James Fox changes lives with yoga as the founder and director of Prison Yoga Project, an organization dedicated to democratizing the physical practice of yoga and mindful meditation to prisons and rehabilitation centers. He extends the physical and mental benefits of yoga to prisoners suffering from the devastating effects of violence and addiction. With more than 20 years of experience in disciplines such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Yin yoga, Fox began exposing at-risk populations to this ancient practice in 2000. In 2002, he developed the Insight Prison Project's Yoga Program at San Quentin Sate Prison, a facility holding some of California’s most dangerous prisoners. Today, Fox continues to direct the yoga program at San Quentin, contributes to the development of many yoga organizations catering to at-risk populations, and teaches public classes with an emphasis on the psycho-physiological benefits of yoga for men.
MBG: How did you come to yoga?
JF: I first started practicing as a result of a back injury about 25 years ago. I was living in San Francisco at the time and going to Afro-Haitian dance classes, where people would do a series of yoga warm-ups. I thought they were just stretching. Then my friend, who was also a yoga instructor, recommended that I do yoga for my injury. I did Iyengar and go some relief. As I continued practicing, I got more interested and delved more deeply into the philosophy behind yoga. I was already educated in meditation, and yoga complemented that. Then, I went on a yoga retreat and eventually became an instructor.
What was it like when you first started teaching at San Quentin? How has the mood/attitude about your yoga classes changed since those first days?
I first started teaching about nine years ago when a non-profit organization contacted me because they wanted to use yoga in a rehabilitation practice they were starting at San Quentin. It was difficult at first because to get to the building where the yoga class was held, I had to cross a yard of prisoners spending time outside. There was definitely the perception that yoga was for sissies, and I would get catcalls.
At first, there were a few brave souls who showed up. I would have about 6-8 guys at a time, and this persisted for the better part of a year. It wasn’t really a popular class. After a year or so, things changed. Word got out that my class was intense and enjoyable. Then, a few shot-callers, prisoners who have a certain amount of respect, a few from different ethnicities, attended my class. Within my second year of teaching, my classes filled up, but I can only accommodate about 16 men. I also teach lifers, prisoners with life-sentences.