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We are all doing time: Sam Settle, director of Prison Phoenix Trust, brings yoga into prisons

We are all doing time: Sam Settle, director of Prison Phoenix Trust, brings yoga into prisons

By Kath Walters

When Sam Settle met and married a British woman, he needed to find a new occupation.

He had just spent three years as a Buddhist monk and development worker in Thailand. “That helped me tremendously and was a great experience,” Settle says. “In fact, that is a massive understatement! I came to understand the power of the mind, and my own mind in particular, and the power and mystery here in our hearts and minds.”

After moving to England, Settle remembered reading about a program in which yoga and meditation were being taught in prisons. “I thought this would be a great thing to do,” he says. “So I trained to become a yoga teacher, and to teach in prison.”

Settle joined the Prison Phoenix Trust in 2003. Today, about 90 Trust-trained teachers conduct 131 classes across 81 institutions.

After seven years teaching yoga and meditation to prisoners, Settle became the Trust’s director.

Remarkable results

Recently, Settle invited Oxford University to conduct research into the effect that yoga has on prisoners’ behaviour and state of mind.

The results were remarkable.

After doing a 10-week yoga course, the prisoners participating in the study felt happier and behaved better than the control group, who did not do the yoga course. They became less stressed and distressed, had reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and showed better performance in cognitive behavioural tests than the control group, according to the study, published recently in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

But the results came as no surprise to the staff of the Prison Phoenix Trust.

Being in prison has a gruelling effect on inmates’ physical and psychological health, raising levels of personal distress, aggression, antisocial behaviour and substance abuse.b2ap3_thumbnail_6640.jpgOver its 26-year history, the Trust has received hundreds of letters from grateful prisoners. They describe how yoga eases their pain and loneliness, reduces their need for medication, and improves their relationships.

Letter-writing is part of the Trust’s program. The Trust’s regular ads in the free prison newsletter offer prisoners free books and CDs to help them cope during their incarceration. Each prisoner receives a handwritten letter, written by one of about 20 volunteers, inviting them to stay in touch. “Last year, we sent out 2,800 book-and-CD packs. We say you are welcome to stay in touch and we are happy write to you about your progress. That works really well. Yoga and meditation are great practices but we also provide personal support.”

Why the study?

Settle wanted Oxford University to conduct the research so the Trust could provide it to financial supporters and government funding bodies. The determination, vision and charisma of the Trust’s founder, Ann Wetherall, has carried it far – gaining entry to the prisons to provide the classes was a huge hurdle in the early days.

Although the program costs only £270,000  each year to run – half from grants and half from individual donors – it’s getting harder to raise the money.

“There is a move to try to quantify things; to measure what is going on and prove that it works,” Settle says. “To some degree it is a good idea. Increasingly, the people who fund us wanted to know that what we are doing has an impact. We thought it would be wise to say to them, and to prisons that what we have been doing does actually work.”

It is safe?

Prisons are violent places. When I ask Settle if yoga might make prisoners more vulnerable – both to aggression from others and to overwhelming emotions – he responds by retelling a story from the book, We are all doing time, one of the eight free books on the Trust’s list.

A snake comes to a sage and confesses to her that he is heartily sick of being violent – biting and poisoning everything that comes into his path.b2ap3_thumbnail_6678.jpgThe sage agrees, and preaches of all the benefits of being non-violent to the snake.

Later, the snake is sunning himself beside a path when a man comes by and, since the snake is non-violent, the man threatens to step on him.

The snake goes back and complains the sage that it is too risky to be non-violent. But the sage says, “We were talking about non-violence. I didn’t say you couldn’t hiss!”

Prisoners face emotional challenges very day in prisons. “Yoga isn’t the only thing that might bring up hard feelings,” Settle says. “Prisons are really crucibles, pressure cookers. At night time in prisons, you hear people crying, out of fear, loneliness desperation, or shame. It is not as if you are walking into an emotionally controlled situation.”

However, the Trust is mindful of the power of yoga and meditation practices and keeps the classes simple, Settle says. “We focus on breathing and lots of standing postures, which put them back in touch with their bodies and remind them that they can sit still and pay attention. It’s unlikely, however, to bring about radical change.”

Don’t prison authorities want violent prisoners?

Settle also challenges the widespread public view that prison officers do not care if prisoners are violent towards each other; indeed, that prisons rely on prisoners keeping each other in line because they do not have enough prison officers to manage the inmates.

“There is a general perception about prisons officers needing to maintain destructiveness, but in fact what really makes a good day for a prison officer is when things go well, when people aren’t disturbed, and the give and take with prisoners is good. They want to help people to be calm and to sleep better, and a lot of good people in prisons understand that.”


With the new research to back it up, Settle believes the Prison Phoenix Trust will continue to find the funds it needs to conduct its simple, but very effective program of support for prisoners.

“On a fundamental level, there is just one thing happening here,” Settle says. “We are teaching the practice of sitting in silence and of using yoga postures to relieve tension and get the body, heart and mind in more open state. We are going deeply into silence, where the head is not the king, the heart is more the thing, and it is open. We are pointing people towards those experiences, making sure they feel supported, and then stepping back and letting them experience it.”

Read Australian Yoga Journal for our interview with Oxford University researcher, Miguel Farias about the groundbreaking study: “Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population, Bilderbeck AC, et al., Journal of Psychiatric Research (2013).  










About the author: Kath Walters is a regular guest at Griffins Hill yoga retreat, and helps us write and edit our blogs and regular e-newsletters. She is a former Fairfax journalist of 16 year’s experience.

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