The big game of catching wild elephants is called 'kheda'. In this game, domesticated and trained elephants are used to catch and subjugate wild elephants. These domesticated and trained elephants were once wild elephants themselves. This process is similar to preparing a vaccine by using the germs of the very disease. Why not then give yoga training to hardened criminals serving different sentences in jail, and later on use them in taming and training other criminals? Often instead of improving after serving a sentence in jail, the offender actually becomes a more seasoned and hardened criminal. Imprisonment does not improve him. In most cases it merely starts an ongoing cycle of crime and jail, jail and more crime, more crime and more jail. With a view to extricate the criminal from this vicious circle and thereby salvage the entire society from the menace of crime, it was proposed to try an experiment with yoga on the criminals.
For this purpose, the authorities of Central Jail, Thane, Maharashtra, were approached and a compact two week yoga program was chalked out. Eighty prisoners, serving various sentences, participated.
After completion of the program, a valediction session was arranged and an excellent demonstration of yogasanas was performed by the eighty prisoners. The Divisional Inspector General was impressed by the demonstration and even more so by the experiences narrated by the prisoners themselves. Among other things, the prisoners related how they started getting sound sleep hitherto unknown to them. Their digestion had improved, in spite of coarse jail food, and bad thoughts stopped entering their minds. It was therefore decided to run yoga classes on a regular basis.
With the induction of regular yoga classes, transformation taking place in the minds of prisoners started becoming visible slowly but surely. The authorities of Central Jail were kept in constant touch and the progress report received from them was quite surprising. The prisoners stopped indulging in acts of rowdiness, beating, abusing. Such incidents are rampant in jails and the authorities have a tough time in dealing with these acts of indiscipline. Some prisoners asked for books on yoga and started studying themselves. Some started practising certain asanas not taught in classes. The transformation in prisoners was gradual but definite. The whole atmosphere of the prison changed and it started to have a different look.
Thus, the last phase of the program, which was still more difficult, was reached. It was decided to expose a few selected prisoners to advanced training which would qualify them to become yoga teachers so that they could keep the flag of yoga flying in jails even after the program was completed. 'Don't give me fish, but teach me how to catch fish' was the principle behind this idea.
Permission of the government was obtained to train selected prisoners to become yoga teachers. Although all prisoners expressed desire for the advanced teachers training, only thirteen were selected. They were serving life sentences for crimes like murder and dacoity.
Thus, on the auspicious day of Vijaya Dashmi, 2nd October 1976, the advanced training for Yoga Teachers started in Central Jail of Thane with the selected prisoner-participants. During the course of this training the prisoners were asked to practise teaching in small groups and their progress was carefully watched. They were supplied with notes useful for their lessons. On the day of examination the enthusiasm of all the participants reached its peak. Some of them had learned by heart the entire book of yoga given to them. The result was astounding. All passed the examination successfully. Eight, out of thirteen, secured 1st class. The ceremony of awarding certificates was arranged in the Central Jail premises with about 1000 prisoners present. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Minister for Jails sent special messages recognising the importance of this unique experiment.
It was decided that these specially trained yoga teachers should not remain all in one jail but should be spread out in other jails for multiplying themselves and propagating the message of yoga. The jail authorities gladly accepted the suggestion and teachers were sent to other jails like Paithan, Visapur, Ratnagiri, Yerwada, Amraoti and Dhulia. Thus, by introducing yoga into the local jail, a beneficial cycle was started through which the prisoners of all the jails of Maharashtra could be benefited and reformed.
The yoga demonstrations of prisoners performed under the guidance of the prisoner-yoga teachers has become one of the main attractions of the Thane prison. The DIG of prisons was especially present along with the prisoner-yoga teachers at the All India Yoga Conference 1978 conducted at Thane. He related the yoga experiment on prisoners in detail and also explained the transformation that had taken place not only in prisoners but also in the general atmosphere of the jail. The prisoners no longer made a nuisance of themselves as they had before, but carried on with the work allotted to them peacefully. His talk was vociferously applauded by the pandal of 3100 delegates from all over India.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati, who presided over this conference visited Central Jail, Thane at this time and expressed satisfaction with the conducting of yogasana classes by prisoners.
The transformation made by yoga is not confined to prisoners alone. The entire outlook of the Government and police and prison officials has undergone transformation and new vistas have opened in the area of improving prisons and prisoners.
In February 1982, members of Ghantali Mitra Mandal visited the Yerwada Central Prison, Pune to watch the yoga classes conducted there. One prisoner-yoga teacher, Mr. Namdev Hasnaji Shivabhakta, who passed the Yoga Teachers examination while undergoing his sentence in the Thane Central Prison, was especially transferred to Yerwada Prison in May 1977 to conduct yoga classes for prison inmates.
At the time of this visit, Mr. Shivabhakta was out on parole. In his absence, the class was conducted by a prison inmate, Mr. Bimal Narayan Adhikari. The asanas demonstrated by the inmates were flawless and attractively presented. After the demonstration some participants narrated their experiences and the transformation they underwent since starting yoga. We feel they are worth recounting in brief.
These experiences are a standing testimony to the transformation which yoga sadhana can bring about. 'Mass prayer provided a happy finale to the program.