Adho mukha. Chaturanga. Uttanasana. These words are becoming part of the prison lingo in Argentina, thanks to a group of young instructors who created the “Moksha – Yoga in jail” project.
On a sunny day, you can hear phrases such as “hands to the center of the heart,” “open up your chests,” “now, cobra” and “exhale as you transition to crescent lunge” in the yard of the 48th Penitentiary Unit of the San Martín state prison in Buenos Aires.
Following these instructions, 30 barefoot inmates with their eyes shut quietly try to imitate the poses that a female instructor, Milagros Colombo, gently demonstrates. Behind them, there is a multicolored mural, painted by the inmates with specific objectives in mind. Gratitude, willpower, patience, resilience, responsibility, freedom and peace are some of the words they have painted.
“During the two hours of class, you forget about your problems. We do plank, downward-facing dog, chaturanga and end up feeling relieved, relaxed. You feel free doing yoga; you leave the world for two hours. You’re so focused that you don’t want the class to end,” says Lucas Roldán, a 33-year-old inmate who has been in prison for the last eight years.
Like him, 250 inmates participate in the yoga lessons that Moksha has organized since 2015 in two units of the San Martín prison, with the goal of transforming lives now and in the future. The idea was born out of the instructors’ desire to share the benefits of yoga with the most vulnerable.
“All of us instructors live and breathe yoga, and it’s a treasure so valuable to us that we asked ourselves where we could share it,” says 29-year-old Colombo. “The prison sector is neglected in many aspects. So if these men can make the most out of their time here, they’ll have more opportunities once they leave, and we will all have better neighbors.”
That peaceful feeling behind spiked fences
This penitentiary is a study in contrasts. Locks, bars, spiked fences and uniformed guards characterize the enclosure, while the neatness of the place, with its large, well-kept gardens, creates an unexpected sense of peace. The inmates behind bars greet the Moksha volunteers as they walk through the halls, but they can’t even shake hands.
Roldán knows that yoga changed his life. For this reason he anxiously awaits the weekly lesson each Thursday. Some mornings, he even meets with other inmates to practice poses. “It’s much more pleasant at that time of day because you can hear the birds. People often think the worst of us for being arrested for theft or for killing a police officer. And maybe they think we should be left in this place to rot. I’ve achieved profound change here,” he says.
Roldán is one of a group of inmates in maximum security who sometimes tag along with Moksha volunteers to teach yoga in medium-security wards. There, they encounter convicted sex offenders, who have a particularly bad reputation among fellow inmates. “It was another open door. This is reintegration, like Pope Francis said, we shouldn’t discriminate; we’re all humans. When they invited me, I didn’t hesitate. We’re all prisoners, they have their problems and we have ours. We were given an opportunity, we wanted to give one to them,” says Roldán.
The project has continued to grow as other wards ask for access to classes, including the women in Unit 47.
Gabriel Márquez Ramírez is passionate about yoga. “Two years ago, the instructors came to teach us the philosophy behind yoga and its positive impact. I practice every day because I like it; it centers you, it relaxes you, it takes away negative thoughts, it serves both body and mind. I love yoga,” says the 24-year-old inmate, adding that he hopes to become an instructor one day. “It cleanses body and mind, you learn to better nourish yourself and you become a better person. Here, the atmosphere has completely changed.”
Currently, 20 instructors volunteer for the Moksha project, which aims to acquire non-profit organization status. For now, it is wholly funded by private donations, with plans to grow.
“Yoga brings a huge amount of self-awareness, and the possibility to be present in body, breath and mind is liberating. [In Sanskrit] the word moksha means inner freedom through presence. Yoga liberates us from stress, creates peace of mind and helps us to experience a moment of presence so we can decide how to act, talk, think and react. That’s our goal,” says Colombo.
Her dream is to teach exclusively in prisons one day, to make it her full-time job. “This all stems from a sense of vocation, and we need more support to make the project grow,” she says. “We would also love to create a training program in the prison, so that inmates can become instructors and come work with us once they are released, as a form of social reintegration. With their experience, it would be easy for them to teach in new prisons, as living proof of what can be accomplished when you choose to live in a different way.”