homesick” “[I feel] not tired, peaceful, can’t wait until next week.”
“[I feel] stressed” “I feel all the tension go and I feel way more relaxed and at peace with myself”

In addition to the positive feedback from the surveys, the boys expressed how helpful the yoga practice was for them directly to the yoga instructor. The instructor also heard that the boys’ therapists as well as the the facility’s staff indicated that they saw positive results come from the yoga program. When the boys were asked by the instructor at the end of the two month period what they liked or appreciated most about the yoga, several expressed that they enjoyed all of the techniques taught. A few expressed that they particularly liked the relaxation and breathing techniques. Several of the boys expressed that their favorite poses were the arm balances and the inversions where they got to go upside down.
Future studies could include direct record of what postures and techniques corresponded to specific results as well as more direct collaboration with the counseling and therapy staff. In conclusion, the results from the surveys and direct feedback from the boys and the staff at the facility showed that yoga practice supports the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth and that these programs should continue to be implemented in other facilities as well.