PESHAWAR -- Residents of Dera Ismail Khan, or D.I. Khan, are warming up to the idea of yoga and laughter therapy as a way to reduce stress, depression and other mental health issues caused by years of violence.
"Due to the decades-long wave of sectarian violence and targeted killings, residents of Dera Ismail Khan were living in a state of deep fear and depression," Wasim Akbar, chairman of the journalism department at Gomal University and pioneer of a yoga club in the city, told Pakistan Forward.
"D.I. Khan is a densely populated city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) with a population of about 1.6 million that has been in the throes of sectarian violence for the past two to three decades," he said.
This year alone, about 40 targeted killings have occurred in the city, according to a November 3 BBC Urdu Service news report.
A positive change
"The idea of initiating yoga exercise was conceived in 2015 during a discussion with my friend Col. (ret.) Khalid Ali Zai, who also is from D.I. Khan and heads the Pakistan Yoga Council in Lahore," Akbar explained.
"Based on those early conversations, the two of us decided to start holding yoga classes at Haq Nawaz Park as a respite for inhabitants of the city who have suffered trauma and stress due to the death of their loved ones," he noted.
It felt very strange at the beginning to do unfamiliar exercises and laugh loudly in public, he said, adding that shortly after "we felt a very positive change in our health and behaviour."
Lack of participation was initially a problem as fewer individuals engaged in the exercise, but then it picked up.
"Now we have more than 400 male members who are doing yoga exercise in six different clubs set up in the city," he said. "The members belong to all age groups -- from elderly to youngsters and even adolescents."
This year the club started yoga classes for women.
"The number of female members of the club is between 70 and 80, which is an encouraging sign in a city where women mostly remain indoors because of [social] restrictions," argued Akbar.
Overcoming trauma, terrorism
Several practitioners of yoga and laughter therapy explain the benefits of the classes.
"Life had become meaningless for me and my family because we had seen the blood-stained bodies of 22 of our family members who died in a suicide attack at a hospital in D.I. Khan in 2008," said Muqeel Abbas, a member of a yoga club in the city.
The attack, which targeted Shia Muslims, killed 32 Pakistanis, including Abbas's 11-year-old brother.
"Going to yoga classes helped me return to normal, as the life I used to live was full of despondency and gloom," he told Pakistan Forward.
"These kinds of treatments should be arranged in all major cities because mental illnesses are common in the country where the menace of terrorism has prevailed and where residents have seen destruction and devastation over the past decade," said Advocate Shoaib Ali Zai, a resident of D.I. Khan and president of the KP chapter of the Pakistan Yoga Council.
Participants are benefiting greatly from yoga, he said, adding that he has seen improvement in the behaviour and health of those who partake.
The Pakistan Yoga Council provides classes free of cost with the primary objective to help sufferers overcome trauma and depression, Zai said.
"Our only payment is the smiles on the faces of our countrymen who have suffered greatly from violence and terrorism," he told Pakistan Forward.
Laughter is the best medicine
"Women are also going through the same predicament faced by men, but it is difficult to persuade them to come out of their homes for exercises as a treatment," Mrs. Shoaib Ali Zai, an instructor at the women's yoga club who did not want to be identified by her first name, told Pakistan Forward.
Yoga and laughter therapy have helped female survivors of terrorism to recover from the trauma, she said.
"We used to do [yoga] at home, but as our membership grew, we moved to the Town Hall of D.I. Khan, which has been reserved for women," she said.
"Laughter therapy is kind of a 'psychology of happiness' or 'mindfulness,' which serves as a treatment for depression," said Dr. Khalid Mufti, a psychiatrist in Peshawar.
The years-long war on terror in Pakistan has left most of the country's population traumatised, he told Pakistan Forward.
"The after-effects of terrorism-related incidents have made our countrymen mentally unsettled, causing them various types of mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive disorder," Mufti noted.
"Yoga exercises, including laughter therapy, meditation and other physical aerobics, help tremendously in treating those with depression and stress," he added.