News & Politics

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.

Here is what the Africa Yoga Project wants you to know: it is not religious. Nor is it a collective of devil worshippers. If you come to AYP’s free and rambunctious Saturday morning class in Kenya’s capitol city, you will certainly not be lured into practicing an unfamiliar faith. Also, AYP will not give you money to do a few downward dogs. 

Given the missionary tradition of East Africa, these are the not unreasonable suspicions AYP instructors face when they invite Kenyans to practice yoga. But just over three years since its founding by American ex-pat and yogi Paige Elenson, AYP has gathered enormous momentum. Those Saturday classes? About 70 people come each week, many traveling some distance to the studio in Sarakasi Dome on Nairobi’s Ngara Road. Students show off their acrobatics before the opening child’s pose—balancing on each others’ knees, pulling themselves vertical.

Throughout the two-hour yoga class in a sunny room marked by colorful graffiti and gleaming mirrors, students noisily whoop and groan and sigh with relief as they move through a vinyasa flow. There is no meditative music playing; the sounds of this studio are all voices and breath and movement. As the teacher of this class rotates, AYP instructors practice alongside newcomers, children, mothers, teenagers, and a handful of ex-pats. Afterward, sitting up on the dusty black mats, everybody claps.

By training yoga instructors who come from the same Nairobi slums that are the center of the program’s outreach, and by making explicit connections to the acrobatic and dance arts many potential yoga students are already doing on street corners, AYP hosts 200 free classes a week, reaching 3,000 students with 42 local yoga instructors. Most students are aged 16-30, living on about $2 a day, and many live with HIV/AIDS.

Recently, AYP initiated classes for people with disabilities, particularly people who are deaf; the yoga flow of these groups are designed to cultivate new kinds of bodily comfort and celebration. AYP also practices yoga in three Kenyan prisons, including one for HIV+ women where children up to the age of five live with them—and enjoy yoga classes of their own at their school on the prison grounds.

Moses Mbajah, AYP’s country director, said yoga carries special import for incarcerated people who are “always isolated, and feel like they are not wanted in our community. They can learn to become strong and flexible from yoga, and see there is something outside [the prison walls] for them.” Some inmates who have been released continue to practice with AYP; one of them is looking into teacher training.

But the project’s origins come from the camps for the hundreds of thousands of Kenyans who were displaced in the wake of the fierce 2007 post-election violence. AYP is explicit about using yoga to create spaces that bring together communities divided by ethnic tension, violence, trauma, and plain old neighborhood gossip. “We don’t believe yoga is a cure, but it enhances other important work, including food distribution and schools,” said Elenson. She adds that “not many grants fund for happiness” – and while AYP is proactive about measuring stress-level indicators, physical health, and the economic well-being of its yoga community, she said it all comes down to the fact that “people seem happier, healthier.”

AYP’s buoyant and swift success comes at a time when yoga in the West is critiqued as being, alternatively, too commercial, too vaguely spiritual, too smug, too elite, or, in the case of the Hindu American Association’s current campaign to “take back yoga,” not aware enough of its origins. Yoga existed in Kenya before AYP began its work, but according to Elenson, classes were pricey and peopled almost entirely with ex-pats. (Plenty of these classes still exist of course, some taught by Elenson.) Via AYP, yoga is given freely and with purpose in Kenya, deepening participation and presenting an active vision for the evolution of the practice. Elenson is quick to point out that yoga itself is about adaptability, whether it is practiced in New York or in Kenya. All the same, an examination of AYP’s work presents a picture of both the mutability and stability of yoga when it is practiced outside the traditional studio and among different communities that make it their own. In Kenya, it starts simply enough: with health and play.

“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.

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.

The Seva Safari taps into a popular model of service tourism, Elenson acknowledges, but with the leadership and partnership of local people, she hopes it is more culturally sensitive than many other initiatives. “Yes, of course we’re leveraging the fact that yoga has become so popular. But we’re still using yoga,” said Elenson.

They are. She is. But the Africa Yoga Project’s active responsiveness to its multi-layered communities—in Nairobi, in Kenya, in East Africa, in the wider world—presents a breathless and uncommon model for what yoga, as a practice of adaptability, can be.