Lebanon News

Yoga classes offer vital outlet for prisoners

Prisoners take part in a yoga class. (Photo courtesy of Bachr Ra)

BEIRUT: “Going to yoga and moving through the poses, I felt more free from the inside. This is the most important thing I learned in Roumieh: to feel free from within,” Jad said, reflecting on his time in Lebanon’s notorious prison.

Jad, whose name has been changed for his protection, is a young man in his 20s and a former inmate of Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison. Several years ago, while finishing his last few months of university, his life was interrupted by a five-year prison sentence for dealing marijuana. Studying for exams one day and sharing a cell crowded with convicts the next, Jad spiraled into depression.

“At the beginning of my sentence, I was so depressed,” Jad told The Daily Star. “I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ ... Hearing about how long I might stay, my uncertain future, I really lost all hope.”

Jad said that cells meant to hold one person were housing five to six people. The largest room, designed for eight to nine inmates, became a dorm for 13 to 14 men. “Imagine putting all these people in one room ... people of different backgrounds, nationalities and different criminal cases. There was always trouble, always problems, always conflict,” he said.

Human rights NGO Alef said in its 2017 annual report that as of June 2017, 6,246 individuals were held in 23 prisons across the country, which were originally designed to hold a total of 3,500 inmates. Convicts range from those incarcerated for innocuous low-level crimes to high-profile inmates linked to Daesh (ISIS) and other extremist groups.

In Roumieh, the latter are largely segregated into the separate, infamous “Block B.”

A few months into Jad’s sentence, 35-year-old Bachir Ra entered Roumieh for the first time. Ra wasn’t an inmate; rather he had come to teach his first yoga class, which would take place twice weekly within the prison’s walls. The newly introduced yoga sessions, Jad said, became vital to his well-being throughout his years in prison.

The idea of yoga in Roumieh was initially dismissed by the prisoners. “There were only 20 people. They came to mock me,” Ra said. He framed it, however, as a stretching class, emphasizing the physical aspects of yoga rather than the spiritual ones. Gradually, more and more inmates started to come round, until after two months he had 83 people attending.

Ra’s motivations for setting up his program were simple. “During the Lebanese Civil War ... my father was put in prison for a year outside Lebanon,” Ra said. “When he returned, he told us that for several months, he did not see any light. I want to be the eyes and light for those who aren’t able to go out.”

While NGOs such as Caritas, Dar al-Amal and Ajem provide medical, legal and social assistance to inmates, Ra aims to assist them from another angle. Ra’s classes offer an otherwise hard-to-find space dedicated to relaxation and physical activity. Jad said that, while change was not instant, access to yoga also proved effective in amending deeply entrenched, hostility-generating social dynamics. This is not the only prison intervention program at Roumieh, however. There are similar offerings, such as drama therapy.

“A sense of trust began to grow between us, which is rare. It’s hard to find trust [in prison]. You’re always afraid and scared of who might do what to you,” Jad said. “Personally, I knew people who were always getting into fights, always doing drugs. ... But I noticed after the classes [that] those same people were more chill, more relaxed.”

“It was funny to see a group of all these convicts with tattoos doing yoga. The classes were really humbling, people’s egos really started to drop,” Jad said. “There were a lot of people you might consider [to be] ‘savage.’ But when we were forced to help each other with these poses, things started to change.”

The sense of community helped forge bonds in what could be an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous environment. “There are always gangs together. There are a lot of personal interests,” he said. After joining the yoga classes, however, “they knew who I was, and that they could trust me. ... This built really important friendships, which are really hard to get because of the whole atmosphere.”

After his release, Jad went back to university to finish his degree and now works as a graphic designer. Meanwhile, Ra’s program has gone from strength to strength. Having started with his small class of 20, he has now set up his own NGO, Survivors, and works alongside a number of other NGOs to teach classes in every prison across Lebanon. He holds a sympathetic view of his many students who have lost their freedom. “We all make mistakes,” he said. “Some of us get caught and some of us don’t.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 23, 2018, on page 3.

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