Ross Deuchar: ‘Tough guys’ can learn to be real men through yoga

Teenagers facing homicide and robbery charges practise yoga in a young offenders' institution in Mexico (Picture: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty)
Teenagers facing homicide and robbery charges practise yoga in a young offenders' institution in Mexico (Picture: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty)
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Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises could help cut rates of violent crime in Scotland, says Professor Ross Deuchar.

This summer there have been some worrying signs that violence is still a big issue in the west of Scotland. News of school pupils being attacked and stabbed in Clarkston came within days of the murder of Dominic Brown as a result of a knife attack in Clydebank. This came on the heels of a gangland shooting in Scotstoun in May, following on from a series of other incidents involving firearms that had occurred across Glasgow earlier in the year.

It is certainly true to say that violent crime rates have considerably decreased over the last decade. However, recent events have begun to create a concern that the positive trends may be reversing. Perhaps the time has come to look for fresh ideas about how best to reduce violence, particularly among young men, and to gain inspiration from Scandinavian countries like Denmark.

Scotland and Denmark have comparable population sizes, but very different violent offending rates.

There were just over 1,100 police recorded common assaults per 100,000 population in Scotland last year, and a total of 61 homicides. In Denmark, there were much fewer cases recorded on both measures with 142 common assaults per 100,000 population and a total of 33 homicides. Why is this? One reason is that there has been recognition in Danish society for many years that the root causes of violence are so often related to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the mental health issues that commonly follow these. As such, an increasing emphasis has been placed on the use of creative and ascetic-spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation to help address these issues and reduce violent offending.

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Over the past two years, I have conducted in-depth interviews with Danish men with a history of violent offending and who had recent experience of participating in two programmes, Breathe Smart and Prison Smart. These are coordinated by the Art of Living Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded in the early 1980s. It has the specific goal of teaching those involved in offending behaviour to use Sudarshan Kryia Yoga, which combines dynamic breathing exercises with yoga stretches and meditation, both in prisons and in the community. Many of the men I worked with had been biker or street gang members and been heavily involved in violent offending.

The men were honest enough to admit that they had initially been sceptical about yoga and mediation because of the feminised portrayals often seen in the media. But they quickly realised the intensely physical nature of the energetic stretching and breathing practices. Programme coaches were reformed offenders with a history of violence themselves; they thus had credibility among the male participants and kept them engaged.

The men talked about the intense psychological release they had experienced after practicing the techniques for some time. They gradually found that they were able to manage their anger more effectively and to observe and be aware of difficult thoughts without the need to react to them destructively. In time, feelings of happiness, joy and peace came to dominate, and many talked about getting in touch with softer feelings associated with love and kindness for themselves and others.

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Longer-term participants in the programmes now associated masculinity with domestic and family roles, instead of physicality, aggression and violence. As one ex-offender reflected, “I realise now that being macho doesn’t necessarily involve hitting people or walking around with a knife ... it means taking care of your family.” Another told me how he had come to appreciate that he hadn’t been born as a ‘tough guy’ but as a creature who was “full of love and creativity”. Through engaging in breathing and meditation practices, he now felt that this propensity towards love and compassion was coming to the fore again.

The long-term of negative impact of ACEs, combined with the psychological effects of prolonged substance abuse, had often driven the men’s violent behaviour. Some found that participating in the yoga, breathing and meditation practices enabled them to stop taking prescribed medication for mental health conditions related to issues from their past. For example, several had stopped taking anti-depressant pills when they began the practices and now used the breathing techniques as a way to work with symptoms of anxiety and low mood.

One young man described the way in which he had suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He described experiencing distressing images of violence in his mind that he had been exposed to as a child. Since engaging in Breathe Smart, the images had begun to subside and he was now beginning to sleep better and suffer less anxiety. In turn, he had also desisted from violent crime himself.

The use of interventions like Sudarshan Kriya Yoga could be an important mechanism both for challenging the identity constructions that may be conducive to violent offending among young men in Scotland and treating the mental health issues that often perpetuate it. As in Denmark, with the right role models in place to teach it we could dispel the prevailing myths and masculinise the practices in order to encourage participation.

To continue to fight the battle against violence in Scotland, I believe we need to look outward and learn from the success of our Scandinavian counterparts. In doing so, perhaps we can ensure that more of our own Scottish ‘tough guys’ become creatures full of ‘love and creativity’.

On 5 September, members of the Danish Breathe Smart team will participate in a seminar, ‘Breathing, Meditation and Yoga to Prevent Offending’, at the Scottish Parliament. For further details, please contact ross.deuchar@uws.ac.uk. Professor Ross Deuchar is director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice within the University of the West of Scotland, and author of the new book, Gangs and Spirituality: Global Perspectives