Inmates shackled through self-help? A talk on yoga in prison

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On Friday, Feb. 16, the University of Connecticut’s American Studies program held a virtual event titled, “Freedom Inside? Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral State.” The event was hosted by Dr. Farah Godrej, associate professor of political science at the University of California-Riverside. Godrej discussed her forthcoming book, which shares its name with the virtual event.  

“The American Studies [program] organized this event because mass incarceration is something we study extensively in our field,” said Christopher Vials, head of UConn’s American Studies program and the event’s organizer. “We’re also interested in how non-Western knowledges influence U.S. culture, and how the United States influences the rest of the world.” 

Godrej’s presentation and book focused on meditative practices like mindfulness and yoga and how they are taught to incarcerated individuals across the United States. She became involved with organizations that teach meditative practices in prisons by first serving as a volunteer in prisons, interviewing other volunteers, eventually taking on leadership roles within the organizations and getting to know the inmates personally through direct conversation. Through firsthand experience and subsequent scholarship, she gained insight in how these programs were being taught to some of the most vulnerable members of the population. 

“THE AMERICAN STUDIES [PROGRAM] organized this event because mass incarceration is something we study extensively in our field.”

Christopher Vials

She found that programs being taught to incarcerated individuals emphasize the aspects of meditation that focus on the individual and the inner self, leading many students to see everything as a cause of their own thinking. Such programs emphasize personal responsibility and behavioral changes, suggesting that their own flawed individual choices are what make them responsible for their situation. Godrej made clear at various points that these self-help strategies and mindsets can be effective tools for personal renovation and self-improvement. She is not critiquing them; rather, she focuses on how factors outside of the inmates’ control such as race, poverty and socio-economic status are ignored in these programs. In fact, if inmates bring attention to any of these factors, it is evidence of resistance for prison staff and counted against them when considered for parole. 

Godrej uses her research to speak on how meditation can be used as a tool to maintain the status quo — a palliative tool to cope and comply with the prison industrial complex. She reinforces this with other examples, such as mindfulness being taught to employees for greater effectiveness in stressful work conditions without acknowledging the conditions in the first place and yoga being taught in schools to make students more calm and disciplined without tackling their sources of stress. She posits a possible source for these compliance-geared self-help programs: the world view that insists on individual choice and behavior as a catch-all solution. This worldview rejects that structures are so entrenched in society that they require collective response to make change. This view gives power structures the excuse to not change the status quo while putting the responsibility on the individual.  

“WE’RE ALSO INTERESTED IN HOW NON-WESTERN KNOWLEDGES INFLUENCE U.S. CULTURE, AND HOW THE UNITED STATES INFLUENCES THE REST OF THE WORLD.”

Christopher Vials

But far from doom and gloom, Godrej reassured that these self-improvement practices can be truly transformational by giving people the tools for critical awareness and a more expansive way of seeing the world. She evokes Gandhi, with his teachings that spiritual pursuit is not exclusive to activism and non-violent disruption. She details inspiring groups of inmates who cultivated self-improvement while maintaining consciousness about their situations. They used meditation as an act of resistance to the prison and its logic, holding onto their beliefs that all problems cannot be solved by just personal growth. 

Godrej’s book will be released later this year by the Oxford University Press. For those interested in more on the prison-industrial complex, the UConn American Studies program will be hosting another event on Friday, Feb. 25 from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. titled “Beyond the Prison: The Politics of Abolition.” This event will be presented by Anna Terwiel of Trinity College’s Department of Political Science. At UConn, it will be held in Oak 408, as well as over Zoom for those who wish to attend virtually. 

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