Yoga, Meditation, and Neoliberal Penality: Compliance or Resistance?

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(1) 47 –60
Political Research Quarterly
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920954537
Recent scholarly work has described mass incarceration
as “a serious normative blight” on American democracy
(Isaac 2015). Its specific features are by now well known:
the exponential rise in the penal population; the explosion
in incarceration of minorities, immigrants, and the poor;
the criminalization of nonviolent drug-related offenses; a
racialized regime where the structural rules guarantee
discriminatory results; and the legalized discrimination
and disenfranchisement that typically follow incarcera-
tion, leading to “stark and pernicious gradations of citi-
zenship” (Gottschalk 2016, 260).
Slow, incremental progress has been made in advanc-
ing toward a public consensus in which this state of affairs
is acknowledged as manifestly unjust. But even critics of
the system remain divided on several important questions.
This essay addresses two such debates, using the case of
yoga and meditation to illustrate what is at stake in these
disagreements, and their relevance for further challenges
to mass incarceration. The first debate is whether efforts
to challenge the prison system should focus on making
prisons more therapeutic and rehabilitative. Critics of a
reformed, more humane incarceration argue that “improve-
ments” to the system simply make incarceration more
efficient, not more just (Murakawa 2014). In her study of
a maximum-security unit, Lorna Rhodes (2004) asks a
prison administrator whether his efforts to make it more
humane could be used to support the continued use of
such prisons, working against systemic change. Critics
sometimes accuse reformists of repackaging an unjust
system through a “carceral humanism” in which prisons
are recast as sites of caring social service, whitewashing
the reality that they serve as sites for containing and con-
trolling marginalized populations (Kilgore 2014). The
second debate addresses whether those trapped in the sys-
tem should focus on improving themselves rather than on
challenging the system. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle
Alexander (2012, 215) notes, “it appears that those who
are trapped within it could have avoided it simply by not
committing crimes. Shouldn’t the focus be on improving
ourselves, rather than challenging a biased system?” Some
insist on a politics of personal responsibility in which
unraveling morals, poor choices, and lack of perseverance
best explain the current predicament. But others warn
that too much insistence on “better choices” and more
“individual responsibility” can downplay the systemic
dimensions of mass incarceration, ignoring society’s
954537PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920954537Political Research QuarterlyGodrej
1University of California, Riverside, USA
Corresponding Author:
Farah Godrej, University of California, Riverside, 900 University
Avenue, Riverside, CA 92521, USA.
Yoga, Meditation, and Neoliberal
Penality: Compliance or Resistance?
Farah Godrej1
In this essay, I argue that a normative commitment to dismantling mass incarceration requires us to examine the
effects of self-care and self-disciplinary practices within carceral spaces. I take up the specific case of the South Asian
traditions of yoga and meditation. Many critics have suggested that their practices can produce pacifying, politically
neutering effects through their emphases on non-judgment and non-reaction. They can teach acceptance of an unjust,
immiserating reality, seen as the result of individual responsibility or pathology, rather than of structural factors.
But others insist that yogic and meditative traditions can be interpreted to generate attention and resistance to
social injustice. I explore the conditions under which the therapeutic, rehabilitative forms of self-discipline taught by
these traditions reproduce neoliberal penality, encouraging the targets of mass incarceration to accept their own
responsibility for structurally unjust outcomes. I also explore conditions under which they may undermine such penal
logic by teaching attention and resistance to systemic inequity. Ultimately, the political meaning and effects of these
practices are ambiguous: they can render the carceral apparatus more habitable and acceptable, or ensure that the
tools of neoliberal penality are turned against the system itself.
neoliberal, penality, yoga, meditation, incarceration, prison, discipline, compliance, resistance

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