50 Reasons to Love Toronto: No.47, Freeing the Human Spirit teaches yoga in prisons

50 Reasons to Love Toronto: No.47, Freeing the Human Spirit teaches yoga in prisons

No.47 We teach yoga to convicts
(Image: Peter Arkle) 

Sister Elaine MacInnes is an 87-year-old Roman Catholic nun who is also a practising Zen master. While working in the Philippines during the Marcos regime, she led meditation sessions in jails, helping political prisoners endure the trauma of incarceration and torture. When she returned to Toronto, she decided to try it here. Her non-profit group, Freeing the Human Spirit, has since taught thousands of inmates to meditate and practise yoga, and currently offers regular classes taught by volunteers in 23 correctional facilities across the country.

At the Don Jail, inmates perform sun salutations between tables bolted to the floor in a common room. Classes are often interrupted or cancelled during lockdowns—not ideal conditions for finding your inner peace—but guards report lower rates of agitation, anxiety and violent behaviour after the sessions.