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Prison staff in the United Kingdom stand in a circle and train for the Prison Yoga Project
The Prison Yoga Project, founded by James Fox, offers intensive, life-changing training to prison staff and residents alike. Here, prison staff in the United Kingdom train earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Prison Yoga Project)

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. The article has been lightly edited to add clarity and conform with PJP style rules.

The Prison Yoga Project, which provides trauma-informed yoga classes at California’s San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) and other prisons across the country, is expanding its reach into Europe. 

“The demand to have yoga in Europe was high,” said James Fox, founder of the organization, in an interview on Nov. 9. “Europeans understand the value that yoga has for the person, just like Americans do.”    

Fox had just wrapped up one of the many yoga classes he holds in a building on SQ’s main recreational yard, where he teaches students how to do the downward dog and tree poses. 

Fox has been making the trip inside the prison to share his unique yoga skills with the SQ residents since 2002, only two years after receiving his certification to teach. 

Thirty-four years of practicing yoga outside and inside of prison has been more than fulfilling for Fox, but he had to share the benefits of yoga with the world, he said.  

“Yoga is an in-depth path to peace,” Fox said. “U.S. yogis call it the karma effect of yoga service. It’s about taking the benefit of yoga and the tools of it and applying it to others. The personal rewards are the benefit of service.”

Fox is determined to share the benefits of yoga with any and all who desire to learn it. However, his teachings are geared more toward incarcerated individuals. Moreover, he said that for the past 10 years, he’s noticed that yoga is being more recognized by those in the healthcare field. 

“Yoga deals with people’s symptoms related to trauma, and we realize that incarcerated people deal with a multitude of traumas. It takes an embodiment practice to deal with trauma,” Fox said. 

There is a distinction between the circumstances that European and American Prison Yoga Project teachers face. European teachers deal with refugees. Their issues are a bit more complex, Fox said. They suffer from war-effects and trauma beyond American prisoners’ ordeals.  

In 2011, Fox started a teacher training program for people who wanted to teach yoga in prison. A friend of his took the course and relocated to France, which ultimately led to the starting of the Prison Yoga Project there. 

To date, Fox has spread his organization into France, the Netherlands, Sweden and 19 states in the U.S. With up to 75 active teachers in the U.S. and 12 overseas, he is looking to expand to even more places.  

The overseas project is managed by a friend of Fox’s named Josefin Wikström, who is the European program director, Fox said. 

“While I’m away, we have staff that take care of things and keep the organization going,” Fox said. 

During the program’s expansion, a former correctional officer from an English prison who became a physical education teacher asked Fox for training. Fox said that is the audience he wants to train one day in America. 

“We really want to get to a place where we get to share our practices with staff in the prisons so that they can understand what we do and that the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) could see the benefit of it,” Fox said.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Timothy Hicks is a staff writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.