Yoga being used for social change in Kenya

April 12, 2013


Read article During the first week that Sara Ishaq began offering free yoga classes in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, only four women showed up. By the end of the week the room overflowed with more than 25 women.

Yoga's popularity has increased in the United States in recent years. Indeed, a 2012 study from the magazine Yoga Journal showed that the number of Americans practicing yoga has soared from 15.8 million in 2008 to 30.4 million in 2012. This means that more than 8 percent of U.S. adults practice yoga and the largest two motivations are flexibility and general conditioning, the study showed.

But, it is clear that new interest in yoga is not just confined to the U.S.

Ishaq notes that she had never seen a yoga studio anywhere in Yemen. Furthermore, few gyms allow women and exercising outdoors is not socially accepted, she added.

"Women can't exactly put on their running shoes and go outside so yoga appeals to them because it is a full package, they just need a mat and comfortable clothing," Ishaq explained to CBS News.

Medical Yoga?

The Yemeni women in Ishaq's class range from 20 to 50 years old, and many of them came to yoga with weight loss aspirations. Yet, after class many said they felt calm and possessed a new sense of ownership over their bodies. Yoga provided an outlet for physical and mental restoration that these women could not find anywhere else.

Ishaq was 13 years old when she began suffering from severe migraines that left her bedridden for up to three days every week. She was living in Yemen and after high school, moved to Scotland where the migraines persisted with agonizing intensity.

"Doctors came to the house and gave me morphine and explained that the problem was genetic," Ishaq says. But the morphine and other medicines did not help.

She first discovered yoga after finding videos in her aunt's Washington D.C. home and began following their instruction. She also began running, and suddenly her physical and mental health turned a corner for the better. Her migraines largely subsided the more she did yoga.

Then, she was determined to bring yoga to Yemen. After getting certified as a yoga instructor and earning an undergraduate degree and an MFA in film directing at the University of Edinborough, Ishaq returned to Yemen - her yoga practice in tow. That is when classes in the houses of friends and family began.

Just as Ishaq brought yoga to Yemen to empower women, yoga is also being used as a tool for social change in Kenya.

"We are trying to create a value system around well-being," Paige Elenson, the co-founder and director of Africa Yoga Project (AYP) in Nairobi Kenya, explains to CBS News.

Elenson has been teaching yoga since 2000, but her first experience with yoga in Kenya was short-lived. It was in 2006 and she was on a safari with her father. Breaking all the rules, she succumbed to her itchy nerves, jumped out of her safari vehicle, and ran into the field where a group of Kenyans were practicing acrobatics. She learned they taught acrobatics in the informal settlements surrounding Naorobi, and decided to teach them some yoga. But, the moment ended as quickly as it had began.

When Elenson returned to her home in New York City, the group of acrobats found her on MySpace. She sent them yoga books and DVDs, but what they really wanted was for her to come back to Kenya to teach them yoga. After many messages back and forth they wrote her saying, "You may not think that our bodies are flexible but our minds are flexible." At that moment, Paige decided to go to Kenya and that trip led her to forming AYP.

Since 2007, AYP has trained 71 yoga teachers and on a weekly basis provides 300 free outreach classes in community centers, schools, women's groups and prisons. No one at AYP tells the teachers where they should teach, they make that decision and many choose to bring the practice to their own informal settlement. At the same time, these teachers are practicing in the commercial yoga market.

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AYP's vision is to create job stability and job creation while bringing social impact.

Billy Sadia, the Kenyan-born development director at AYP, explains that the organization recently opened an 8,000 square foot "Shine Center" in Nairobi where all of its teachers hold classes each week. In this studio, teachers feel responsible for maintaining a professional environment.

AYP instructors have become role models for children from some of the poorest parts of Nairobi and for the people from more wealthy regions where they teach commercial classes. As a wide range of people idolize these young teachers, Elenson believes that yoga is challenging the deep influence of classism in Kenya.

"We are trying to re-create the yoga industry," explains Paige.

AYP is currently hosting a 15-day yoga teacher training for more than 150 people from around the world, hoping that these visitors will bear witness to the energy and social change that the organization has brought to Kenya.

While international yoga is not the $10 billion dollar market that Yoga Journal reported it is in the U.S., it is an emerging tool for social change in many countries. In Yemen, Ishaq's dream it to open the first ever film-making center that also houses a yoga studio.

© 2013 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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