NAIROBI - Daily life in the slums of Nairobi is a constant struggle - with people trying to scrape together money for food, rent, and school fees. And the slums were most affected by the 2007 Kenyan post-election violence. Yoga wouldn’t appear to be the most obvious solution to helping these residents, but the Africa Yoga Project
is trying to do just that.
Paige Elenson has been teaching yoga for 15 years. The former Wall Street consultant came to Kenya in 2007 to live and volunteer in the Nairobi slum of Kibera. She co-founded the Africa Yoga Project.
“It was actually a huge opportunity to start the project right around the post-election violence. It was a time where people were feeling very separate from each other, where different tribes were starting to fight just because of their tribe, and to introduce a practice that’s around peace and unity, where you don’t have to talk, but you just do and you physically are united," said Elenson. "People started to really come together in a way that exceeded their tribe.”
For 26 year-old yoga instructor Joyce Murugi, who experienced the violence in the Nairobi slum of Mathare firsthand, yoga provides an outlet for dealing with the trauma. “It was just now like, when I go and train yoga, it’s me and my mat. I only train, no stress," she explained. "When I get outside the mat, it’s like I’ve been reborn from the way I entered the class is not the way that I’ve left the class.”
The Africa Yoga Project has trained over 50 instructors like Murugi, all from the Nairobi slums, who teach more than 200 free classes per week in the same areas. They make additional income by teaching private classes at gyms, spas, hotels, and even the United Nations.
“Yoga, is something that typically, in the West, we see as for the upper class. Here in Kenya, we’ve reversed it. We’ve put all the yoga, pretty much, in the slums. And it’s now the people from the slums that are teaching the upper class. This is a great way, to really reverse how we think of people, and what yoga is,” Elenson stated.
Thanks to the free classes, 48 year-old Alice Njathi can temporarily escape from the stresses of life in the slums. “It’s just like a medicine. After you have done it, you’ll feel different. You’ll feel different from your body and your mind. So you relax and concentrate," she noted. "You relax, so you feel that you are now different. And I’m feeling it. And it’s helping me.”
Although a new concept for many Kenyans living in the slums, Elenson says that yoga is universal.
“What impresses me is that someone who takes classes in New York City could go to a place that looks completely different, you could be in Kibera, and in the middle of a slum and get on your yoga mat and all of a sudden, you’re just on your yoga mat,” Elenson said.
So in Kenya, it appears that yoga is here to "namaste" (a pun using a common yoga greeting to explain that it appears yoga is here to stay).