INTERNATIONAL SPOTLIGHT: Bhavini Vyas, Breathesmart, London
Expand your vision and see that inside every culprit, there is a victim crying for help. That person is a victim of ignorance, small-mindedness and a lack of awareness. It’s the stress, lack of understanding, lack of broad vision about life, and bad communication that leads to violence in society.”
– Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Founder, International Association for Human Values
How did Bhavini Vyas, a vibrant, well-educated London hipster, a successful eye specialist by day and musician by night, end up in prison before she turned 30?
She started teaching inmates how to let go of trauma and negativity in order to know peace of mind.
“Earlier this year I taught the Breathesmart program in Thameside, a private prison for men in southeast London. It was my first course in a prison and all 25 participants had some kind of p sychological behavior issue. They tried to be very intimidating at first; I had to take a moment to figure out how best to proceed.”
She continued, “I decided not to change my teaching style just because of the environment. I shared openly and honestly, the same as I would anywhere else. The students instantly responded; they started trusting me, and we were able to move forward.”
Breathesmart is a self-development program with roots in the ancient science of yoga. It’s offered through the International Association for Human Values, founded in 1992, by renowned spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Breathesmart is part of IAHV’s Prison SMART program (Stress Management and Rehabilitative Training). This holistic program offers innovative tools to manage the mind and emotions and alleviate trauma. It aims to reduce offender recidivism while ending the repeating cycles of violence and abuse in society. It’s offered to anyone impacted by the criminal justice system including; inmates, victims, family members, social workers and criminal justice officials.
The cornerstone of the program is the Sudarshan Kriya (SKY) breathing technique, developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Thousands of Prison SMART participants worldwide report SKY as an effective tool for transforming emotions and bringing about a calm and alert state of mind. SKY is proven to lower cortisol (stress-hormone), lower blood pressure, enhance brain activity and strengthen the immune system. The course also includes practical life-skills training to become free of unhealthy habits and patterns in life.
“I taught a young woman who said that she felt like ‘Spider Man” after experiencing the SKY breathing tec hnique. Her senses were sharper, colors were brighter and she could hear the birds singing. Before this program, it’s highly likely that there was no room in her life for this level of awareness,” said Vyas.
Breathesmart was launched in Copenhagen in 2011. Earlier this year, Vyas, along with Nicolai Engelbrecht and a small team of volunteers, opened a chapter in Hackney, a borough of
London. Wikipedia describes the area as “one of the most crime-ridden boroughs of London,” and refers to one area as,“Murder Mile.” It also cites a significant decrease in crime, since 2007.
The BBC refers to Hackney as one of the trendiest areas of London, in spite of its high crime rate. Perhaps that’s why it hosted its 2012 Radio 1 music event there, featuring some of the world’s most well-known pop, rock and hip hop musicians.
It seems the community of Hackney, along with the participants of the Breathesmart program, are both enjoying a positive transformation.
Everyone who attends a Breathesmart program has been impacted by violence and crime one way or the other. Vyas admits that it’s challenging to teach the program. She said,“Many of our participants are recovering drug-addicts, former inmates, victims of violence and/or are simply living on the fringes of society. They’re surrounded by crime, drugs and violence on a daily basis. I walk a tightrope in order to be, both compassionate and dispassionate, in this environment.”
Breathesmart is recognized by the Ministry of Justice as a comprehensive stress-management program and the London chapter is already reporting a high retention rate. “We are working with a vulnerable population. Our participants want a supportive network to help them stay away from the negative influences all around. One guy, who was just out of prison for five weeks, used the victory breath he learned in Breathesmart to walk away from a “situation”. He felt that without it, he could have easily violated his probation,” Vyas said.
Vyas first experienced the Sudarshan Kriya (SKY) through the Art of Living Foundation when she was just a teenager. The foundation is active in 152 countries and offers programs for the general public, students, educators, corporate professionals, and more.
She completed her formal education in 2007 and became a full-time teacher for the foundation in 2011. She is also a trained musician and the lead singer of Yoga Jam. Yoga Jam is an alternative, drug and alcohol-free music and yoga event, offered through the Art of Living Foundation.
Vyas describes the events as, “a creative fusion of contemporary rhythms with ancient sanskrit mantras and meditations.” The crowds are an eclectic mix of yogi’s, curiosity seekers, suits straight from the office and people clad in full yoga gear. It appeals to young people who want to let loose and dance in a healthy and uplifting spiritual environment.
My generation may end up being more well known for bringing technology to the forefront of society, instead of leaving the world a better place, as a collective whole. I have hope for the future of the planet when I meet young people like Bhavini Vyas and the other millennials at Breathesmart. They’re leading innovative social change and paving new ways for lasting transformation in society, as a way of life.
Vyas ends our interview with a genuine sense of purpose; “I’ve always wanted to bring this knowledge to people who didn’t have access to it, as easily as I have. I don’t want to take it for granted. Since launching Breathesmart in London, I’m highly motivated to share this wisdom with others, while I can.”