The Africa Yoga Project (AYP) aims to empower, educate, elevate and employ people in East Africa and globally through the practice of yoga. AYP, which is a nonprofit in the U.S. and registered non-profit organization in Canada, uses yoga to support economic development and alleviate poverty by creating a local market. They offer 350 free outreach yoga classes a week that reach more than 6,000 people. Paige Elenson and Baron Baptiste founded it in 2007. The initial focus was Kenya.
”The idea of the organization was manifested on my first trip to Kenya. I was on a safari with my family when I saw a group of acrobats doing handstands in the bush. I immediately got out of the jeep without hesitation and joined them. It was the first time I felt connected with the land and the people on my trip. I showed them some yoga poses and they loved it. They wanted more and continued to reach out to me once I went back to New York,” recalls Elenson. “After some thought, I returned to Kenya to teach them yoga. I went into their neighborhoods and the informal settlements, and experienced firsthand their way of life living off $1 to $2 a day. It made me think about how I could support change in this community by offering yoga. With that thought, the idea of Africa Yoga Project was born.”
The program also employs more than 72 yoga teachers in Kenya, and their salaries allow them to take care of themselves and six to eight family members.
Initially, the concept of yoga was somewhat foreign to Kenyans. “It was difficult to introduce yoga as a concept to Kenyans mainly because of religion. Most of our students, including me, gave yoga an Indian face and therefore had everything to do with Hinduism,” explains says Africa Project Development Director Billy Sadia, who was born and raised in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. “Though we still meet this challenge, it has become easier to tackle it. This is because it is getting a Kenyan face. It is being taught by people the communities have seen grow and transform. When a changed Kenyan youth approaches his community with this concept, they love him, listen to him and even follow him. I can say with confidence that this country is embracing this healthy practice. It makes my heart smile.”
The program has, to date, trained 210 yoga teachers and has branched off to other countries. “We had 12 scholarship participants join us in our first 200-hour teacher training this past April to learn about the organization as well as learn how to share yoga in their community. The scholarship participants are located in Ethiopia, South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Israel and Palestine,” explains Elenson. “These individuals are now teaching in their communities and we are committed to helping them grow the program and start a satellite Africa Yoga Project in their country.”
In addition to the scholarship offerings, the Africa Yoga Project offers various programs, including a mentorship program. “I have heard testimonies and seen examples where AYP has totally transformed people’s financial status. Through the mentorship program, all of our teachers have a minimum wage,” says Sadia. “With six yoga studios opening in Nairobi in just the first half of this year, there has been a big demand for teachers, and AYP has been a source for some. Private yoga classes have become popular in Nairobi and as Africa Yoga Project we receive at list three requests a week. This has become a huge source of income for our teachers.”
Others, like Sadia, have development careers that center on yoga. “One of the most inspiring stories of all is AYP teacher Benta,” offers Sadia, who leads a team of yoga teachers. “In her time with AYP, Benta has become a seamstress and makes really awesome yoga bags handmade from Kenyan fabric. Living in Kibera, Benta’s family sees her as a breadwinner. She is now able to provide food for her parents, help in paying her siblings’ school fees and, more importantly, is an example of what is possible to her community in Kibera.”
Another AYP program is, “Bead The Change.” “This is my favorite program,” says Sadia. “In this program, we partner with the women in a couple of the Maasai villages in Kenya. These women bead very unique, handmade apparel and jewelry. Apart from earning their wages from this program, they have constructed two schools for their own communities, buying books for the schools and even paying the teachers at the schools. They are now not the same women who were once looked down upon, but are now powerful women who financially enable their entire community through Bead The Change.”
AYP has been satisfying for all involved.“I love what I do because it changes the African people, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I get a kick out of seeing someone who the society sees as not good, transform into a leader who teaches yoga. I love it!” beams Sadia.