Jailbird: Volunteer yoga instructor reaches out to women prisoners

Wardens report fewer incidents of violence.

Reuters August 18, 2011

KARACHI: Behind the high walls and gates of the only prison for women in the country’s commercial hub, Karachi, inmates such as Sadaf escape from prison every day - even if it’s only in her mind.

Small and thin, with friendly eyes set in a weathered face, Sadaf has been an inmate since 1998 after being convicted of kidnapping. But she says she’s much calmer and hopeful thanks to an innovative yoga programme for the prison’s inhabitants.

“Though my surroundings haven’t changed, my life has and I have yoga to be thankful for,” she said in an interview with Reuters in the prison courtyard.

Sadaf, along with other inmates, has been taking yoga classes from volunteer instructor Aisha Chapra for almost a year and a half as a way to cope with the rough life of prison.

Pakistan’s prisons have a reputation as brutal holding pens, but wardens and jail administrators praise the programme for calming the inmates and preparing them for eventual release. “I have seen a great change in the girls since they started doing yoga,” said Sheeba Shah, a police official and administrator of the prison. “They have become less stressful and you can see a more positive attitude.”

Chapra partly took her inspiration from the Bhopal Central Jail in India, which holds some of India’s most notorious convicts. Since yoga classes have started there, incidents of violence have dropped and inmates report a greater control over anger.

The Indian government gives prisoners an incentive to do yoga: for every three months they remain in the programme, their jail sentences are reduced by 15 days. Pakistan, however, has no such incentive yet.

Personal healing

Yoga helped Chapra heal personally, too, when she felt lost and trapped by life. She used to be a social worker in Toronto’s rougher neighborhoods, where she witnessed gang violence and drug abuse. But following the dissolution of her marriage, she returned to Pakistan in June 2009.

Looking for something to occupy herself, she turned to the ancient art of yoga. “Yoga helped me survive and provided me a lot of relief,” she said. “And because yoga was my way of healing, I figured I should help others learn to heal themselves, especially those who cannot afford to do so.”

So in October 2009, she offered to teach yoga to the inmates in Karachi, who have since responded enthusiastically.

“Yoga has given me peace of mind, it takes away all my tension,” said Yasmeen Arif, who has been in jail for the past three years for kidnapping. “Since we started yoga, with time, I have learned to channel my frustration and anger towards being more calm.”

Chapra also raises funds for the inmates so she can buy them small comforts. She started small, buying them yoga mats. Then she raised funds for items such as soap, shampoo and hygiene products. “I teach yoga at another location and the money I get from teaching, I divert the funds for what the inmates might need,” said Chapra.

Chapra’s students say the programme is vital to their present and future prospects. “I have become a yoga addict now,” said Sadaf, who says she is 24, but looks a decade older. She said she would be released next month and would continue practicing yoga. “I know now when I step outside, I have been enabled with the tools required to cope with everyday life,” said Sadaf.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2011.


sane | 11 years ago | Reply

Great job Aisha, I strongly believe God will help you and also I am willing to contribute my mite by way of contributing donation for your organisation; pl let me know the proper channels.

NAK | 11 years ago | Reply

Good job Aisha! Where many shy away from even acknowledging the presence of inmates rotting away in our jails, you took the courage to actually reaching out to them and trying to change their lives. I am very well aware of the healing powers of yoga. I hope that these women truely benefit from your efforts and continue practicing it once they are realeased........that's when they will really need it the most!

Its always heartening to see people like Aisha trying to make a difference to our otherwise wounded and bitter society. We need to support such individuals who are silently contributing to the society rather than the corrupt politicians who love to make irresponsible statements or play game blame on TV everyday.

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