Yoga Improves Mental Well-being Among Prisoners

Yoga can improve mood and mental well-being among prisoners and may also influence impulsive behaviour, according to research.

The researchers at Oxford University discovered that prisoners who participated in a ten-week yoga program reported better moods, and less stress, and performed better on a task involving behaviour management than those who stuck with their regular schedule in prison.

‘We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in a positive mood, a decrease in stress, and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention,’ said Dr. Amy Bilderbeck and Dr. Miguel Farias, who led the study at the Departments of Experimental Psychology and Psychiatry at Oxford University. ‘The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners.’

Dr Bilderbeck adds: ‘This was only a preliminary study, but nothing has been done like this before. Offering yoga sessions in prisons is cheap, much cheaper than other mental health interventions. If yoga has any effect on addressing mental health problems in prisons, it could save significant amounts of public money.’

Mental health problems of prisoners are many times higher than the general population

The Prison Phoenix Trust, an Oxford-based nonprofit that conducts yoga programmes within jails, provided assistance to the researchers in conducting the trial. They addressed the psychologists at Oxford University about doing a study to evaluate the advantages, even though the study was created, examined, and released without the Trust’s input.

The study’s findings are reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Research by researchers from Oxford University as well as King’s College London, the University of Surrey, and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

More people have mental health issues in prisons than in the general community, and high levels of psychological distress, hostility, antisocial behaviour, and drug and alcohol misuse are frequently observed there as well.

Yoga reduces anxiety and sadness among prisoners

The Oxford researchers conducted an initial exploratory study to look at a range of potential advantages of yoga among prisoners because yoga and meditation have been found to be helpful in lowering anxiety, and sadness, and increasing mood in other areas and contexts.

A total of ten 90-minute yoga sessions led by the jail Phoenix Trust were offered to inmates of various ages in five category B and C prisons, a women’s jail, and a young offender institution in the West Midlands. A control group also received the same treatment.

Before and after the yoga course, all of the inmates participated in meetings with the researchers where they answered questions about mood, stress, impulsivity, and mental health using standard psychological questionnaires. After the yoga class, participants took a computer test to gauge their level of focus and their capacity to manage their responses to on-screen cues.

Yoga associated with improving behaviour control

The researchers note that although this is not measured in this initial study, if yoga is linked to bettering behaviour control as suggested by the computer test results, there may be implications for managing aggression, antisocial, or problem behaviour in prisons and upon release.

Dr Bilderbeck, who practices yoga herself, cautions: ‘We’re not saying that organising a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates. We’re not saying that yoga will replace the standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison. But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners’ wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons.’

Sam Settle, director of the Prison Phoenix Trust, says: ‘Almost half of adult prisoners return to prison within a year, having created more victims of crime, so finding ways to offset the damaging effects of prison life is essential for us as a society. This research confirms what prisoners have been consistently telling the Prison Phoenix Trust for 25 years: Yoga and meditation help them feel better, make better decisions, and develop the capacity to think before acting — all essential in leading positive, crime-free lives once back in the community.’

Story Source:

Materials provided by the University of Oxford. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Page citation:

University of Oxford. “Prisoners doing yoga may see psychological benefits.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 July 2013. <>.

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