Yoga, meditation uplift prisoners' spirits in Dubai

Saman Haziq/Dubai
Filed on October 11, 2018 | Last updated on October 11, 2018 at 07.00 am
Inmates in Argentina do breathing exercises and meditation as part of the Prison SMART healing programme. —Supplied photo
Inmates in Argentina do breathing exercises and meditation as part of the Prison SMART healing programme. -Supplied photo

Dubai prison inmates said they could now sleep better, think more clearly, and are beginning to take responsibility for their actions.

Prison life can be quite stressful as, suddenly, one's freedom is curbed, cut off from friends and family, and put along a different lot of people whom an inmate may or may not like. Aiming to calm the nerves and imbue the prisoners with optimism, the International Association for Human Values (IAHV) has been running a unique programme called Prison Stress Management and Rehabilitation Training (Prison SMART), supported by the Dubai government's Community Development Authority (CDA).

Hundreds of inmates in Dubai have found new optimism to start afresh as they turn to Prison SMART healing methods such as yoga, pranayama, and other breathing techniques to get rid of stress.

Talking about how the programme was implemented in Al Awir Central Jail in Dubai, IAHV instructor Rajeev R. Veedu said: "We undertake a week-long programme in the prison where we teach batches of 40-50 inmates breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga asanas. The two-and-a-half-hour sessions are hosted by two IAHV teachers, along with a couple of volunteers, CDA officials as well as under the supervision of police supervisors. We use a three-pronged approach for the inmates, which helps them release their trauma through breathing exercises as our emotions are connected to our breath. We then teach them meditation and yoga for physical and mental well-being."

Talking about the marked difference he noticed in the inmates, Rajeev added: "By the end of the week-long programme, they become very sincere and disciplined. They feel happy and exhilarated and that's what brings us back to them repeatedly so we can revise and follow up the practice with them."

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of IAHV, said: "Inside every culprit, there is a victim crying for help. That person is also a victim of ignorance, small-mindedness, and lack of awareness. It's stress, lack of broad vision about life, lack of understanding, and bad communication that lead to violence in society."

Sausan Mahmood, specialist social worker at the CDA, said: "We have received great feedback from prisoners who have attended the Prison SMART programme. There is a significant change in attitudes of the inmates, especially those with longer sentences such as life imprisonment. There is a perceptible decrease in instances of violence and fighting and they have become more organised and responsible.

"With people from so many different nationalities, cultures, and backgrounds under the same roof, yoga and other breathing exercises help them to get along, maintain a sense of harmony and be nicer to one another," she added.

Over the next year, the IAHV aims to train at least 1,000 inmates in the Dubai with the skills that are part of Prison SMART. Globally, more than 700,000 prison inmates in 60 countries have benefited from the programme, helping end the repeated cycle of violence, abuse and return to prison.

'We can now sleep better, think clearly'

Sharing their experience, Dubai prison inmates said they could now sleep better, think more clearly, and are beginning to take responsibility for their actions. They also reported a decrease in depression, anxiety and interpersonal conflict; an increase in  alertness and resilience to daily life stresses; and improved immunity and physical well-being.

Narrating his experience, a prison inmate, RAA, said: "I no longer get headaches. The yoga asanas have also reduced pain in my hip and knees. I also see a shift in the attitudes of the inmates before and after the programme. Earlier, they used to keep things to themselves and get angry for the smallest of things. Now there is a greater sense of belonging and a lesser tendency to fight."

Another inmate, HM, said: "Earlier, my throat used to feel constricted and I had difficulty breathing, even though the doctors said there was nothing wrong with me, medically speaking. After the workshop, I felt like a weight has been lifted off me and I can finally breathe."


A new beginning

Punishments alone haven't been an effective tool in curbing violence or crime. While incarceration of criminals is important, it is more important to ensure means and ways to educate and rehabilitate them so that they can contribute positively to society upon their release. The latest initiative of the Community Development Authority, therefore, is laudable. Its impact should be assessed and the programme should be rolled out in other prisons, too. A second chance is what most of the people deserve. Let's ensure they get one.

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