KARACHI (Reuters) - Behind the high walls and gates of the only prison for women in Pakistan’s commercial hub, 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 program 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 program 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 program, their jail sentences are reduced by 15 days.
Pakistan, however, has no such incentive yet.
Yoga helped Chapra heal personally, too, when she felt lost and trapped by life.
Chapra 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 toward 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 feminine 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 program 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, told Reuters. 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.
Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ed Lane