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Bringing enlightenment to a captive audience

Yoga has found an unlikely fanbase in SA prisons, thanks to the Prison Freedom Project.

Prison Freedom Project co-founder Leela Codron briefs a class before the start of a yoga session at Malmesbury prison. Picture: Aletta Gardner/EWN

CAPE TOWN - It is an icy winter's morning in the Swartland and the sun has not yet had a chance to warm the prison buildings.

Despite the cold, a group of inmates is busy peeling off uniforms with great enthusiasm.

With the removal of the orange clothing the men also shed, for an hour a week, their prison identities.

Colourful mats are unfurled on the cold concrete floor in a methodical manner, testifying to order and routine.

In just a few minutes something marvellous will happen.

The walls, the bars, the gates, will all magically melt away.

Even the temperature will be forgotten, as the confines of the Malmesbury Correctional Centre disappear.

The hall, which a few minutes earlier still echoed with the voices of boisterous prisoners, falls silent.

"You find that most of the other people are not enlightened about yoga…" explains inmate Bongani James.

"You find that when the people see you carrying these mats and you say that you are going to yoga… they would associate it with Buddhism and they would associate it with all the other kind of religions... They also associate it with some kind of Satanism and so forth… those are other pressures that come with it."

One of the newer members of the Prison Freedom Project, James has become accustomed to the curiosity and the comments which the yoga classes elicit from other inmates.

James spent time in Pollsmoor and Drakenstein prisons before transferring to Malmesbury a year ago to undertake studies and turn over a new leaf. Though he says he chose to disengage from criminal activities before his arrival at Malmesbury, the facility's focus on education and betterment helped him to "stand firm in that decision".

"I told myself no, I have to change my mindset now and take my mindset away from the fact I'm in prison. I have to take myself as if I'm in boarding school because that's what this basically is - a boarding school."

'A CAPTIVE AUDIENCE'

The Prison Freedom Project started in 2010 with one class at the admissions centre of Cape Town's notorious Pollsmoor prison.

But word soon spread.

Five years later several classes are being presented at different sections of the facility and weekly classes are held at Malmesbury as well as Kgosi Mampuru II Prison in Pretoria.

The programme also offers a free six-module yoga correspondence course to inmates.

Co-founder and instructor Leela Codron explains that the value in yoga lies in encouraging introspection - a skill many people, including offenders, have never been taught.

"We've very seldom been given the opportunity to learn a practice that will allow us to actually ask ourselves: 'How am I feeling? What do I want from life? Why do I behave the way that I behave?'," she says.

"And so it makes sense to bring a discipline such as yoga into an environment such as a prison because - I mean we joke it is a captive audience - you've got time, and you've got space to really go deeper. And you need so little to go so far."

By turning a blind eye to the inmates' past wrongs and treating hardened criminals as nothing more than ordinary yoga students, the volunteers have noticed momentous impacts.

The significance of the policy becomes evident when yoga student Bradley Hess says "they accepted us for who we are".

"When the judge said I was sentenced to 35 years I believed that I was an outcast, you know, that people wouldn't care anymore," he explains, his voice shaking.

"But I think I've learned now that when you start to care about yourself you start to see the care in the world. You start to see that there are people who love you. And when you start to see there are people who love you, you start to see that you also have something to give to people that's so much more than what you can express."

Hess no longer fixates on the 20-odd remaining years behind bars and has found a way to not only accept his lot, but be thankful for it.

"Just being in this present moment makes your realise that you are part of something phenomenal - every day, every moment."

Learn more about the Prison Freedom Project