Prison Yoga Project International Ambassador extraordinaire, Josefin Wikström, has done some remarkable field diplomacy recently. A resident of Sweden, Josefin hasn’t spent much time in her cozy wooded homeland. The sweep of her yoga service is impressive. Just in the last couple of years she founded a PYP Chapter in Mumbai, India and conducted two trainings there. She has studied with renowned trauma researcher, and author of The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk in Boston, deepening her knowledge of trauma-informed yoga. While completing yoga therapy training, she helped found a PYP Chapter in London which recently hosted its second teacher Training. She co-hosted a Special Training in Mexico City. She and colleagues have completed a facilitator’s manual in Swedish, PYP methodology for teaching in prisons. All this taken up with her infectious enthusiasm with some Bollywood dancing thrown in just for fun.
Josefin has worked alongside Eva Seilitz, founder of the Swedish prison yoga project –Krimyoga – developing that project for ten years, eventually merging with PYP in 2015. “My work involves researching the need for special methods of treating traumatic stress in confined environments, patients burdened with the extra layers of fear and stress from being locked inside, chronic stress, psychosocial structures and lack of control. I am also specifying differing needs for psychiatric units, isolation and custody, women and open units.”
In the autumn of 2017, Eva and Josefin approached The Vadstena Forensic Psychiatry Hospital, Sweden’s oldest high-security psychiatric prison hospital, proposing a pilot program. Owing to their body of work in the field, Vadstena gave them the opportunity to start an 8-week pilot program focusing on the negative effects of complex trauma. Therapeutic (trauma-informed) yoga supporting treatments addressing the most common comorbid diagnoses and medical side effects of bipolar psychosis and schizophrenia – presenting issues such as depression, anxiety, movement, and balance difficulties and muscle cramps. “Created in collaboration with our colleagues in London, the pilot program launched in October 2017. This program is the first yoga intervention ever in this kind of high-security environment, in Sweden. Truly life-sentenced patients who will never re-enter society.” Josefin concluded, “I feel so humbled and honored to be a part of this.”
On February 9, 2018, Josefin and Eva formally presented their results to the Hospital warden and many influential figures working in the court, prison and health care systems, attracting even executives retired from the system. “We were well received, and the warden enthusiastically approved our delivery of regular classes twice a week at Vadstena and invited us to address the national Forensic Psychiatric Conference in September. More and more clinics began showing interest in taking the Training to start the program.”
Meanwhile…word of her collaboration with Prison Yoga Project UK was reaching the British Parliament. “I will soon have completed my two-year Yoga Therapy training with Heather Mason, founder of The Minded Institute, London-based yoga therapy trust working with Dr. Amit Bhargava of the National Health Service. They have supported my work and invited us to many incredible international healthcare conferences (e.g., Global Health, 11 January and Yoga in Health Care, 14-17 February) and now to speak to the British Parliament. The House of Lords.”
On June 21, 2018, International Yoga Day, Josefin accepted an invitation to address the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament. She spoke regarding the therapeutic potential of yoga in prisons on behalf of all international prison yoga organizations. Josefin shared the day with Eva Seilitz, Geoff O’Meara, Director of Programs for PYP UK, and Annabel Mehta, Apalaya NGO Mumbai, India.
On September 19th James joined Josefin and Eva at the national Forensics Psychiatric Conference in Vadstena. They taught a class in the morning for 25 patients and staff, James presented Prison Yoga Project and Josefin and Eva presented the pilot program methods and outcomes to the larger body in the afternoon.
Though they’d already heard the buzz through unofficial channels, Swedish health professionals received the amazing news that life-sentenced psychiatric patients, in high-security confined environments, are practicing yoga and that they universally experienced better mood, more connectivity with others and were able to relax. On that day, those professional healers released a suppressed breath of their own and discovered new hope for these grievously impacted patients. We can all be grateful for Josefin and her colleagues, to every Prison Yoga Project teacher and our stalwart donors for their devotion, courage, and leadership.