Making an Impact: From Africa to Kripalu, and Back

Photo courtesy of the Africa Yoga Project

 In 2006, while on safari with her parents in Kenya, yoga teacher Paige Elenson was driving through the bush when she spotted a group of young men doing handstands by the side of the road.

“I jumped out of the car and stared doing handstands with them,” she says. “Yoga gave me the opportunity to connect with people from a totally different culture, without words. Those few moments of play were the best time of my trip.”

They also led her to a calling she had never expected. The young men turned out to be members of a troupe of acrobats from the slums of Nairobi, who had been performing at one of the hotels in the bush. About six months after their encounter, they tracked down Paige via the Internet and invited her to Kenya.

“My heart lit up at the idea of going back,” says Paige, who was 27 at the time. “I bought a ticket and went to Kenya to live with these guys in the slums and teach yoga there. That trip changed my life. I saw how universal the practice of yoga is.”

While she was teaching—at no charge—in the poverty-stricken areas of Nairobi, Paige witnessed the powerful physical, mental, and emotional benefits yoga provided this population. At the same time, she began fielding numerous requests for yoga classes and private sessions from middle- and upper-class Kenyans and expatriates. A transformative solution became clear: Train the poorer members of society to bring yoga to the wealthier members.

With her teacher, Baron Baptiste, Paige launched the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), which gives young African men and women a skill, a livelihood, and an opportunity to change their lives, by training them as yoga teachers. In their first free teacher training, in 2009, they trained 58 teachers, aged 18 to 30 (AYP’s target population is young people who have not been employed before). The newly minted teachers honed their skills by offering free classes in local orphanages, jails, and community centers. “Before we knew it, we had hundreds of yoga classes going on each week,” Paige says.

Today, almost half of those graduates teach market-based classes for which they are paid a sustainable wage. “Every class they teach for money, they also teach one for free, so they remain involved in their own communities,” Paige says. AYP’s goal is to continue training new teachers as the more experienced teachers exit the program.

To gain more tools to support this ambitious venture, Paige applied for a Kripalu scholarship to attend a program at Kripalu on mindfulness and trauma. “I fell into this without knowledge of teaching to special populations or how to run a nonprofit,” Paige says. “It’s important in order to serve the populations I’m with,” including young female refugees from Somalia and Sudan, many of them mothers of children born of rape. (In fact, it was in a refugee camp, in 2008, that Paige met her husband, who is Kenyan; she was teaching yoga in the camp and he was doing dance therapy there. They’re expecting their first child this summer.)

Along with learning about new research on trauma and yoga’s effect on the brain, which she says will help her enlist a broader range of people in the project’s mission, Paige’s Kripalu program also connected her with a network of support. “When you’re in the thick of it, you’re doing whatever you can, but it’s so important to take time to learn and reflect. Being at Kripalu was so important to me. I’m opening new pathways of how to move forward when I’m back in Kenya, and I have new resources to give my teachers.”

Those teachers include young women like Margaret, who left an abusive husband after being sold into marriage at 11 years old, and was living on the streets before she was trained through AYP. Now 20 years old, Margaret is remarried, with a new baby, and earns more than $1,000 a month teaching yoga. Another participant in the program, a young man named Walter, was a pickpocket before he signed on for yoga teacher training. “Before, people saw him as an enemy of the community,” Paige says. “Now they see a friend.”

“The most powerful benefit we see is the sense of hope and possibility” experienced by the new teachers and their students, she says. “The feeling of resignation you live with when you’re poor is more disabling than any illness. Yoga helps them find their voice and their power.”

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