From urban centers to rural areas yoga is spreading in Kenya. Until recently yoga was only practised by a small group of expats and south Asian devotees. Now that is changing and the move has been led by The Africa Yoga Project, a non-profit organization founded by American Paige Elenson six years ago.
The Africa Yoga Project started as an experiment aimed at improving the quality of life for people in Nairobi’s slums. From there it has gone from strength to strength. Elenson believes that yoga is a powerful tool for personal and community growth. Her mission has two strands. Firstly the physical and spiritual benefits that yoga brings to participants. Secondly the opportunities yoga can bring in terms of job creation in local communities.
The Africa Yoga Project now has 71 trained yoga teachers employed in its studios. More than 300 free classes are offered every week serving around 5,000 people. For some, teaching yoga is becoming a viable career option and it helps to cross social boundaries. 25-year-old yoga teacher Francis Mburu told The Guardian in a recent article:
“I’m from the slum, but I go to teach in someone’s mansion.”
A report on NPR’s Morning Edition talked of a “burgeoning yoga scene” in Nairobi. It described a lunchtime yoga class on a city rooftop among the noise of honking horns from the traffic below, with the yoga devotees competing for space with drying laundry. The teacher, Sophia Njoki, told NPR, that yoga helps her deal with the stress of living in the city and other problems such as substance abuse. She teaches five classes a week, which gives her a decent income. On average teachers leading the project’s free classes for children and adults earn 10,000 shillings (US$118) a month. They can supplement this income by giving private classes.
Yoga is not only an urban phenomenon. The project is also working with Maasai in rural areas. One Maasai yoga teacher, Jacob Parit, explained his enthusiasm in a CNN report:
“Yoga will be part of Maasai tradition because the young need to be strong warriors. It is a peaceful thing and it brings people together.”
Yoga teachers also work in special needs centers, HIV/AIDS support groups, deaf schools, rural villages and even in prisons.
There are still barriers to overcome. Some Christians are suspicious of the chanting and meditation. Billy Sadia, who attended one of the program’s early sessions, was damning: “To us, this was devil worship, or someone trying to convert us,” he told The Guardian. As a result the team are keen to emphasise the physical aspects over the spiritual. They want to avoid any religious conflict.