Yoga in jail | David Dorson

By David Dorson

Law360 Canada (January 3, 2023, 1:41 PM EST) --

On Dec. 16, the Globe and Mail published a piece about Sister Elaine MacInnes, a Catholic nun who had died at the age of 98.  Among many other accomplishments, Sister MacInnes had organized yoga and meditations sessions in prisons in Britain and in Canada. 

The piece struck me because I had found yoga to be an important part of my coping strategy for my time in prison. And typically, although the benefits of this kind of activity to prisoners and thus to others as well — are pretty clear, the prison system does little or nothing to encourage it. 

I mentioned in a previous piece that I had learned some yoga while waiting to be sentenced and this proved most useful during my entire time incarcerated, but especially while I was in segregation for the first few weeks, waiting to be moved to a federal prison. 

Yoga on my own

When you have almost no contact with other people and have to find ways to fill your days without the things most of us take for granted, such as books, radio, TV or even daily chores, the structure and focus on body and breathing of yoga are very helpful. I did some three times a day though there was only the cold concrete floor (that cell was always very cold), or a towel. On one occasion while I was lying on the floor in a yoga position, the guard knocked on my cell door (they would look in through the small window in the solid metal door as they did their rounds), wanting to know if I was hurt or sick.

When I arrived in the assessment unit there was another prisoner there who knew enough to lead some group yoga sessions. These had to take place during the few hours we were not locked in our cells — usually late afternoon or evening. Of course, there was no suitable location. The range consisted of cells on both sides of a 100-foot-long, wide, badly lit hallway with tile flooring from the 1950s and pipes and cables on the ceiling. This is where we held our yoga sessions three or four times a week, each of us (typically five or six prisoners) bringing a towel from our cell to use as a yoga mat. We would do a half hour or so of poses following the prisoner teacher, while other prisoners walked the hall or did weights or used the two telephones at one end of the hall. I remember these sessions as being good parts of the day that also built a sense of camaraderie with the others involved. 

When I was moved to the minimum-security prison, I resumed doing yoga in my room (shared with another prisoner for the first five months). I tried to do about half an hour almost every day. Yoga mats were not an approved possession, so prisoners could not have one, though prayer rugs were allowed, even if strictly regulated as to size and kind. But in the first house I was in, our room was carpeted — though the carpeting was old, and I hated to think what it had absorbed over the years; in my year there the only cleaning was what prisoners did ourselves with a vacuum cleaner. Still this was a much better setting than either of the two previous places. I could even put some appropriate music on my radio.


A few months into my stay I found a notice that there would be a regular yoga class once a week, in the chapel — which was used for many small group events. (The fact that every prison has a chapel, and the privileged place given to religion in prisons is something to be discussed in a future post.) These classes, once a week for an hour for I think eight weeks, were led by a qualified female yoga teacher from the community who volunteered to do it. If I learned from her how it came about, I have forgotten, but the eight or 10 of us who participated regularly (out of a prison population of about 200, as I recall) were very grateful for her efforts. She had, I know, done these classes before in prisons, so she had got over the fear that a newcomer might reasonably have about being in a space with a dozen men who had long prison sentences. In reality prisoners, even in high security, are so grateful that anyone from outside would want to do anything positive for us that there is no danger for them.

The teacher would bring a CD player and play appropriate calming background chant or music during the classes. I remember falling asleep during the part of the class that involved lying on our backs quietly. Each class was a lovely moment of calm in an existence that was generally unsatisfying and frustrating.

Positive activity

Yoga was one of the only positive activities even in a minimum-security prison. Some prisoners got involved in music in various ways, which was a meaningful activity for them. But the prison made no effort to create activities that would be positive and pro-social for prisoners, and in fact often made it harder for these to take place by, for example, quite frequently arbitrarily denying entry to volunteers or virtually always rejecting prisoner ideas to make the environment more positive. The overall attitude was that prison was supposed to be a miserable place, and as more than one prison staff member said to me about some concern about the environment, “you should have thought of that before you committed a crime.” 

Many people share the belief that prison should be a really horrible place. And one can understand how anger and ideas of vengeance fuel that view. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of people in prison, even those with long sentences, eventually get released and live in the community, so the practical question is whether we want their prison experience to make them better neighbours for us later, or worse. Sadly, in human affairs our anger will lead us to make choices that run against our own long-term interests — exactly what most prisoners did to end up incarcerated. It’s a sad circle that could so easily be better.

David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. The Lawyer’s Daily has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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