Instructor Rory Bradshaw teaches yoga in prison – here’s how he’s inspiring the most sceptical men to give it a go…
Prisons are loud, chaotic places, full of constant interruptions such as dogs barking, doors slamming and keys turning in locks.
As a prison yoga teacher, Rory Bradshaw is competing with all of these elements to bring the men in his class to focus inwards. “It’s always a challenge in the first few minutes with all the energies they bring into the room,” says the softly-spoken 31-year-old.
But through a combination of asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation he says it’s remarkable how you can create an immense sense of stillness in a prison yoga class.
“Which is the exact same feeling I had after my first yoga class. It doesn’t matter where you are, the power of the practice is that it can transfer to any environment.”
That might be so, but first, he has to overcome resistance and scepticism to get inmates on their mats in the first place. “Yoga is for girls”, “I’m not flexible”, and “It’s not for me”, are the typical excuses.
In a macho environment, no one wants to appear vulnerable. But it is this conception of masculinity that Bradshaw has made it his mission to upset. And he wants men everywhere to change their minds about yoga.
“If I can get guys in prison to do yoga, then I can get men elsewhere to try,” he says. “I hope to be the reason that men got into yoga in this country because there remains a huge gender imbalance.”
With his shaved head and muscular physique, I can see why he sometimes gets mistaken for a fellow prisoner rather than the teacher: “Sometimes when I’m standing there before class, someone will ask me what I’m in for,” he admits.
But the reality is that Bradshaw enjoyed the kind of middle-class upbringing that rarely leads to an acquaintance with the inside of a prison cell. Growing up in Oxford, he played football, rugby and cricket. Home was loving with supportive parents.
At age 13 things changed when Bradshaw was mugged by two men after school. While it’s the sort of experience that’s sadly all too common for children in big cities, the experience blindsided him.
“I was scared to go out of the house for a couple of months and without thinking about it consciously, I started to build myself up at home, doing press ups and sit-ups,” he says.
It was the early days of YouTube and Bradshaw took inspiration from hyper-masculine, New York gym culture, men doing calisthenic body-weight exercises in the park.
Slowly his physique changed and “I started getting treated a little bit differently. It became an added part of my identity: ‘Oh, Rory’s a bit more muscular’.”
But what he enjoyed was the inner confidence training gave him. From calisthenics and weight-lifting he took up kickboxing, and in his second year at the University of Bristol studying Geography, he ran the boxing club; enjoying a sport that was about how to be the best version of yourself, rather than the competition of a team sport.
And, he reflects: “The discipline training gave me helped me to be a better person in my wider life, with my studies and relationships.”
After graduating, knowing he wanted to do charity work, Bradshaw started working in a pupil exclusion unit back home in Oxford. By integrating fitness into his mentoring he hoped he could give them the same confidence and consistency it had given him in his life.
Teacher training at University College London (UCL) followed, where he was the first person on the course to do his placement in a pupil referral unit.
That he would dedicate his life to those in society who are hardest to reach seemed set; volunteering in a prison mentoring someone coming up to their release, and running a discussion and critical thinking group in Loughborough Junction, near Brixton.
It took months for the teenagers to be convinced he wasn’t an undercover policeman, “but consistency and showing up worked”.
He took them to see Parliament. And to brunch in Chelsea to show them the way the other half lives. “They realised it isn’t all that. They were really unimpressed with that food,” he smiles.
Yoga at this point was something he thought was for women. After all, at the community centre in Battersea where he ran the youth group, it was mostly mums who went to the free yoga classes.
Whenever he stayed late, overlapping with the yoga class, the teachers would entice him to come along. Finally, he acquiesced.
In his first class, Bradshaw burst into tears during savasana (the relaxation period at the end). “It had given me the space to connect to my inner world and notice my emotions and give them space to come through. I didn’t realise at the time, but I’d been suppressing them for years.
“Partly because of the stress and trauma you take on by working with traumatised people, but also grief because my dad had passed away in the year previous to me starting to work there. We had been very close, he was my best friend,” he says.
While Mr Bradshaw thought he was grieving, he realised he’d been throwing himself into those self-care skills he’d always relied on, the gym and boxing. Something was missing. “I wasn’t giving space for softness and stillness.”
