Prison SMART: Using Breath to Manage Stress  

by Jeanine Campbell          

From PHN Issue 18, Fall 2013

   Prison Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training (Prison SMART) is a simple program that teaches a breathing technique designed to reduce stress, heal past trauma, and provide ways to handle negative emotions such as anger, guilt, and frustration. Started by the International Association for Human Values (IAHV), Prison SMART is active in prisons in over 36 countries and in 30 state, county, and federal correctional institutions across the U.S. The program is also adapted for correctional staff, the formerly incarcerated, and people in halfway houses, on parole or probation, and in juvenile justice programs.  

   SMART teaches a yogic breathing technique known as Sudarshan Kriya, or SKY, in an 18-hour course over about a week. Participants practice the techniques daily on their own and are supported by weekly follow-up sessions. Developed in 1980 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, SKY suggests that stress comes from regret for the past and worry about the future. SKY aims to improve sleep patterns, physical immunity, energy levels, clarity of thought, self-confidence, and self-control.

   Why It Works: A review this year of studies in medical journals found evidence that SKY releases hormones like oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin, which promote feelings of well-being and security. This allows your body to reverse the physical effects of stress. One study showed that SKY reduced anxiety, fear, and rapid reaction to provocation among youth incarcerated for violent offenses, indicating that it can help lessen violence in prison.

   The review found that SKY was particularly useful in healing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur after trauma that involves the threat of injury or death. Many incarcerated individuals experience a form of PTSD similar to what victims of crime experience. PTSD creates a whole-body response to stressful situations that leads to erratic, disruptive behaviors and an enhanced “flight or fight” reaction. SKY attempts to create a “corrective emotional experience” to heal negative thinking patterns that keep people trapped in a cycle of violence. The positive feelings produced in the body and mind by the breathing technique make it easier for people to control their emotions and PTSD symptoms. With practice and time, this allows them to change the way they deal with others in stressful situations. 

   Prison SMART only takes referrals from correctional administrators. If you are interested in this program, ask an administrator or counselor to contact the International Association for Human Values.

SKY Breathing Basics

Sit comfortably with your hands on your lap and your back straight. It helps to have a clock that counts seconds nearby.
Step 1: Ujjayi (victorious breath). To control your breathing pattern, tighten your throat as if you were going to fog up a mirror. Try it first with your mouth open, then through your nose. Inhale and exhale very slowly, and stay aware of the feeling of breath touching your throat. Spend 15 to 30 seconds on a round of inhalation and exhalation, taking 2 to 4 full breaths per minute.

Step 2: Bhastrika (bellows breath). This breath comes from your diaphragm. To find your diaphragm, open your mouth, stick your tongue out like a lion, and say “HA!” The muscle you just used to say “HA!” is your diaphragm. For Bhastrika, take approximately 30 rapid breaths per minute, deeply and forcefully through your nose. Your inhale and exhale should be of even lengths, with no break in between breaths. You should be able to hear your breaths. Your head, neck, shoulders, and chest should stay mostly still while your belly moves, pumping your breath.
Step 3: Kriya (purifying breath). Take several long, deep breaths: 10 or 15 seconds per breath. As you breathe in, direct the energy of the breath into the middle of your chest toward your “heart center.” Imagine this energy flowing from the back of your head, through the base of your skull, and into your heart. As you exhale, imagine the flow of energy reversing itself.

Step 4: Om. Finish with the repeated chant of “om,” causing vibrations in the abdomen, chest and throat.

Repeat this cycle of steps three times.

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