Looking for freedom: spirituality, transcendence and yoga
When asked how to deal with shame or embarrassment, Juan, another inmate, stated: “well, when you feel that this really works for you, you forget these fears and you stop feeling ridiculous”. As in many other holistic spiritual practices (Cornejo 2012; Fedele and Knibbe 2013) the final reason used to explain their involvement in the practice is that it ‘works for them’. When asked more specifically, this is generally elaborated in terms of well-being. Yoga is considered a vehicle to produce well-being at three different levels: physical (reducing body pains), psychological (lowering anxiety and stress) and spiritual (fostering transcendence and fullness). The well-being is conceived as starting at a very physical level and most inmates acknowledge that the improvement of physical well-being was the chief perceived benefit when they started to learn yoga. However, the interviews also show that inmates do positively correlate the performance of yoga’s body movements with psychological well-being expressed in terms of inner peace, better self-control, anxiety reduction or emotional stability. These results go in line with most of the research on yoga done from an experimental-science perspective (Bilderbeck et al. 2013; Rocha et al. 2012). However, from a sociological perspective, what is interesting to examine is how well-being is conceptualized, produced and experienced in the specific context of the prison, and how this production relates with broader political, social, and religious processes.
As Erving Goffman put forward decades ago in his book Asylums (1961), prisons are total institutions, hybrid social forms, where “a large number of individuals in the same situation, isolated from society for an appreciable period of time, share a formal daily routine in their confinement” (1971 64). When entering a total institution, the individual is submitted to processes of self-mortification such as isolation from the outside world, the limitation of his autonomy, procedures of depersonalization and. especially, the loss of control over their privacy and intimacy (Goffman 1971; Nizet and Rigaux 2005) To a certain extent, the ‘success’ of yoga in prison is closely related with the fact that it can serve to counteract the impact of self-mortification processes at different levels. On the one hand, yoga creates spaces of calmness inthe middle of the chaotic, dirty and noisy prison environment. The aesthetics of the yoga class, the music, the mats, the incense and the volunteers’ white clothes create an atmosphere that is perceived as symbolically transgressing the prison order. The transgression is elaborated in the following terms: while prison spaces are perceived as threatening and full of aggressiveness, the yoga class is viewed as a calm and safe space where emotions can be showed and gestures of friendship (among inmates but also, especially, between volunteers and inmates) are displayed. An atmosphere that helps to put the reality of prison in parentheses for a while. It is not by coincidence that the time dedicated to relaxation and meditation is one of the most valued moments for inmates as it offers them an opportunity for introspection, providing a ‘safe’ and silent context where inmates can feel intimacy - or ‘inner peace’ as one inmate put it - with themselves, which is not easy to find in the crowded environment of the prison.
In the academic literature on prisons, several authors have identified the existence of ‘emotional zones’ (Crewe 2014) or ‘sanctuaries’ (Johnson 1987), which are considered ‘sheltered spaces’ in between ‘front stage’ and ‘back-stage’ domains (Goffman 1971). Yoga classes might also be interpreted in this light, as ‘sanctuaries’ or special ‘emotional zones’. These sheltered spaces allow for broader emotional registers and are perceived by inmates as “safe places” where you “can take off your mask” (interview). Through the practice of yoga, participants regain control over their private space - and to what Goffman (1971) termed the ‘territories of the self’ - and get access to what is perceived as the ‘authentic self’. In this regard, another inmate in the final survey after the second quarantine wrote: “what surprised me the most is how we showed our vulnerability and how we were receptive to love”. This atmosphere offers a counterpoint to the generally hyper-masculinized space of the prison and opens the door to the expression of a broader register of emotions which go beyond the traditional masculine repertoires.
On the other hand, yoga is perceived by inmates as a vehicle to experience transcendence and fullness. The scenography and ‘altered’ symbolic order of the yoga class seem to contribute to create an emotional and sensory context conducive to experiences of transcendence. As I more fully developed elsewhere (Griera 2017), the concept of the “finite province of meaning” (Alfred Schütz 1973) is appropriate for explaining inmates’ experiences when doing yoga. From a socio-phenomenological perspective, at some moments in life we might experience that ordinary reality is transcended and we enter into a different layer of reality governed by a different temporal order, involving a specific tension of consciousness and imbued with a particular tone of feeling. This is the entrance to a “finite province of meaning”, and the practice of yoga, together with meditation and the singing of mantras, may trigger the crossing to this new reality space. These hold some similarities with what Csikszentmihalyi (2000) identified as “flow experiences” or Smith named as experiences of “connection with oneself’ (Smith 2007). In many cases, these experiences are interpreted as ‘spaces of freedom’, which become especially
Is yoga a girl’s thing? 209 meaningful in the prison context. To a certain extent, the relief of the prison stress that the physical exercises produce, together with the self-confidence gained when they are able to master their own bodies, is what offers these inmates opportunities to experience transcendence and “be free despite being in prison” (interview).