Yoga gave him that. He was hooked. Still, when he was offered a scholarship to teach yoga, he thought it was too soon, that he was too inexperienced. But when his teachers said that they’d like him to join their prison yoga teaching team, he was sold.
In the years since he’s learnt how hard it can be to get prisoners to do the same thing. When he walks into a prison a lot depends on the regime of the day. “Are things running smoothly or are they short-staffed? Most of the time they are,” says Bradshaw.
“Are the guys going to be let out on time? Do they have legal or family visits? Would they rather go to the gym or hang with their mates? You’ve got to convince a very sceptical guy to do yoga.”
Sometimes, boys he’s worked with in youth groups turn up in prison years later. “There’s a sad inevitability about that due to the structures of our society, which mean that some people are more likely to go to prison,” says Bradshaw. He recalls it happening with a boy, only 19, who had been part of his youth discussion group.
“I was rounding up the guys for yoga and there was a familiar face. It was a strange feeling, being happy to see him but hating that it was in here.”
The boy was exhibiting many of the signs of stress associated with being in prison for the first time. “Hypervigilance and inability to hold eye contact, looking around for threat the whole time.” Bradshaw convinced him to come to yoga and for the first 20 minutes of the class he was agitated.
“But at some point along the way he was able to drop into the practice and I could feel him breathing a bit deeper. If only for a few minutes he was in a different headspace and physically relaxed.”
Bradshaw’s challenge is to cultivate an environment where the men feel comfortable trying and the classes are open to anyone from age 19 to 70. He also teaches the prison staff “who have a tremendously stressful job”.
Another defining moment was when his regular prison inmates suggested a man, who the previous day had tried to take his life, join them for class. “Afterwards he told me how much more at ease he felt. But what really struck me was that the other guys had recognised how he might benefit from what yoga offers.”
Earlier this year Bradshaw started posting on his Instagram (@rorybradshaw__) more regularly, telling stories from his own fitness and wellness journey. His friends and mentors had been encouraging him to share more, but naturally shy, Bradshaw wasn’t convinced. When he finally did, he says: “It was another way to explore being vulnerable, putting myself out there, and it turned out I really was, because people were watching it.”
He now has 92,000 followers on Instagram and 79,000 on TikTok (@rorybradshaw_). Consequently, he often gets recognised on the street. It’s been quite the shift for someone so used to being the quiet guy in the background helping others. But seeing the impact of telling his story has driven him to keep posting. “Guys stop me and say they love my honest approach to fitness and wellbeing. The best thing I get told is, ‘I’ve just tried my first yoga class because of you.’”
While there’s been the “Broga” trend, Bradshaw feels like it failed to get to the core of what yoga offers. “As far as I can see, that just took hyper-masculinity and stuck it onto yoga and put a lot of one-armed handstands and extremely difficult postures at the centre. That’s not what I want to do.”
At the same time, he’s witnessed a shift away from the male mindset towards fitness being the pursuit of a ripped aesthetic towards one that prioritises longevity and living pain-free, mentally and physically. His hope is that by role modelling on social media as a man who enjoys traditional masculine pursuits but also talks about therapy and even naked yoga, he can show that it isn’t weak to be vulnerable or feminine to do yoga.
And that you don’t have to be hyper-flexible to do yoga. Although, when we meet for our shoot at yoga studio Mission E1 it’s evident that Bradshaw’s no slouch; there’s none of that stereotypical immobile shoulders you associate with muscly guys.
Bradshaw practises yoga anything from zero to six times a week, favouring a strong vinyasa practice. What he offers in his own classes won’t intimidate beginners – but will also engage those who’ve been practising awhile.
The decision to launch PILLA, a men’s yoga club in London Fields, wasn’t about creating a “boys’ club” but rather a space for men to get upside down, get stronger and flexible, and maybe also benefit their mental and physical wellbeing.
Bradshaw’s ambition includes progressing yoga throughout the entire prison system. “The need and the benefit is so obvious,” he says. “If my mission is to equip men to take better care of themselves and reimagine what an active life looks like and to live more mindfully, then men in prison are as much within that realm as guys in East London.”