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Vision: How Yoga is Transforming a Kenyan City

In Nairobi, the Africa Yoga Project is training HIV+, poor, and disabled citizens to be yoga instructors, creating jobs and changing lives.

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“In, say, Indiana, people might just do yoga because they want to have healthier bodies,” Elenson said. “And that’s okay. The rest will come when and if they want it. That’s what happens here—and in a country with so much disease, doing yoga to have healthier bodies is a big deal.”

Eliam Wanjiku is an AYP instructor and catalyst in the yoga-in-the-streets initiative that focuses in and around Nairobi; she’s on the frontlines for local skepticism. Wanjiku says they start small—sometimes through a local group or just a few willing participants in a flow that is based on Baptiste Power Yoga. When those who try yoga “have so much fun,” Wanjiku says, it’s not long before “we find they’re doing it themselves, out on the street, for play.”

While health and play might be sufficient, AYP’s mission is broader than what happens on any individual mat or street corner. It wants nothing less than to use “the transformative power of yoga to empower communities and change lives,” according to its vision statement.

Many of the people Wanjiku works with are youth who participate in crime and prostitution and struggle with addictions. In subtle ways, yoga practice breaks their patterns.

“Many will take a cut [of drugs] at a particular time in the afternoon. When we do yoga, we do it in the afternoon, when they would take a cut,” Wanjiku said.

Mbajah followed up on her thought: “If you don’t take it at the time you normally take it, you probably won’t do it at all. This reduces the use [of drugs].”

Mbajah is one of the AYP instructors who trained with Baron Baptiste and was a leader in AYP’s Amani Circus—a circus that travels primarily to places impacted by crisis and violence to explore, through acrobatics, the ideas of “chaos” and “stillness,” and what lies between them ("Amani" is Swahili for "peace.") Mbajah also leads AYP’s “Yoga for Unity” efforts—which he says is effective because yoga can be done by anyone, anywhere, and makes it possible to “come in with a message of peace, and it is easier for that message to be heard.” Mbajah and Yoga for Unity still practices with communities separated by the post-election violence, including individuals separated from families.

“They just need people to pay attention to them,” Mbajah said. “People in the camps can find something to do to feel better, something to unite with their own bodies. This is also about unity for themselves. And then they can move forward, living with the present.”

Kenya has another presidential election in 2012. Mbajah said, “People are still afraid of anything wrong happening.” But the ongoing work of the Yoga for Unity arm of AYP is ultimately about “building communities of people who want peace, who will look at the election not as a field of fighting. We’re not going to break.”

These "communities of peace" are not only cultivated in Nairobi, but also throughout the Rift Valley. After visiting a particular community to practice yoga for about six months, AYP trains local instructors so that the yoga practice will be sustainable beyond the program’s presence there. Right now, it is working in Laikipia, on the equator near Mount Kenya, with two ethnic communities.

Also outside Kenya’s urban neighborhoods, AYP works closely with Masai women in the villages of Amboseli. Through the Beads for Change program, women create shirts that in turn provide them with a sustainable income. Beads for Change funds are also funneled into development projects, including two pre-primary schools that were built for Masai children.

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