CAN practising yoga and meditation potentially help violent male offenders to manage their anger, deal with the psychological impact of prolonged offending behaviour and develop a greater commitment to reform from crime? These questions have been on my mind.

Combined with certain forms of meditation, yoga has been increasingly cited as a potential means of enhancing positive psychological states such as hopefulness, optimism and happiness as well as decreasing negative states such as anxiety, anger and stress.

As part of the international profile within the new Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice (CPSJ) at the University of the West of Scotland, my research has taken me to Denmark. I have explored the impact of the work of the Prison Smart programme founded there in in 2000. The programme aims to teach and coach inmates to use Sudarshan Kryia Yoga (Sky). Sky’s central focus is on the use of Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing process of slow, medium and fast cycles of breathing, practised for around 30 minutes.

Prison Smart’s partner programme, Breathe Smart, teaches the same techniques to those released and back in the community as part of a post-incarceration rehabilitation approach.

During the summer, I conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Danish men with a history of violent criminal offending who had taken part in the Prison Smart and/or Breathe Smart programme. Most were in their 30s and 40s. Their collective convictions included drug dealing, armed robbery, drug possession, weapon possession, attempted murder and murder. While some were still in prison when I met them, others had been released but had continued to practise on their own or in a group in the community.

The men talked at length about the ways in which they felt practising the yoga, breathing and meditation exercises had had a profound impact on their ability to control the destructive ways in which they had previously responded to feelings of anger. Some talked about the intense feelings of happiness, joy and peace they began to experience after practising the Sky techniques. They were no longer inclined to respond to stressful situations through violence.

Prior to involvement in the programme, they admitted that their sense of masculinity was constructed around the need to earn money illegally and be ready for violence. After engaging with the yoga and meditation practices, many began to associate “doing masculinity” with peace, harmony and being good fathers and family men. One admitted that he just wanted to “be a good man for my wife and a good son for my parents and a good brother for my brothers and sisters”.

The most profound insight was the revelation by some men that participating enabled them to stop taking prescribed medication for mental health conditions related to issues from their past. One young man described the way in which he had been taking anti-depressants for six years in prison as a result of distressing flashbacks to the violence he had been involved in and the fact that he had lost his wife and son while in jail. He stopped taking the pills when he started the Prison SMART programme and felt like he had a new lease of life: “It’s like I was dead but I became alive again”, he said.

Given the high rates of psychological problems, social pressures and reduced wellbeing experienced by many inmates in prisons, the insights from this small-scale Danish study are highly pertinent. Mental health interventions with offenders are often focused on psychological treatments but these are costly and can be stigmatising and emotionally demanding for male inmates. The use of behavioural-oriented, ascetic-spiritual interventions such as Sky may offer a more socially acceptable alternative, both for dealing with psychological conditions and for managing the emotions and challenging the identity factors that may lead to violent offending.

The positive insights from Denmark could be significant in future policy-related decisions in Scotland in the context of violence reduction and male offender rehabilitation.

Professor Ross Deuchar is Assistant Dean in the School of Education and co-director of the new unit in the University of the West of Scotland.