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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.

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.

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