Anna: Africa Yoga Project

In a light-filled dance studio in Nairobi, Kenya, I struggled to maintain balance while extending my leg into Utthita Hasta Padangustasana. 2 hours into an intense power yoga class and my strength and focus were beginning to waver. As sweat dripped down my forehead, the yogi beside me silently reached over and grabbed my foot to hold it aloft. And when he began to wobble, his neighbor unhesitatingly extended the same favor to him. Compassionate, generous and boundlessly kind: this was the essence of Kenyan yoga.

When I boarded a Nairobi-bound plane in August 2009, my mind was abuzz with excitement about my upcoming semester abroad. Ahead of me lay 4 demanding months of studying and working in the development sector of “Africa’s most dangerous city” (a moniker I would soon learn to be utterly false). I expected to find a lot during my stay in Nairobi: challenge, thrill, adventure, and knowledge. I did not, however, expect to find yoga. In fact, my yoga mat was one of the last things I pushed into my suitcase before zipping it shut. I was uncertain how my American yoga practice would fit into my Kenyan lifestyle. But true to form, yoga found me.

I hadn’t been in the country long before I discovered Africa Yoga Project (AYP), a Nairobi-based nonprofit started by American yoga teacher Paige Elenson. With help from Paige’s good friend Baron Baptiste, AYP uses the transformative power of yoga to change lives and strengthen disadvantaged communities in Kenya by teaching free classes in slums and training the most promising students to become teachers themselves.

I was instantly drawn to Paige’s warm and open spirit, and she invited me to attend a free AYP class taught by her Baptiste-trained Kenyan teachers. Not quite sure what to expect, I tied my mat onto my back and made the trek across town to the Sarakasi Dome, a performing-arts space in a rough-and-tumble part of town.

Two and a half hours later, I stumbled out onto the crowded and dusty sidewalk, still in awe of what I had experienced. It was the same power yoga that I practiced at home, just… better. More alive. More vital. The energy and spirit that reverberated around the room throughout class was palpable, and the sense of community and willingness to lend a helping hand to others was unlike anything I’d experienced in my 5 years of practice. It was yoga at its most elemental.

As I returned to class each week, I began to view the AYP studio as a place of refuge from the emotionally draining city in which I was living. Nairobi is sprawling, slum-filled metropolis characterized by wild contrasts: devastating poverty and tremendous wealth, easy laughter and saddening violence. Although I grew to love it, warts and all, each day in Nairobi was a special challenge. As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian, I experienced the acute discomfort of sticking out like a sore thumb when walking its streets. Even after I became accustomed to the lack of anonymity, the constant scrutiny was often wearing. To many Kenyans, I was not a real person. I was a white oddity, an anomaly in a sea of black faces.

But AYP class was the only place in Nairobi where my skin color was insignificant.

Once I entered the yoga studio and lay my head on my mat alongside Kenyan yogis doing the same, I was no longer unique. Like everyone surrounding me, I was simply a student of yoga. As we breathed and flowed together as one, I truly understood yoga’s equalizing powers. The AYP community could not have been more welcoming and accepting of me, and to them I am eternally thankful.

For more information or to make a donation, visit africayogaproject.com.

– Anna from Blue Plate Special

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