Bram Williams has only had a few times when a female prisoner interrupted his yoga class. "I had one girl who really kicked off. She was a younger girl and quite agitated, I think a visit had been cancelled. She was very verbal, but at the end of the class she said to me 'You have to forgive me that's not how I normally am', and explained why she was upset.
"I was talking to one of the gym staff afterwards and she said, 'That's an absolute miracle that she came up to you and said that.' It was a sign that the meditation and yoga is working."
Williams, a softly spoken 43-year-old from west London, has been holding yoga classes in Holloway Prison, the biggest women's jail in Britain, for almost three years, after he became involved with the Prison Phoenix Trust (PPT). The charity's aim is to encourage prisoners to practice yoga and meditation both in class along with a teacher, but also in their own time, when they are often confined to their cells, with the help of the free materials that the Trust provides.
First established in 1988, the PPT now runs 131 classes in 77 secure institutions across the UK and Ireland, and although these include secure hospitals and immigration centres, the majority of classes are in prisons. While 50 percent of the organisation's funding comes from grants from charitable trusts, the other half is from private donations—Williams's first year at Holloway was paid for entirely by a single private donor, who wanted to fund a yoga class in a women's prison with the proviso that mediation was also taught. It was only after the prison saw the benefits of the weekly classes that Holloway agreed to take over the funding for the second year onwards.
Williams says that the size of the class varies from week to week, depending on what else is on offer to the women. "When there's a staff shortage the other activities aren't on, so I get everyone," he explains. "It can be quite frightening having 30 people standing in front of me." Usually he has about 10 to 16 women in the class and as Holloway Prison incorporates a young offenders institute, the age of attendees starts from 16 years old upward. "I do get a lot of youngsters, a lot of the young offenders, but that said we've had all sorts," Williams says. "I just to need to make sure that I balance the class so work the young, fit gym buddies quite hard and then take care of those who are slightly less able."
Despite the variety in the age and ability of those attending, one thing the inmates do have in common is their response to the class. "In my other classes [outside Holloway] when I tell people to practice at home, they always joke that I'm giving them homework," says Williams. "But in prison, they will come back the next week, saying: 'I tried what you said and it didn't work', or 'I tried what you said and it really worked, it helped me sleep.' They're confined for a lot of the time and they want something to do."
I suppose yoga gives you a connection, a connectedness with people, and I'm just taking it from there.
This is where the materials that the PPT provide also come into use. Due to lack of funding, Williams only meets with the women for a one and half hour class a week, so for the rest of the time the prisoners must practice alone. By keeping the teaching consistent with the materials provided in the books and CDs that the Trust distribute, the women can continue to learn and practice in their own time, despite having access to limited space.
A 2013 study by Oxford University found that yoga had psychological benefits for prisoners, including reducing their stress levels, improving their mental wellbeing and can even affect impulsive behaviours, but as Williams points out, there's more to it than that. "The one story I always get, the one thing everyone says is 'I sleep better.' That's pretty much across the board. Others have said it's given them just a little more self respect, and an ability to take a pause, or a beat before they react."
The closure of Holloway Prison, which was announced at the end of last year, will mark the end of Williams's classes, as the plans to relocate the majority of inmates to Surrey mean that they will no longer be in his catchment area. "The shutdown has all been very sudden really… I've not been given any official notifications whatsoever, it's all through talking to people on the ground."
He says that despite the poor conditions in the prison, some of the women are not keen to move. "There are a few prisoners who are gym orderlies who I chat to and they're upset because their families are going to have travel longer to visit them. One of them was saying she has two young daughters who will have to travel out to Surrey to visit her. She was kind of grieving, almost. It's going to be tough."
While PPT will continue their work in women's prisons across the UK, Williams has been considering his future and says it's most likely he'll move to a male prison as there are a number of them in his London catchment. For both Williams and the women he teaches, some of whom have been attending the classes for years, this will no doubt be a sad goodbye.
"I suppose yoga gives you a connection, a connectedness with people, and I'm just taking it from there. It's good to go in and meet these women face-to-face each week, look them in the eye, remember their names," he says. "I keep a little notebook so if someone tells me something like, they've got a visit next week or they're looking forward to seeing their children, I make a note so that next week I can ask them about it. And they're gobsmacked that someone remembers and that someone's taking an interest."
Before he hangs up the phone, Williams considers the importance of his classes as a man teaching women in the prison system. "The classes allows them to practice yoga and mindfulness but it also means they get to take a timeout from prison. It's a change of routine and a different way of being in their body for an hour and a half. The chance to breathe deeply and recognize who they are."