The symbol of the phoenix rising up out of the ashes of its past resonates deeply with John Graham. The phoenix builds a nest from its past actions and the burns away all the dross, fuelling that which is pure and authentic to be set free. John sees this as a great image for sentence-serving prisoners, believing wholeheartedly that lives can be transformed and renewed. He knows it to be true because it has been true for him.
If you were to meet John Graham in a café in Oxford as I did, I’m certain you would never begin to imagine the life that he has led. He’s a charming gentleman, attentive and polite, a great story teller. And the inspirational story that he has to tell is his own.
When he looks back over the course of his life, John’s biggest regret is that he didn’t try hard enough to pass the 11+. That was a defining moment for him. Things could have turned out so differently if he’d gone to the grammar school. Wondering about that ‘What if..?’ and the difference a classical education could have made saddens John.
John was born in Carlisle into a family with a disciplined military background. He grew up on an estate where petty crime was the norm. He was smoking and drinking and stealing at a young age, without any understanding that he was doing anything wrong. He was sent to a remand home at 12, then approved school, then borstal – institutions with Victorian values that all included severe corporal punishment. At 19, John hitchhiked all the way to Australia to get as far away from home as possible. He discovered a different side to himself out there, a happier, healthier side, but after he’d returned to the UK for his father’s second marriage, he never went back.
He made a life for himself in London, smoking and smuggling hashish and then other illegal substances. When he was introduced to LSD, he found enlightenment but knew that taking drugs was not the way he wanted to achieve enlightenment, so he started to research and study different paths. He committed to the practice of yoga, whilst still living and working as part of the criminal underworld. His delusional thinking meant that he could justify what he was doing, and he felt no guilt.
It was when he spent time in prison in Pakistan for drug smuggling that he befriended a local yoga guru and his imprisonment became a vital formative experience. However, on returning to London, he returned to his old life and soon became a heroin addict. When he was arrested and imprisoned as he passed through Germany with drugs, he requested a single cell, which he was granted due to his chronic anxiety, and he developed a structured yoga and meditation practice as he adapted to the solitude. When everything had been stripped away, John discovered the spiritual value of austerity and discipline. Later in prison in the UK, he came across a copy of Inside Time and became involved with a treatment programme, in which abstinence was a core condition, known as Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust.
In yoga and meditation, John Graham finally found the inspiration to turn his life around. Yoga had accompanied John on life’s journey. He’d practised on his own from a young age. Books were his teacher. He’d learnt Yoga Nidra from a book. In Brixton Prision, the only book in his cell when he arrived was ‘Teach Yourself Yoga’. That single cell in Germany gave him the opportunity to persevere and develop precise focus and dynamism, whilst not searching for anything in particular. And then 30 years ago in Pentonville Prison, he came across the book ‘We’re all doing time’ with a Prison Phoenix Trust label in the front. John connected with Ann Weatherall when she was conducting her research in Oxford Prison into using the time and the space of a prison sentence to develop spiritual progress, which had developed into the Prison Phoenix Trust. They continued to correspond until John’s release. He loved what she was doing and the way she encouraged him in his own path.
He found it hard to adjust to life on the outside. In the past, he’d always reverted to old behaviours. He’d never had any good role models in his life and having spent his teenage years in institutions, he’d never learnt how to maintain a healthy relationship. He enrolled in a counselling course and became a full time counsellor specialising in addiction. Other prisoners listened to him because he had walked their path. He knew what they were going through for himself. He was finally discovering the purpose he was born for.
Now John lives alone in Bournemouth and still meditates twice a day, practises yoga every day and lives a mindful life. He describes himself as very old school. He’s gone right back to the very beginning, the roots and classical traditions of yoga, the science of yoga. He faces anxiety about where he should be and what he should be doing. And so he’s developed a structured, disciplined life in which he lives within his means. He has his own faith, his own understanding of theology, in which his Catholic upbringing and his fascination with Vedanta and Buddhist theology and philosophy co-exist peaceably. He accepts that inspiration and ecstasy that are transcendent beyond words are expressed in devotional practice such as prayers and rituals and symbolic acts, which then leads on naturally into service for others. John wants to be of service to others. That is his over-riding desire. He has a heart for prisoners that he is unable to do anything about at the moment.
Tragically, John cannot take his restorative work into prisons any more. Due to changes in regulations, his previous convictions have resulted in a barring order, which John appealed but still stands. It’s been over twenty years since John’s last conviction and yet the consequences of his past make it hard for John to find any work. Being prevented from doing the work he believes he was born to do is heartbreaking for John.
A prison sentence is a punishment in itself. A prisoner’s freedom to come and go as he pleases is removed. We take this freedom for granted. Living without it can be a torment. Prisoners are separated from those they love. They have time to think about all the they have done wrong and all the hurt that they have inflicted.
It takes a special kind of heart to see the best in prisoners, to see who they really are beneath their crime, their sentence, their incarceration. Belief in the goodness of the human spirit leads to belief in change. Connecting human to human with those who are locked away and forgotten by society changes lives.
I meet with John before we are both due to attend the 30th Anniversary celebration of the Prison Phoenix Trust. John is excited about the event. He’s looking forward to reconnecting with people he’s met along the way. Most of all, he’s looking forward to celebrating this great work, which takes yoga and meditation into prisons all over the UK and Ireland. No one knows better than John the life-changing impact yoga and meditation can make in a prison setting.
Yoga and meditation changed John Graham’s life. They are continuing a transformational work in John’s life every single day.
He yearns for every prisoner to be given the opportunity to discover the power of yoga and meditation for themselves.
Read more: yogamatters.com