Yoga in Confinement
The Argentine association Moksha brings the practice of yoga to prisons: a way to improve the living conditions of inmates, but also to facilitate their reintegration into society and reduce recidivism rates in criminal behavior. We spoke with communicator Ana Delacroix about the origin of the project and the contribution that photography brings to it.
By Alonso Almenara
This prison consists of three units: 46, 47, and at the back, 48; the latter is known as the “maximum-security” unit. Life inside the 12 pavilions that make it up is tough but very different from what many people imagine: inmates play rugby on a regulation-sized field built a few years ago by the Espartanos Foundation, and since 2015, they have the opportunity to practice yoga, led by instructors including external professionals like Ana, and instructors trained within the prison. The experience has been documented by several photographers who regularly collaborate with the association, including Ivanna Legler, who agreed to provide her photographs — originally published on Moksha’s social media — for this article.
“Being able to take photos of them during the practices is to carefully observe the expressions on their faces, freeze their dedication and concentration, as well as the possibility of capturing the entry of a beam of light that crosses and modifies the space,” Legler has written. For Delacroix, who curates the content that appears on Moksha’s Instagram account, what these images show is “a moment of absolute freedom within confinement.” We talked to the communicator about the project’s origins and photography’s contribution to this dynamic.
How did this initiative come about?
Five teachers joined in 2015 to start this activity in the San Martín prison, where the Espartanos Foundation was already operating and had brought rugby. Two teachers, Isabel Aldao and Victoria Zimmermann, are still leading the organization. They started in a single pavilion, Pavilion 8 of Unit 48, which went well for them. As the inmates from other pavilions saw how much yoga benefited their peers, they asked for it.
Today, after eight years, we are in all three units of the Penitentiary Complex. We’ve had a total of 600 students and 45 instructors. These are huge numbers, especially considering that we couldn’t enter during the pandemic and the project was practically falling apart. But Isabel Aldao found a way to continue working with inmates from Unit 47 who had never practiced yoga. In 2022, we started the first in-prison teacher training program, from which 15 instructors graduated and are now equipped to teach their peers. And all of this is possible thanks to our trust in the Penitentiary Service.
Because the experience was so positive, this year, a second teacher training program is underway, with men and women from different pavilions of Unit 47. We don’t know of any other cases where this is happening. But the project is taking on a dimension that truly surpasses us.
What do you believe yoga brings to these individuals?
We have seen tangible changes in their gaze, behavior, and anger management. Yoga works on the body, but above all, it works on the mind through meditation and breathing. These are techniques that allow you to feel free even within confinement. I manage Moksha’s social media, and the other day, we shared a text written by Guille, one of the inmates who graduated as a teacher last year and is still inside. He recounts that they are “gummed,” in prison slang, at a certain hour of the night. They are locked inside their cells, unable to even go to the pavilion. He has children and a family outside, and he started to feel fear, anxiety, and a range of feelings that come with daily confinement. But instead of doing the same thing as always, torturing himself with that idea, he closed his eyes and started bringing forth everything that yoga gave him. He’s an excellent student and teacher. He said he lit a candle, started meditating, and at that moment, he began to feel like he was stepping on grass, that a sky was opening above him. He understood that even though he couldn’t change external circumstances, he could change his mind, allowing him to make it to the next day.
This is work that you’re also documenting visually. How did that start?
Among the photos on Moksha’s Instagram, there’s everything. There are photos by professionals like Ivana Legler. Still, there are also ones by a yoga teacher who practices photography and many photos taken with cell phones by any of the participants. We’re not so concerned about the technical quality of the shots, but we want to communicate the rawness of the activity we’re doing, not everything is embellished. When we make videos, for example, sometimes we use music. Still, we’re also interested in hearing the sounds of the prison, the occasional shouts, the sound of locks closing, what happens.
In one of the videos, Guille and his companions appear, some already free. These guys who leave the prison come to their neighborhoods, and it would be easiest for them to steal, re-offend, and look for easy money, but they don’t want to, and that’s also thanks to yoga. Now Cristian, one of them, is teaching yoga to his friends in his neighborhood. In other words, he’s giving back to his community this new person he has become.
Have you ever felt unsafe inside the prison?
We’ve never had any issues. We have a protocol developed over all these years of experience and know what to be careful about. For example, we can never enter alone. We always go in pairs because we lock ourselves in with a padlock inside the pavilion. But the truth is that sometimes everything becomes so easy, and things are done with so much respect that it’s easy to forget where you are. And to forget what these people have done.
But that’s another important thing: it’s better not to know. When you know what that person in front of you has done, shared humanity breaks, and prejudice enters. If I know that person has been killed or raped, something in me breaks, and maybe I can’t give them everything I could give them.
I gave my first class in 2019, and I had to do it in the hallway between the cells, not even in the open courtyard where you can see the sky. I was in the depths of the prison but wasn’t afraid. Do you know why? Because they’re waiting for us, they welcome us with a mate or a glass of water and thank us for coming.
I imagine you always get asked this: Why help people who have caused so much harm?
Because the prison system is terrible, it’s collapsing, inmates come out worse than they went in, and there are already many people doing a lot of good things in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The prison population is one of the most marginalized in society. Many people say, why not set them on fire? Why don’t they die? Most of the inmates I’ve met want to become better people. They just never had the opportunity. No one ever looked them in the eyes and said: You can break free from the stigmas of your family, your grandfather, your father who stole. You can break that vicious cycle. We go to prison because we deeply believe in this transformation and see it daily. And, of course, we see cases of people leaving prison and returning to commit crimes, but the recidivism rate has dropped significantly. That is thanks to Espartano, Moksha, and the collaborative effort of many people.