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Research Explores the Benefits of Yoga among Prisoners


Prisoner in Tree pose from HMP Bullingdon 2013Dr Amy Bilderbeck, Lecturer in Psychology and Corpus alumna, has led recent work exploring the benefits of yoga among prisoners, focussing on improvements in mental health and cognitive function. The researchers, working in seven West Midlands prisons with around 100 male and female prisoners, found that participating in a 10-week yoga course (one 90min class per week) was associated with reports of better mood, reduced stress, and decreased psychological distress, as compared with a group of prisoners who continued with their normal prison routine. In addition, prisoners who completed the yoga course performed more accurately on a simple computerized task designed to measure attention and behavioural control.

Dr. Bilderbeck writes: "The results are interesting and important, because prisoners frequently suffer from mental health difficulties, and prisons are stressful and violent environments, which together can have a powerful corrosive effect on the capacity for any individual to re-engage effectively with their communities and avoid re-offending after being released. By enhancing wellbeing and facilitating greater control over impulses yoga might provide a way for prisoners to break this cycle, in a way that is economical for prisons, and which may work side-by-side with other rehabilitation programmes.

The study provided me with a rare and valuable opportunity to work within prisons, which is always a great challenge for researchers, on many levels. This was down to the hard work of a dedicated team, which crucially involved the Prison Phoenix Trust, a charitable foundation based in Oxford which supports the practise of yoga and meditation in prisons. This work was a very long time in coming, but has ultimately been one of the most rewarding experiences of my academic career.

The study has also, perhaps unsurprisingly, stimulated public debate about whether prisons are becoming ‘Health Farms' and how victims of crime might feel about prisoners doing yoga. These are not easy questions to address and I've learned quickly about issues to do with public engagement with science.

Ultimately, I believe in the capacity of all individuals to improve themselves and, with time and effort, change their lives. That holds for these prisoners too. And, of course, there are economical and societal benefits to reducing the very high rates of reoffending in this and other countries. Perhaps further research can establish whether yoga practise is associated with reduced probability of committing crimes on release from prison."

The results of the research will be published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research (open-access): Participation in a 10-week course of yoga improves behavioural control and decreases psychological distress in a prison population. Bilderbeck AC, Farias M, Brazil IA, Jakobowitz S, and Wikholm C

The University's press release can be viewed here and further press releases related to the study can be found on the Department of Psychiatry's website. To learn more about the work of the Prison Phoenix Trust, see http://www.theppt.org.uk/

Dr Bilderbeck read PPP at Corpus from 2002-2005, and is now a post-doctoral researcher in the University's Department of Psychiatry.

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