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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. – (File Photo)

KARACHI: 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 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.


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 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 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 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, 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.

Comments (17) Closed

converted Hindu Aug 18, 2011 04:38pm
Yoga was one of the things that changed me spiritually and made me realize my roots. But pray and tell me how do you guys do yoga without the chantings of OM which are very instrinsic to the whole yoga science?
Sanjeev Mishra Aug 18, 2011 07:35pm
Surprised to read this news.
Dr Wequar Ali Khan Aug 18, 2011 10:22pm
Yoga in Pakistan has now been practiced for years now.Chanting of OM has also been practiced, as it is name, of GOD which is common to all. It is the intent that is expressed through the medium of sound , if i am not mistaken;In English we close a prayer with word Amen which is same in Arabic as Ameen;
krishna prasad Aug 18, 2011 10:32pm
Yoga has become a household name in North America. In Canada and USA where I lived (of course I am in Canada now), yoga classes became an instant success due to its inner strengths- thereby cultivating practice of calming down your mind and heart and helping you to think differently in times of crises. Also it is known for therapies. You can check the steps to follow from `Ramdev Baba`videos (available in you tube). Many personal friends of Muslim faith are regularly following them for their personal benefit. Please take the available literature from internet and books and help yourself to become a healthy and wealthy individual in your life. It should be made part of the school Curriculam and it would help the kids immensely in their lives.
Mitra Maharaj Aug 19, 2011 01:23am
Converted Hindu is obviously trying to put a religious twist to a simple and inexpensive form of keeping fit. There is nothing in yoga that requires anyone to say OM or chant. It is all about exercising your muscles and being healthy. The benefits of Yoga is well documented in medical literature and the results speak for themselves as highlighted in this excellent article. Hopefully Pakistanis will avail themselves of this very simple exercise regimen and not be distracted overzealous religious types.
aatif Aug 19, 2011 02:30am
I've been practicing yoga for five long years. I learnt it when I was in US from Art of Living volunteers. And indeed the word OM carries very much energy and you loose a great part of the benefit if you miss it.
dhani Aug 19, 2011 10:50am
Its pleasant surpaise to know that some people practices yoga in islamic heartland,pakistan, which's considered HINDU PRACTICE by some hardcore muslims in india itself.
Converted Hindu Aug 19, 2011 02:45pm
No Mitra, I am not trying to add a religious twist here. And I honestly think, you need to go and check about the importance of OM chantings in Yoga. Am glad that Dr.Waqar and Aatif have understood the concept of energy in the chantings of OM. And one more thing, Yoga has originated and is intrinsic to the Indian subcontinent, and we should of course be proud of it.
SLDUA (Delhi) Aug 19, 2011 02:46pm
For supply of extra energy to my brain, I chant 'Om Hrin OM' repeatedly. Bhagwan Rajneesh (Osho)told us that the most powerful mantra is 'Allah Hu'. Since than, alongwith 'Om Hrin OM' I also chant 'Allah Hu'. I was Hindu and I am still a Hindu and will remain a Hindu for rest of my life. My Muslims brothers by keeping their faith in Islam, may also try yoga practices discarding inhibitions.
Unnikrishnan Namboot Aug 20, 2011 11:50am
The inventor of yoga is the Indian sage Pathanjali who lived in B.C .500. The concept of islam was not then. So yoga cannot be treated as some thing belong to India or to Hindus. It belongs to all. Unnikrishnan Namboothiri ,oachira,Kerala ,India.
vwpradhan Aug 21, 2011 07:17am
yoga is is wrongly braketed with hindu religion by il informed and religious fanatics. every one should try and practice it for his/her and society's mental and spiritual health.cathlics frown on it but individuals pracice it uninhibited and rightly too.
Sham Aug 21, 2011 10:16am
It is the contibution of Hindu to world society. It is the part of Brahma to play with/for happier life. I hope accepting this will make more Muslim to understand about the theory for live and let live.
vnarayan Aug 21, 2011 10:41pm
Something at last to unite us! ? (though we ignore Our shared heritage: languages, religions, customs origins and corruption!)
roquefort Aug 23, 2011 06:42am
To add-all forms of exercises release endorphines which are the body's natural stress-relieving hormones.
Muhammad Hanif Aug 24, 2011 06:27pm
It's not only Sanjeev who is "Surprised". I am totally Surprised to read this news as well. In a Muslim country where our creator has awarded us with outstanding reward of "Namaz" Prayer, we are looking into otherways of getting satisfaction? Namaz is being performed around the world, name a place on earth where Namaz is not being performed and is the best way of getting satisfaction. What else can be more satisfied and relaxing than turning back to your Lord?
Saadia moosa Aug 25, 2011 02:57am
Hats off to Aisha Chapra who has become a source of inspiration and joy to the women in Karachi jail. What a fantastic and brave venture for a young girl who could have been busy making money and focusing only on her own self. We need more people like Aisha who stop complaining and start making a difference by offering whatever it is that they themselves can offer. May Allah reward you for your efforts in both worlds.
SadiaSaboor Aug 26, 2011 02:47pm
Great work! I am sure it is very rewarding for Aisha as well.