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Yoga Improves Mental Health Behind Bars, Prisoner Study

Update Date: Jul 11, 2013 03:46 PM EDT

Yoga may improve mood and mental wellbeing among prisoners, according to a new study.

Researchers at Oxford University say that the meditation exercise may also help prisoners control impulsive behavior.

The study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that prisoners reported improved mood, reduced stress and were better at a task related to behavior control after a ten-week yoga course.

"We found that the group that did the yoga course showed an improvement in positive mood, a decrease in stress and greater accuracy in a computer test of impulsivity and attention," researchers Dr. Amy Bilderbeck and Dr. Miguel Farias wrote in the study. "'The suggestion is that yoga is helpful for these prisoners."

"This was only a preliminary study, but nothing has been done like this before. Offering yoga sessions in prisons is cheap, much cheaper than other mental health interventions. If yoga has any effect on addressing mental health problems in prisons, it could save significant amounts of public money," Bilderbeck said in a news release.

Mental health problems among prisoners are significantly higher than the general population.  However, yoga and meditation have been shown to be beneficial in reducing anxiety, depression and improving mood in other areas and settings.

Researchers recruited prisoners from a women's prison and a young offender institution.  The prisoners were randomly assigned to either a course of ten weekly yoga sessions of 90 minutes or to a control group.

All participants in the study completed standard psychology questionnaires measuring mood, stress, impulsivity and mental wellbeing. A computer test to measure attention and the participant's ability to control his or her responses to an on-screen cue was also used after the yoga course.

The computer test revealed that yoga improved behavior control.  Researchers said the study results may have implications for managing aggression, antisocial or problem behavior in prisons and on return to society.

"We're not saying that organizing a weekly yoga session in a prison is going to suddenly turn prisons into calm and serene places, stop all aggression and reduce reoffending rates. We're not saying that yoga will replace standard treatment of mental health conditions in prison," said Bilderbeck.

"But what we do see are indications that this relatively cheap, simple option might have multiple benefits for prisoners' wellbeing and possibly aid in managing the burden of mental health problems in prisons," she added.

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