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Mexico City, Mexico – David Arellano Lara was sentenced to 11 years for car theft and kidnapping. In his Mexican prison, he dealt drugs and smoked pot and crack.
But an innovative yoga program in prison designed to treat addicts proved to be his way out of addiction, out of jail and into a new life.
He remembers being locked in a cell too small for the 20 men inside—some of the prison’s worst offenders—and teaching yoga to them all from the confines of his bunk.
If you train them and if you give them the tools, and you give them jobs in which they can give back to society, you actually close the energetic circle and what used to be the problem is now the solution.
He remembers sharing what he knew from the yoga classes he had taken in jail before he was transferred to that crowded wing as a punishment for beating up more than a dozen guards in a crack-fueled rampage. He taught the other men simple asanas, meditation and pranayama breathing techniques to keep everyone calm.
“It was bit by bit,” he says about learning yoga and quitting drugs. “It’s a process in which you start to gain consciousness of yourself.”
In 2003, Ann Moxey, a yoga instructor and psychologist specializing in addictions, founded the yoga program in the Atlacholoaya federal prison in Cuernavaca, Morelos, south of Mexico City, where Arellano served seven years before getting out early on good behavior. The program is called Parinaama Yoga.
The yoga programs have since spread. Today, yoga is taught in three juvenile jails and one adult prison in Mexico City and in adult detention facilities in the cities of San Miguel de Allende, Guadalajara and Puebla.
Three years out of prison and two years drug-free, Arellano works a yoga instructor at one of the Mexico City juvenile jails. Moxey, meanwhile, has begun a teacher training program inside Atlacholoaya, and about 20 men have joined.
“I wasn’t hopeful that he would make it, but he did,” she said, recalling that Arellano was “an extremely violent prisoner.”
She added: “If you train them and if you give them the tools, and you give them jobs in which they can give back to society, you actually close the energetic circle and what used to be the problem is now the solution.”
Substance abuse is a problem in Mexican prisons, where corrupt guards let drugs pass into the hands of gangs inside. That makes rehabilitation especially hard. Arellano says Moxey’s yoga classes helped him break his addictions and separate himself from a gang.
“I started to see that there were other things in life—that not everything was violence, smoking and doing drugs,” he said.
Another former inmate and Moxey student, Fredy Díaz Arista, also teaches yoga in a juvenile detention center in Mexico’s capital. He said he feels “compelled to give back what was given to me.”
Both Arellano and Díaz say they often see themselves in the young men they teach, some of whom as teenagers are already addicts, dealers, thieves or assassins; some already have children of their own. Many, as Arellano says he was, are initially resistant to the idea of practicing yoga.
“Sometimes I see them, and I understand them,” Arellano said. “Hell, there is no problem, I tell them. Take it easy. Everything is going to be okay.”
Lauren Villagran is a freelance writer based in Mexico.