Speaker: James Fox

Serving Prisoners and Transforming Criminal Justice

James Fox M.A. is the founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, (PYP), an organization dedicated to establishing yoga and mindfulness programs in prisons and rehabilitation centers worldwide. Since 2002, Fox has been teaching yoga and meditation to prisoners at San Quentin Prison as well as other California State prisons. The Prison Yoga Project helps incarcerated men and women build a better life through trauma-informed yoga with a focus on mindfulness. It helps prisoners make grounded, conscious choices instead of reactive ones.

Fox says the practice of yoga was “a gradual awakening” for him. With a background in international affairs, he was recruited into the California wine and beer business, and then eventually transitioned into the nutritional supplements business. In 1987, he also became a serious student of yoga and mindfulness. While finding that there were physical benefits to the practice, he saw that the greatest benefits were emotional and psychological. As he progressed in his yoga practice, he became aware of an increasing desire to be of service. He was not sure what this yearning to give back would look like and kept returning to the question of how. He realized how beneficial yoga and mindfulness would be for men and decided this “might be able to save them some of the suffering” they go through in trying to be men.

Fox became a yoga teacher in 2000.  He did not want to teach in a studio, but to bring yoga to people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it and who might benefit. With broad and extensive training in various yoga and meditation practices for addiction recovery and trauma-related issues, Fox began working with at-risk youth in a residential treatment facility for boys in Bolinas, California. It was in this environment that he realized that helping boys work with their bodies was more effective for healing than just helping them working cognitively. In 2003, Fox established the yoga curriculum for the Peacebuilders Initiative, an annual week-long summer intensive for Chicago teenagers that focuses on community leadership, conflict transformation and peacemaking skills.

The Insight Prison Project was putting together a prisoner rehabilitation program and wanted to add a body/mind integration component, and Fox was asked to set up this component at San Quentin in 2002. Since there was no model, Fox created it. He did training with a senior Iyengar instructor from India who served people dealing with addiction, but there wasn’t an orientation or methodology for teaching yoga in prison. Fox’s program teaches prisoners to restore the connection between mind, body and heart, increase self-compassion and empathy for others. Prisoners learn impulse control, which helps them take responsibility for their actions and reduces their chances of returning to jail.

The results have been proof of how beneficial his program is. Fox started out with five guys and, through word of mouth, he now has four different classes a week at San Quentin, serving 60 men and a wait-list of 50. In addition, yoga has become more accepted as a prison program. It doesn’t require a lot of space or equipment and can be practiced in a cell or even solitary. Because prisoners receive tools to calm themselves when triggered, they know how to disengage and interrupt reactive behavior. Men are frequently able to recognize unresolved trauma going back to original pain and discharge the trauma they’ve held in their bodies.

To meet the continued challenge of getting this information and these programs to more people and institutions, Fox in January 2010 published Yoga: A Path for Healing and Recovery, through the support of the Give Back Yoga Foundation. It has been requested by and sent free of charge to over 26,000 prisoners. He also has a teacher training program for other instructors wanting to go into the prisons and/or underserved communities. He has trained over 2000 teachers at over 350 jails and prisons in the United States, as well as Mexico, Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and India, with more jails and prisons continually requesting information on how to start their own yoga programs. His organization provides educational instructional materials for prisons, including an audio CD of conscious breathing and meditation practices.

In addition to his work with the Prison Yoga Project, Fox was a Reviewer for Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System and a Contributor for Best Practices for Yoga with Veterans published by the Yoga Service Council. He is on the faculty of Loyola Marymount University’s (Los Angeles) Yoga Mindfulness, and Social Change Certification Program, and has served as an advisor to the National Institutes of Health-sponsored Chicago Urban Mindfulness Program. In 2008 and 2009 he was awarded U.S. State Department Grants to advise and train governmental and non-governmental personnel involved in prisoner and ex-gang member rehabilitation programs in Central America.

In 2015, Yoga Journal honored James with a Karma Yoga Award for their 40th Anniversary Issue. James is also on the staff of the Insight Prison Project, a California based non-profit that is a leading restorative justice agency involved in prisoner rehabilitation.

Fox’s life is dedicated to service. The war on drugs, mandatory sentencing and an emphasis on punishment have resulted in over 2.25 million people being incarcerated with a 60% recidivism rate. Fox reasons, “While we've got them, we should be allocating resources to give them the tools so that they don't come back to prison. That's where I come in.”  

Join us in conversation with this committed yogi and service warrior!

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