Is yoga a girl’s thing?: A case study on working-class men doing yoga in jail


Most of the empirical research on holistic spirituality has been carried out among white middle-class, middle-aged women living in Europe and the US. This is not a coincidence. According to the literature (Heelas et al. 2005; Houtman and Aupers 2007; Fedele and Knibbe 2013), the growth and expansion of holistic spirituality has been especially successful among women of a mature age living in middle- and upper-class areas. Men seem to have been less affected by the ‘spiritual revolution’ and there are almost no studies focused on male and holistic spirituality. However, this might be changing since holistic spirituality is also gaining presence among males. For this reason, as Linda Woodhead (2007b) puts forward, the study of spirituality and masculinity demands urgent attention for the comprehension of contemporary processes of religious change.

This chapter is a first step towards filling this lacuna. The aim is to develop a sociological understanding of the ways in which holistic practices find their place in a working-class male-dominated environment, and about how they contribute to refashioning conceptions of masculinity. Based on an extensive fieldwork among kundalini yoga students in two male penitentiary institutions in the area of Barcelona, the chapter particularly focuses on three independent questions: How does yoga get legitimated, and become popular among men in prison? To what extent does the practice of yoga have spiritual implications in the context of the prison and how is it positioned vis-à-vis the religious-secular categories? And in what ways, if so, can spirituality contribute to fostering new understandings of masculinity?

As 1 will explore more deeply in the following pages, the body, and work on the body, is the principal means by which yoga is made meaningful and becomes a legitimated practice in the eyes of male inmates in the context of a prison. However, the impact of yoga practice goes beyond its physical effects. The regular practice of yoga, and the subsequent involvement into the holistic milieu, entails the acquisition of new languages related to the care of oneself and others and attention to emotions that blur traditional working-class conceptions of masculinity. Yoga is described as a ‘secular practice’ with no

Is yoga a girl’s thing? 199 relation to religion but rather tied to spirituality. The chapter explores these new narratives and practices of masculinity that, in turn, play a strategic role in prison since they hold an affinity with the spiritual therapeutic culture that is gaining credibility among penitentiary authorities and staff.

As 1 already mentioned, this chapter is based on extensive fieldwork carried out in two penitentiary institutions, one high-security prison and one remand institution. The fieldwork was not initially designed as focused on questions of masculinity but on understanding the phenomenological experience of doing yoga in prison, and on the institutional opportunities and constraints of undertaking spiritual activities in a ‘total institution’. However, the empirical data gathered have been re-examined with a view to analysing gender and power dynamics, and reflecting on the transformation of conceptions of masculinity in the context of yoga practice in prison.

Masculinities, spirituality and penitentiary institutions: theoretical premises

The theoretical framework of this chapter derives from the cross-fertilization among three different research subfields: masculinities in prison, gender and religion, and spirituality in penitentiary institutions. 1 will start by briefly underlining the main questions that emerge from each of these subfields when enquiring into the role of yoga in mediating notions of masculinity in prison. Then, 1 will move to the empirical case.

Masculinities in prison: state of the art

Most of the recent literature on masculinities in prison “has drawn attention to the relationship between gender and crime, more specifically concluding that cultural constructions of masculinity are correlated with crime and that male prison culture reifies hyper masculinity” (Karp 2010, 63). There is an academic consensus in identifying penitentiary cultures as privileging traditional forms of hegemonic masculinity, and in characterizing prisons as a fertile ground for the reproduction and maintenance of aggressive forms of manhood.

This is mainly explained by two factors. First, men entering prison are dispossessed of socially accepted forms of power such as money, education or status (Evans and Wallace 2008). As Jewkes argues “in prisons, the deprivation of such items [...] associated with the inability to purchase them with a ‘man’s wage’ - emasculates the individual and attacks his sense of self-worth” (Jewkes 2005, 58). In a way, this extreme dispossession makes men more attracted to hypermasculinity repertoires such as aggressive or intimidating behaviours, the use (and abuse) of physical strength or the denigration of alternative forms of masculinity. Second, what has been called the ‘prison code', historically rooted in hegemonic (and aggressive) conceptions of masculinity, seriously hinders the emergence of new models of masculinity.

Moreover, the fact that the fear for personal safety becomes one of the major ■pains’ associated with imprisonment and that this fear is usually prevented by looking for peer group respect and a reputation for aggressiveness (Jewkes 2005; Evans and Wallace 2008) makes the emergence of alternative notions of masculinity especially difficult. As Evans and Wallace note in their research on masculinities in prison, “Even when your personal viewpoint has been truly transformed, the social policing of masculine codes is sufficiently strong to mean that you keep these views secret most of the time” (2008, 502). Thus, literature makes clear that penitentiary institutions are not favourable contexts for the reshaping of traditional forms of masculinity but rather the contrary. However, then, in this light, the popularity of yoga in the prison context becomes even more intriguing, and several questions arise: How do inmates perceive the practice of yoga and its compatibility (or not) with prisons’ masculine regimes? How are practices such as singing mantras or lying in the floor with the eyes closed made plausible in the prison context? To what extent does the practice of yoga shape new understandings of manhood?

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >