Teaching Art of Living in prison

Written by Art of Living teacher Caspar Sprokel

Here I am. In front of close to 100 inmates. High walls around, but no roof over my head. Clear blue sky. At 9am the sun starts to burn already on this summer’s day in South Africa.

Class is about to start. The only guard to “protect” me sits about 20m away. On a chair by the only exit from this walled-off prison zone. The guard leans back as if watching TV, but make no mistake… the guys in front of me are no softies. After all this is maximum security prison. Many of them have been sentenced to several lifetimes for serious crimes such as armed robbery, murder and rape. The minimum sentence in this section is 15 years.

William sits on a blanket in the first row. He is one of the gang leaders over here. The tattoos on his body show his allegiance. A big smile on his face. Only a few days ago he had this straight and tense face. Emotionless. A minute ago he told me he had his wife on the phone yesterday. “How come you are so happy?”, she had asked him. ” I can hear your big smile through the phone.” “I am doing this course, it teaches me how to get rid of stress. We do yoga and breathing exercises and now I can’t help but smile!”

Here I am. Close to a 100 faces staring at me on this last day of the course. They can’t wait to start off with yoga. But first a prayer. The prisoners take turns in leading the group into prayer. Sibusiso gives thanks for a new day, for this course and for getting the trainer back safe to their prison again – because it’s dangerous out there!

Yoga, the physical and intense version, with lots of sun salutations including push-ups and stomach crunches. After this serious work-out the guys rest like babies. Tshepo rests at the back of the class, almost on the last row. He makes sure he has the same spot everyday, “because my angels are watching over me here.” “I have discovered that I am attracting positivity since doing this course”, he told me on one of the mornings. “Yesterday my wife and child came to visit me for the first time in 1.5 years.”

Yoga, yogic breathing and Sudarshan Kriya (R) plus certain points on life skills have transformed these hard-core inmates in just 8 days. Gone are nightmares and violent dreams. “I used to enjoy fighting, but now I can walk away from a fight”, says Tony. “I feel like a young boy again, ready to go to school”, says Bongani.

The power of this “stress management” course, which is offered by way of community service by IAHV (…) Volunteers, never ceases to amaze me. Stresses go and good qualities start shining through. The healing power of the breath belongs to everyone, including prisoners, for in the words of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the inspiration behind this course: “In every culprit a victim is crying for help.”

Whether the certificate that participants get on this last day, will help William to be released early from prison remains to be seen, but what is certain is that gangsterism and aggression have come down significantly since IAHV started offering courses in the maximum security section. What is also clear is that William cannot stop smiling. “I never used to smile”, he says, ” but you know what – I looked at myself in the mirror this morning, and I look good when I smile!”

Note: names have been changed from real names for privacy reasons