Front row, Orville Sherman and Fenesad Hamidovic practice a Hatha Yoga posture during a session at The Enlightened Sentencing Project, an alternative sentencing program that uses meditation and yoga to help rehabilitate offenders on probation and parole.
Novembe


ST. LOUIS — It was a routine business conference for the judge: Agendas. Handshakes. Business cards.

But then something kind of mystical happened.

David Mason was approached by a man wearing a crisp suit with a neatly pointed kerchief in his breast pocket. In a measured Indian accent, the man said he too was a lawyer and knew all about the judge and his enlightened views on criminal rehabilitation. He wanted to tell him about the power of meditation in prisons.

The man was Farrokh Anklesaria. He was a direct student of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and he'd been sent around the world by him to bring meditation to convicts. He'd been to Switzerland, Senegal, Kenya, Brazil and Sri Lanka. And by a mixture of circumstances — and perhaps Karma — he had landed in Missouri.
 
Anklesaria, a native of Mumbai who chose meditation over his family's legacy in law, hadn't had much luck in other parts of the country. He had heard that Mason was a proponent of alternative sentencing, and he wanted his help to start a meditation program for criminal offenders in Missouri.

"I thought he was crazy at first," recalled Mason, a circuit judge in the city of St. Louis.

That was 14 years ago. With the backing of Mason and other judges ranging from the circuit court to the federal bench and the Missouri Supreme Court, Anklesaria has become the region's guru for training parolees in meditation.

His non-profit Enlightened Sentencing Project provides 20 weeks of instruction in Transcendental Stress Management for parolees who have committed a gamut of crimes, including drunken driving, assault and theft.

Numerous studies point to the health benefits of Transcendental Meditation, including one by the National Institutes of Health that indicates regular meditation decreases high blood pressure and depression. Other studies find merits in meditation programs done in prisons — places that Anklesaria calls "areas of concentrated stress."

But as of yet, no one has formally studied Anklesaria's program. He's calculated that of the hundreds who have completed the program, only 6 percent have returned to crime.
 
His students meet downtown in a musty meeting room at the Centenary United Methodist Church. After several Yoga poses on mats, participants silently chant a private mantra in a circle of frayed wingback chairs and worn couches.

"The experience is one of very, very deep physiological rest," explained Anklesaria, now a resident of Ferguson.

He said the practice enables clients to conquer the anxiety that leads many to addictions, depression or rage —things that can drive them back to crime.

Meditation works, he said, because it makes no attempt to counsel the offenders.

"This is the magic," he said. "No matter how much he (or she) has sunk down in the mud and dust of his environment, once he has started on this path, the process itself will cleanse him of his stress."

One of his clients, Clark Moore, was facing seven years in prison for domestic assault because he blew the terms of his sentencing for fighting. He said St. Louis Judge Philip Heagney gave him a choice: probation with meditation or go to jail. Moore said he had no self-control. But meditation is changing that.

When a relative recently stole money from him, he said he kept his temper.

"I just called it a loss," he said minutes after he and 16 other participants sat so still in their chairs meditating, the room filled with the hushed whoosh of lungs inhaling and exhaling.

Graduate Mark Edwards — a man who said he once kidnapped his child in a raging custody dispute —said he now meditates twice daily and three times on nights when he DJs at local clubs. It rids him of his anger and chronic headaches, he said.

"With me being so mad, I was either going to get killed or get sent to jail," he said.

Donations support the program. Anklesaria, who earns about $30,000 a year from it, gets no local, state or federal funding, though several judges said he should.

Henry Autrey, a federal judge for the Eastern District of Missouri, said repeat offenders plagued his former bench in the St. Louis circuit court. When he began referring parolees to Enlightened Sentencing, he didn't expect much. But then they started passing drug tests. The offenders also did a better job grooming themselves and most had "an apparent sense of calm in their eyes," he said.

"It's a beautiful thing to watch and observe when you hear people talking about their experiences who are calm, straightforward, plain-talking and plain-thinking without any confusion," he said. "Months before, they would have never been in a position to do anything like that."

St. Louis Circuit Judge Lisa Van Amburg said at first she referred nonviolent convicts who were close to maxing-out on the three-strikes rule in Missouri. But the results were so impressive, she changed course.

"I started sending people as a last resort, and now I'm sending them as a first."

But perhaps the Enlightened Sentencing Project's biggest proponent is Mason. Despite initial skepticism, he was drawn to the concept. He could relate to the ravages of stress from his own childhood, he said.

As a teenager, Mason dropped out of school and roamed the tough streets of New York City. He said he spent his adult life amazed that his childhood led him to a judgeship, not jail.

"It wasn't until I started to research meditation that I identified I was born with unique stress-coping skills," he said. "That's when I realized not everyone has the same stress-coping skills."

Anklesaria has been so persuasive to judges, he's taught many to meditate, including Supreme Court Justice Michael Wolff.

"The only thing you have to know and accept is that it all happens from within you," Wolff said. "And you have to allow it to take you inside yourself."
 
 
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