Convicted Criminals Turn to Yoga Behind Bars

Category: Society / Dec 12, 2012 5:52PM EDT
Yoga and prison may seem an odd marriage, but the two are creating a harmonious whole in a Rio de Janeiro penitentiary. An initiative to teach inmates yoga, spearheaded by the Art of Living foundation, was launched two years ago in a bid to improve behaviour through breathing and stretching exercises. The Evandro de Moraes Penitentiary is the only prison institution in the state of Rio de Janeiro taking in part in the initiative. Some 40 inmates participate in yoga classes once a week, practising their downward dogs and other moves. Armando Luis Ramos, 42, said that since he started taking the classes, he has noted a remarkable difference in his personality. "Today I'm more focused, and I'm able to think better, even my own family, when they come to visit me, think I'm different. They see a glint in my eyes, think I'm more balanced, and I try to pass on to them some of the things I'm learning here," he said. The idea of teaching yoga classes to convicted criminals inside a penitentiary initially met with some resistance. Yoga is still associated with the middle class, and critics were sceptical about its influence on hardened, sometimes violent criminals. Lisianne Mutti, one of the yoga teachers at the Evandro de Moraes penitentiary, said the classes had had a positive impact. "In the beginning there was strong resistance but with our practice and the obvious improvement of the inmates' behaviour everyone started to open up. Our (prison) director is extremely helpful and he assists us in whatever way he can," she said. The Art of Living foundation continues its work outside the prison walls - continuing yoga lessons for released convicts and helping them adapt to normal life. One of the foundation's greatest success stories is Cristiano da Silva. Da Silva was part of one of Rio's biggest criminal organizations and spent 26 years in prison for armed robbery, drug trafficking and homicide. He started taking yoga classes while still incarcerated, and believes yoga helped him turn his life around. Now a free man, he continues to practice yoga. Cristiano says that after 26 years behind bars, he still adapting to daily life as a free man, and that the Art of Living foundation and its classes have played a big role in making the adaptation process smoother. "I think you have to be willing to change. If you're willing to change, Art of Living will help you with that, both with the yoga and other aspects of the outside world. They help me a lot, I came in, people are free of prejudice, and they just accept you as who you are," he said.