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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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Mbajah would like to push beyond Kenya’s borders. He wants to go to Rwanda where, he said, “they also need this healing.” And Elinson said that an AYP program in Johannesburg, South Africa, is in the works: “There’s a strong yoga community to go to there, but it is 90-percent white in a country that is not 90-percent white.”

Of all the divisions that AYP looks to explicitly knit together through yoga, perhaps the most ambitious is between Africa and the Western world. Particularly with the remarkable unleashing of democracy in South Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt over the last two months, Western misconceptions about Africa—a continent that is home to 800 million people—have been caught in a harsh glare. In the United States, the disconnect encompasses the young and adventurous: according to a 2009 Open Doors Report, only 4.5 percent of the approximately 262,416 Americans who studied abroad for academic credit chose to go to any of the 47 (soon, 48) nations in Sub-Saharan Africa.

AYP’s vision statement puts the project’s international intentions baldly: “By inspiring the global yoga community into active service, AYP delivers effective and innovative programs which create opportunities to learn and contribute across the communities of East Africa.”

The interconnection of East Africa and developed nations in particular begins with its legal and financial ties: AYP received its 501(c)3 status in 2009, incorporated in New York. At the same time, AYP’s parent organization is Sarakasi Trust, an East African organization that is committed to using the performing arts to eradicate poverty. Outside of individual donations, both local and global, Australia’s Yoga AID, the Open Society Institute for Africa, and Baptiste Power Initiative, all provide support to AYP.

The hybrid administrative roots of AYP finds a parallel in its mentorship program, which invites yoga instructors in the U.S. to mentor African instructors associated with the project. Communicating regularly via Skype and email, the pair typically discuss how classes are going, the personal evolution of the instructor and the impact of yoga practice. These AYP instructors receive monthly pay, a small portion of which goes back to the studio and the rest that helps to support them.

Less formally, international excitement for the work of AYP has inspired global “yoga flash mobs”—or the sudden, simultaneous, and intentional practice of yoga in communities around the world.

AYP also facilitates exchange programs and on-the-ground volunteer opportunities. A structured Ambassador program invites volunteers to commit to a fundraising pledge of $5,000 to support AYP programs before traveling to Nairobi to visit, participate and teach for two weeks. Volunteers bring “the love, the passion, for yoga,” said Wanjiku. “They mostly practice with the students, and they help to connect with people in the slums who used to fear mzungus [white people].”

“We try to make sure giving and receiving are equal parts of the day [for volunteers],” said Elenson. Not all volunteers are yoga instructors; some offer organizational or technical support. While Elenson said that it takes enormous work to host volunteers, she said that it is a “big part of personal growth,” for both the visitors and AYP.

This July, AYP is hosting a “ Seva Safari,” or a 12-day service trip to Kenya for 20 people that will partner with AYP’s instructors—practicing yoga taught by the local teachers, sharing meals and facilitated activities, traveling, and working alongside each other in Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums, to renovate a social hall that was damaged during the post-election violence; there are still bullet holes in the walls. AFP will work alongside Shining Hope for Communities, a Kibera-based organization.

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