– It´s like magic. The kids teach me just as much as I learn them. I´ve never experienced such joy and gratefulness.
Josefin Wikström pauses in the middle of a sentence with a contagious smile. We´re in Stockholm for a yoga workshop and she has just told me about her work with youth in Govandi, a huge slum area situated around a dump in Mumbai on the west coast of India. The Govandi dump is home to thousands of children who eat of and live from other people´s garbage. Life expectancy for Govandi-kids is only 39-40 years, due to the high rate of diseases and abuse. When Wikström, who has been traveling back and forth to India for more than 20 years, came there in 2007 it was one of the worst miseries she had ever seen.
– Sometimes I feel hopeless with all the suffering. I cannot be there without trying to help, she says.
Together with the local organization Apnalaya Josefin Wikström now teaches yoga, dance, rhythmics and movement to youth and young leaders in the area. At first her classes where focused on helping children who had suffered sexual abuse to heal.
– Children who have been traumatized loose their body language and some of their ability to move. Dance therapy, to express a feeling without words, can be very helpful, she tells.
Wikström spends more than a third of her time in India, and now she´s in the middle of raising funds for a cultural youth center near the dump, a safe place for children to express themselves.
– They have very tough everyday lives. The activities we create give them a moment of freedom and something to look forward to, she says softly.
Josefin Wikström started her own journey towards the healing powers of dance and yoga long before her encounter with Govandi. Having experienced abuse in her youth herself, she grew up to become a restless soul. While still a teenager she left Sweden to travel in the West Indies, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and India. In India she came in touch with yoga, and experienced the healing effects of practicing asanas and focusing on the breath.
– I had a very stressed breath. That’s something I see and recognize in many of the people I teach, particularly prisoners.
In India Wikström learnt about yoga from several teachers. Then she met one of the county´s most well-known dance therapists, Tripura Kashyap, and went to studied with her.
Now Josefin Wikström´s accumulated knowledge is practiced in a variety of fields. She runs a yoga studio in her Swedish home-town Askersund, she does choreography in both India and Sweden, she writes teaching manuals. And she teaches yoga to prison inmates.
– The first time I entered at Hinseberg, a Swedish prison for women, I was very scared, she recalls.
– The inmates are rather tough, some are aggressive. But I was welcomed. And when we did yoga we met on a neutral, common ground.
Some of Wikström´s prison-students have now been released, and several of them continue to practice yoga. Some have even become teachers.
– I like to see the knowledge being spread. Yoga is as much about being present for others as working with yourself, she says.
Recently she was in San Francisco to study a program called Prison Yoga Project at the San Quentin-prison. It supports research on yoga and trauma, and is to be incorporated into the Swedish prisons. When not traveling Wikström likes to be in stillness and reflect, often in the forest nearby her house. We touch upon the fact that almost everything she does has a stroke of giving or helping others.
– Yes, but it also gives me a lot. Some of my best experiences have been at Hinseberg and in the slum in India.
Words by Tina Magnergård Bjers, journalist at the Swedish news agency TT – dedicated yoga practitioner, art lover and cross-country skier based in Stockholm. Read her story on the abstract pioneer Hilma af Klint here.
More info on Josefin Wikström, Yoga i Askersund and Bollywood Movement here. Join Josefin at Life Center in London on the 5th of February for a Trauma Sensitive Yoga & Movement Introductory Charity Class. More info about the event here.
Photos from the ”Prison Yoga Project” at San Quentin by Robert Sturman. See more of his work here.
More info about the ”Prison Yoga Project”.