It started with an invitation from the Prison Phoenix Trust.
Actually, not this invitation. Yogamatters’ relationship with the Prison Phoenix Trust started eight months ago with an invitation to PPT to join the High Five Initiative, Yogamatters’ innovative scheme to support and encourage five great projects over a period of five years, projects which are all transforming lives, renewing hope and working for a better future, both here in the UK and around the world. In 2017, Yogamatters had the privilege of gifting yoga mats and yoga blocks to PPT to equip five new yoga classes being set up in prisons across the UK and Ireland.
And as you can see from this invitation, the Prison Phoenix Trust story goes way back beyond then. Over thirty years ago, in 1986, PPT founder Ann Wetherall was working on a research project with Sir Alister Hardy at the Religious Experience Research Centre investigating spiritual experiences arising from imprisonment. Through her correspondence with prisoners, Ann discovered that there was a spiritual hunger among prisoners that was not being met.
She felt if prisoners were introduced to disciplines like meditation and yoga, and supported in their efforts, they might feel differently about themselves.
With this as its aim, The Prison Phoenix Trust was registered as a charity in July 1988, and the work continues to be funded solely by donations. Our History, PPT
This was what we all gathered to celebrate in the wonderful historic setting of the Oxford Union’s Goodman Library. Faithful supporters of the Trust mingled with PPT staff and many of the PPT volunteers. Ex-prisoners were there too and yoga teachers currently delivering yoga and meditation to prisoners all over the UK and Ireland. Everyone you spoke to had a story to tell, about how PPT had touched their life in some way, like the woman who’d been donating to PPT ever since she heard a radio interview about PPT as a student with not a lot of money to spare and the ex-prisoner who’d been incarcerated eight times and had turned his life around by developing a regular yoga and meditation practice and the Phys Ed teacher who worked in a prison and trained as a yoga teacher specifically to bring the benefits of yoga to her prisoners…
Oxfordshire’s Lord-Lieutenant, Tim Stevenson OBE, formally welcomed everyone with a short introduction to PPT, describing the vital role the Trust has played in the criminal justice system in the UK as of ‘immeasurably powerful value to society,’ He reminded us of the richly deserved Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service awarded to PPT in 2011. In his mind, there is no doubt that impulsiveness has been reduced, physical and mental health improved and consequently fewer victims of crime as a result of attendance at the 177 yoga classes in 91 prisons across the UK and Ireland.
PPT Patron Jeremey Irons reinforced all that Tim Stevenson had said by reading excerpts from some letters between prisoners and PPT volunteers. But first, he answered the question that I would have put to him if I’d had the opportunity to do so.
‘I often get asked ‘Why?’ ‘Why Prison Phoenix Trust?’ And I reply ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ That is always my answer. That has always been my reason why.’ Jeremy Irons
The Prison Phoenix Trust is currently in contact with 6310 prisoners: prisoners like Mark who writes that his yoga class has been ‘the most informative and educational experience I have ever had’ and ‘universally applicable to us all’.
The PPT’s approach is wonderfully simple: to encourage each individual to use their own body, breath and mind to see the world in a different way. Jeremy Irons has experienced that for himself, having been introduced to the healing work of meditation by PPT’s second Director, Catholic nun and Zen master Sister Elaine MacInnes. Yoga and meditation work.
The PPT has a small team of 9 employees and relies upon its network of volunteers and supporters to enable it to continue this transformational work. There is a huge demand for yoga and meditation in prisons across the UK. There is a colossal amount of work to be done. This is where current director of the PPT, Sam Settle, picked up the conversation to elaborate further on the work to be done.
We also respond to the ever changing needs coming from prisons themselves. So for example, the team from the Prison Service set up to reduce suicide has asked us to collaborate with them, as they try to get to grips with this terrible problem which we hear about so much in the news.
Growing public understanding of the benefits of yoga and meditation on mental health and the positive reputation that the PPT has among prison managers – both of these mean that what we offer is appreciated and put to work by the prison service for needs they identify, like suicide and self-harm.
The other area we are working on this year is classes for women. At the moment, only 4 of the 12 female prisons in England and Wales have yoga classes. We’ve been encouraged to apply for a government grant to give women prisoners more access to yoga classes, and met just last week with the person in charge of women’s prisons. He is fully behind this and we’ll be working with him and his team of mostly female governors to make this happen. PPT Director Sam Settle
After a toast from the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Councillor Jean Fooks, it was time for Jeremy Irons to cut the cake. After all, no celebration is complete without a cake. And this was some cake!
As representatives of Yogamatters, Twanna Doherty and I both felt privileged to have been a part of such a memorable event celebrating the fantastic work of this incredible organisation. We’re delighted that as part of our High Five Initiative, Yogamatters can continue to support the PPT both financially and with equipment for classes, raising awareness of PPT through the Yogamatters blog and offering customers the opportunity to donate to PPT at checkout.
As a writer, my head was spinning with the stories I’d heard snippets of during the Reception, as I reflected on the train back to London. I cannot wait to listen to these stories in more detail and to offer them to all of you as Yogamatters blogs. Watch this space!
To everyone involved in any way with the Prison Phoenix Trust, we thank you for all that you have achieved in the last thirty years and we cannot wait to see the transformational work that we know you will continue to undertake in the future.
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