by Sarah Grey
“I’m of service, leaving others in their greatness.”
That’s how Patrick Kiragu speaks of his work with the Africa Yoga Project (AYP).
Life in bustling Nairobi, Kenya, can be stressful—and for poor youth and those from marginalized communities, making a living isn’t easy. When a person is putting every ounce of time and energy into getting by, health and wellness just can’t be a top priority. That’s where AYP comes in. By fostering the yoga and wellness industry in Nairobi, they’re helping young Kenyans build their communities’ health and economies and improve their own lives—including their health, their incomes and their own empowerment—in the process.
Founded in 2007 by yoga teacher and native New Yorker Paige Elenson, AYP has grown into a large and thriving organization. Elenson was inspired to create the project when she visited Kenya and watched some talented young Nairobians perform handstands and other physical feats on the street. Their prowess reminded her of yogis—but when she realized that Nairobi had little in the way of yoga studios or teachers, she knew what she needed to do.
Elenson’s efforts attracted the attention of U.S. yoga icon Baron Baptiste, who was moved to provide financial and project creation support. With the support of Baptiste and his community, the AYP organization facilitated the first yoga teacher training in Kenya. It now employs local youth to teach full-time in their own communities.
Since its inception, the program has trained more than 200 yoga teachers in Baptiste yoga, which improves flexibility, reduces stress and helps the body achieve optimal weight. The teachers, Elenson says, were previously un- or under-employed youth from marginalized communities; today they earn a self-sustaining income as leaders that have the ability to build healthy, wellness-promoting communities.
“Yoga taught me to be of service,” says Kiragu, who is now a Baptiste Power Certified Instructor and trips coordinator with AYP. “Today I empower new Africa Yoga Project teachers—not only those in Nairobi, but those who are in the rest of African countries. I completed teacher training in 2009, and since then I have become certified in all levels of Baptiste power yoga. I teach at yoga studios, gyms and in people’s homes. Yoga has become my career; yoga is my life.”
AYP programs now offer more than 300 free classes per week to over 6,000 residents across Nairobi, including pop-up and pay-what-you-can community classes. The program simultaneously builds schools and funds education, critical operations and environmental endeavors. Its crown jewel is the Shine Center, in Diamond Plaza, which offers a wide variety of workshops, yoga teacher training, and empowerment and leadership education.
For those outside Africa, there are several ways to get involved. Yoga teachers can host a “karma class” and donate the proceeds, or host a fundraising event or “Yoga Jam” with the help of an AYP Ambassador. For a more personal connection, a 12-month mentorship program pairs yoga instructors around the world with an AYP teacher in exchange for a monthly contribution of $125. Mentors and mentees share monthly Skype conversations and email exchanges, with a new theme each month. In the words of mentor Mark White, “This program is about integrity that empowers a bond and accountability between me and my fellow brother, who wants for his country and community what I want for my country and community—compassion, love and peace.”
To experience AYP and Nairobi firsthand, interested people can also sign up for a Seva Safari—a service trip that incorporates daily yoga practice and builds sustainable community programs in Kenya. Spots are still available for Seva Safaris in November 2016 and throughout 2017. A direct donation can also be made at AfricaYogaProject.org.