Case study: masculinities, yoga and spirituality in penitentiary settings

Contextual and methodological considerations

In the autumn of 2011 1 went to a male penitentiary centre, located in Barcelona city, to interview a social educator working there. At that time, 1 was involved in a research project focused on analysing the accommodation of religious diversity in prisons and hospitals (Griera and Clot-Garrell 2015b). While walking through the prison I saw a placard in one corridor announcing yoga classes for inmates. 1 asked the social educator about it and he told me that yoga was a very popular activity in the prison context. 1 tried to investigate a bit more, but he just told me that this was an activity taught by volunteers and with no relation at all with my research on religion. Some

Is yoga a girl’s thing? 203 months later, one of my colleagues, Anna Clot-Garrell, went to do fieldwork in another penitentiary institution in the outskirts of Barcelona. There she also found that yoga was a popular activity offered to inmates and taught by volunteers. Additionally, she also learned that yoga was not the only holistic activity being offered to inmates but also reiki, sofrology, tai chi and Ho’o-ponopono, among others. Afterwards, we discovered that the emergence and popularity of ‘spiritual activities’ was not a phenomenon limited to these two cases but was part of a more general trend (Becci and Knobel 2014; Griera and Clot-Garrell 2015a, 2015b). These initial findings brought us to more systematically explore the growth of holistic spiritualities in prison settings in Catalonia. We interviewed several volunteers, social educators and psychologists from five different prisons in Catalonia and we confirmed that holistic spirituality was on the rise within public institutions. We identified reiki and yoga as the most extended and institutionalized practices, the others more marginal. We discovered that these practices were usually offered by holistic volunteers who wanted to ‘give back' what their spiritual journey had brought them (Clot-Garrell and Griera 2019). These practices counted, in most cases, on strong support from the staff, especially from the ‘social’ staff (psychologists, social educators, leisure instructors). Penitentiary staff considered all these practices as belonging to the ‘secular’ domain; thus, they were not regulated by the strict rules governing religious organizations in prisons (Griera and Clot-Garrell 2015a). However, in a more-or-less fashion, most of the prison staff interviewed acknowledged the spiritual dimension of these activities. Even, in several cases, the interviewees used a highly connoted holistic spiritual language, speaking of ‘energy’, angels, karma or synchronicity while describing these practices and justifying their importance in the prison context. We also found out that some social educators and psychologists were themselves carrying out ‘holistic practices’ with inmates, such as a social educator who organized a ritual of the solstice, another leisure instructor teaching reiki to inmates and many others using meditation or yoga techniques in their therapeutic sessions. The spiritual character of these practices was unproblematized by our interlocutors. Prison staff interviewed marked a clear boundary between the spiritual and the religious domain. Any possible links of these spiritual activities with religion were strongly denied, even if in some cases the links were rather evident, such as in the case of a Brama Kumaris group teaching raja yoga or when inviting a lama to give a talk on ‘spiritual growth’. The categorization of certain practices as religious or secular also has legal and regulatory implications, which might explain why there is a strong denial of the religious character of spiritual activities. If these same activities were labelled as ‘religious’, it would have been more difficult to carry them out in prison, to include them in the leisure programmes or to make them available for all the inmates. Likewise, discursively, our interlocutors identified spirituality as compatible with the secular regime governing the prison while assessing the benefits of these practices in therapeutic terms by using

‘scientific’ arguments. They talked very differently about religion - and especially about minority religions - which in some cases were considered a ‘suspicious’ presence that had to be accepted in the name of freedom of religion but also had to be strictly regulated. The growing presence of religious minorities was problematized by some of our interviewees, while holistic activities went unquestioned (Griera and Clot-Garrell 2015a) and fitted under the appearance of normality (Goffman 1971).

For methodological and comparative reasons (see Griera 2017) we focused on the analysis of the practice of kundalini yoga in penitentiary institutions. The research project was designed around three objectives. First, to examine the role, significance and effects of yoga for inmates practising it. Second, to put the institution at the centre, and explore the conditions that enabled the emergence, legitimacy and dissemination of yoga in penitentiary settings. Third, to focus on yoga volunteers and analyse the increasing relevance of the ‘culture of giving back’ (Koch 2015) in the holistic milieu.

The fieldwork was done in three different phases. First, I did an exploratory fieldwork in a high-security prison where volunteers were organizing a yoga quarantine which consisted of 40 days of yoga practice (2 hours per day) with a group of 15 inmates (July-August 2013). Second, together with two other researchers, we did intensive fieldwork in a three-month intensive yoga course organized by a yoga NGO in a remand prison (June-July 2014). Third, I did intensive fieldwork in the second yoga quarantine being organized in the first prison (June-July 2015). Fieldwork consisted of participant observation, informal and formal interviews with inmates, staff and yoga volunteers, and surveys with inmates. In addition, follow-up interviews and observations were done during 2016 and 2017.

Inmates participated in the yoga courses on a voluntary basis and following the courses had no direct penitentiary benefits. The selection of the inmates was done by the prison social educators according to different criteria: disciplinary issues, previous knowledge of yoga, compatibility with other leisure activities and compatibility with the other inmates participating in the group. In each of the three cases, there was a long waiting list of inmates since volunteers and penitentiary staff decided to limit the number of participants. In the quarantine, the group was mixed in terms of gender (70 per cent male, 30 per cent female); in the case of the course organized in the remand prison, there were only males. The courses were organized by a Yoga NGO (World PREM) devoted to promoting yoga to socially excluded persons. Most of the volunteers were trained in kundalini yoga, and there was an almost equal distribution between male and female volunteers.

Most of the inmates participating in the research had a previous knowledge of yoga. Apart from these intensive courses, all the Catalan prisons offer weekly yoga courses to inmates, also taught by volunteers. Thus, the majority of the inmates participating in the intensive courses were already participating in these weekly classes. Therefore, most of them, especially in the high-security prison, already had a good command

Is yoga a girl’s thing? 205 of yoga and, in some cases, they were advanced students with years of practice behind them. The yoga practised in prison belongs to what has been labelled as modern yoga, which covers

those disciplines and schools that are, to a greater or lesser extent, rooted in South Asian cultural contexts and more specifically draw inspiration from certain philosophies, teachings, and practices of Hinduism. These teachings and practices, by virtue of exportation, syncretic assimilation and subsequent acculturation processes, have now become an integral part of (primarily) urban cultures worldwide.

(De Michelis 2008, 19)

In this context, the practice of yoga is neither a practice directly transplanted from Hinduism or Sikhism, nor is it framed in terms of a religious activity. It is rather a global phenomenon conceived as a secular expression although, simultaneously, there exists a tacit - and sometimes explicit - acknowledgement of its spiritual character (Smith 2007). This spiritual character is especially visible in Kundalini yoga.

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