Yoga, men and the body in prison

In my first interview with one of the yoga teachers, Amaya, she expressed what many others manifested again later: that yoga was very popular among men in prison, in opposition to the norm outside the prison walls. Simultaneously, in the same interview, Amaya showed her frustration because a yoga course that was going to be developed in a maternal care unit in a female prison was cancelled due to the lack of interest of inmates in participating. She showed surprise and stated, "Before. 1 would have never imagined that yoga would had been more attractive to jailed males than to mothers. It is shocking. 1 can't really explain this.” In later conversations, different explanations were offered by Amaya and other yoga volunteers to make sense of the failure of yoga courses in the penitentiary maternal care unit. From a sociological point of view, I am not able to provide an answer to Amaya’s puzzle but it is interesting to highlight the implicit conceptions about who should be the 'natural' target of yoga courses. As another yoga volunteer, Joana, told me once: “You know, it is very shocking to see all these big men with all these tattoos and their criminal histories in a prayer position singing mantras: I would have never imagined this before.” For Joana, who works as a yoga teacher in ‘female-only’ gyms, it was a surprise, but also a challenge, to teach yoga to male inmates in prison. However, at the same time, she pointed out that “it is also very rewarding, you know, all this masculine energy is very powerful and you can feel this in the class”. While addressing gender issues most of the volunteers relied on preconceived spiritual notions of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ and associated them with notions of strong/soft, sun/moon, rigidity/fluidity among others. The masculine and the feminine areconstructed as ideal-types, which are both present (but in different proportions) in men and women. From their point of view, masculine and feminine energy might be creative sources for the self but, if not dealt and cultivated properly, might be also destructive. The prison is perceived by yoga volunteers as a space ‘saturated’ with male energy in need of healing and balance.

However, not only the volunteers commented on gender issues. Miguel, one inmate who has been practising yoga in prison for more than six years now, right at the beginning of the interview told me the following: “Keep in mind that we are where we are and for many [the practice of yoga] it is nonsense, or something for young ladies ...” He was not the only one who pointed out that the prison environment was apparently not conducive to activities such as yoga, and who also manifested that, initially, inmates have to overcome many ‘resistances’. These ‘resistances’ are expressed through the production of feelings of shame or embarrassment. Manel, another inmate, commented: “In the first lessons the singing of mantras made me laugh and feel very stupid.” As Thomas Scheff (1988) argues, feelings of shame or embarrassment might work as mechanisms of social conformity and as regulatory emotions for disciplining the self. In this case, the feeling of embarrassment when practising yoga emerges because it defies the ‘normal’ behaviour code in a male prison, and yoga practice is perceived as susceptible to being sanctioned by male peers. However, most of the interviewees coincide in stating that these feelings of shame usually disappear early on and, as Manel also expressed, “after a while, you don’t care”.

The first and most basic mechanism that inmates use for confronting embarrassment is to render yoga rational through the lenses of the masculinity codes. This excerpt from Miguel’s interview is telling:

While I’m working, in the kitchen, sometimes I do yoga exercises in the break since I need to stretch my body and feel better again ... at the beginning many of my fellow workers laughed and made fun of me. However, then, 1 decided to bet them to be in plank pose for a while. I won. Then, I bet them again with other asanas, I always won. So, then, they stopped laughing at me.

Yoga is then legitimated as an activity to contribute to building physical strength.

As stated by several researchers, the physical body has a crucial relevance in the context of the prison. The work on the body helps to build an appearance of hardness - which might be crucial for inmates’ survival. As Martos-Garcia et al. state, drawing on Bourdieu, “physical prowess and fighting ability provide a form of physical capital that can be converted to social and cultural capital within the prison environment” (2009, 80). But also, to keep one’s body fit becomes a strategy for fighting the pains of imprisonment, and especially for softening the deteriorating effects of imprisonment being inscribed in the body (Wahidin 2002). Many of the participants in the yoga

Is yoga a girl’s thing? 207 course, and especially those with long-term sentences, expressed their fears about the harsh impact that prison might have on their bodies and their perception that yoga might counteract them. This can also explain, although not fully, why yoga is much more popular than meditation in the prison context. However, most of the interviewees stated that through yoga they have also learned about the relevance of improving inner strength, not only physical strength. As one inmate avowed: “At the beginning I thought that yoga was very easy but then 1 started to understand that this does not only require physical strength but, above all, mental and inner strength. Gradually I got to know how to use this strength that 1 have in my interior and to be able to control it. Then, 1 gained in serenity.”

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