Yoga: reaching for social change

The benefits yoga has for body and soul are well-documented, but now it seems this ancient practice has much to offer societies around the world, too. Nicola Slawson discovers the groups stretching their local communities toward positive change

A Kenyan woman steps carefully on the ground between mud huts and the open sewage trench running between them. Nearby walls are made of corrugated iron and several goats are standing on top of a rubbish tip picking for food. The woman continues on, passing a mish-mash of high-rise buildings and shacks until she reaches her destination in the heart of Nairobi. A mat is tucked under her arm. She’s going to a yoga class.

Inner-city Nairobi might not be the first place you’d expect to find a yoga class, but it’s just one of the many surprising places across the globe seeing yoga take off, thanks to a number of charitable organisations that are using yoga as a tool for social change.

In 2007, former Wall Street consultant Paige Elenson was on safari with her family in Kenya when she spotted locals practising acrobatics in the Bush. A keen yoga enthusiast, she joined them and began to teach them some of her yoga moves. An idea began to take shape, and when she later returned to Kenya and experienced life in the neighbourhoods and informal settlements of Nairobi, she was inspired to help create change in these communities. The Africa Yoga Project was born.

The project works to create local markets for yoga and trains young people to become yoga teachers, empowering them and helping support economic development in their communities.

For Eliam Sandra Wanjiku, one of the young people the charity has trained up from the informal settlements, the project has had a remarkable effect. She says that before she became involved, “my life was in a mess. I was a rude girl who would fight with anyone. I used to live in a mud house with no water or toilet. I thought yoga was a cult for the rich.” And yet, she says, “During my first yoga class, I felt like a big burden had been lifted from my back and I suddenly felt like a new, full person.”

Now Eliam works as a yoga teacher, guiding adults. “The Africa Yoga Project has changed my life in many ways,” she says. “I am now a responsible mother. I’m more polite, and I live in a good house with water and plumbing.”

Eliam’s is not an isolated story. As Paige explains, the Africa Yoga Project is having a big effect throughout Kenya. “We have educated over 200 youths for free in our teacher training classes in Kenya. We now employ over 72 teachers, giving them an opportunity to take care of themselves and their families. Our teachers reach over 6,000 people a week through our 350 outreach classes in the informal settlements.” In addition, the project’s outreach locations include special needs schools, orphanages, prisons and rural villages.

I felt like a big burden had been lifted from my back and I suddenly felt like a new, full person

The project’s main hub is the Shine Centre in the heart of Nairobi. Here, hundreds of young people are trained to be yoga teachers and people of all ages and backgrounds come together to take classes. It’s also where yogis from all over the world come to volunteer through the charity’s various programmes. Scholarship participants from Ethiopia, South Africa, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Israel and Palestine also recently visited the Shine Centre to take part in the first 200-hour teacher training course. It’s hoped that these participants will now build yoga communities in their own neighbourhoods.

The Shine Centre also hopes to offer yoga as a treatment for trauma, and will soon be hosting classes for those who were affected by the recent terrorist attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall. These classes will be funded by donations from a recent yoga tour in the US, spearheaded by five Kenyan yoga teachers who happened to be in the US at the time of the attack.

Bringing calm to conflict

The Africa Yoga Project isn’t the only organisation using yoga for good in times of crisis. YogaBeatsConflict, an outreach arm of organisation Yogabeats, works with victims of domestic abuse; with gangs to combat knife crime; and with Israelis and Palestinians to aid conflict resolution. The organisation uses a non-traditional method combining yoga moves with world music.

YogaBeatsConflict was founded by David Sye, who has been delivering projects in the Middle East since 2004. David describes the first meeting on the West Bank: “There were 160 people from both sides and my friend, a Palestinian, stood up and said very sternly to the Israelis: ‘We have one thing to say to you!’ The Israelis all looked tense and held their breath before she yelled, ‘We love you!’, and after that we all went crazy, dancing and doing yoga altogether and no-one wanted to leave.”

The aim of the project is to help break down barriers between Israelis and Palestinians, and to change their perceptions of one another. David is going back to the West Bank this winter for another project. “I was asked to go back and teach some Palestinians, but I said I didn’t want to go and teach Israelis one day and Palestinians the next. I want to teach them all together, because that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s about bringing these warring nations together. I want to show how stupid the politicians are. I want to show the good. When people meet each other, they see each other’s eyes, there are no enemies – there are just human beings. And that makes a mockery out of politicians. They need to be made a mockery of.”

For David, working in war zones is close to his heart. Yogabeats was born out of his experience being trapped in Belgrade during the Yugoslav war. He says, “I was running a radio station there when the war broke out and I decided to stay. It got really bad. My passport was stolen but all the embassies had gone and soon I was landlocked.”

Previously in the UK, David had gained some experience teaching yoga and so it was yoga that he turned to, both to help him cope with the situation and as a means of survival. “At one point, I ended up just teaching yoga for food. I used to turn the radio up just to cut out the sound of the shelling and the gunfire. The sound of war is the most distressing thing there is.”

“I said to myself, if I ever get out of this alive, I’ll just teach yoga for the rest of my life. It was kind of a deal I made with myself. Thinking that was the only way I survived that war.”

When he got back to the UK, he decided to teach yoga the way that he’d taught it back in Belgrade, with music and an ‘anything goes’ attitude. At first, only clubbers came to his classes and yogis frowned upon his non-traditional style, dubbing him the ‘bad boy of yoga’. Undeterred, he set himself the mission of having yoga recognised and used as a tool for social change. Now David trains teachers all over the world alongside his outreach work.

‘Yoga works for everyone’

Closer to home, Jo Manuel, founder of Special Yoga in London, also believes yoga can be used for positive social change. “Yoga helps us to feel good in ourselves and gives us tools to manage ourselves emotionally,” she says. “We come out of practice with a peaceful feeling inside and more self-awareness. If more people practiced, the world would be a better place and there would be less violence.”

She and her colleagues have worked with over 850 children with special needs in the last nine years. Although the Special Yoga Centre has now closed, the charity continues to provide both one-to-one and group classes for children with all kinds of conditions including autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and Down’s syndrome.

“We see amazing results with the children we work with. Whatever their potential is, yoga helps to bring that out. Some children may find movement in their bodies that seemed previously impossible, some find speech. All feel better and calmer,” Jo says.

But she believes yoga works for children with special needs because yoga works for everyone. “So many of the families we work with and the schools we go into say that the yoga is the best moment in their week. If there were more of these moments and more people able to experience them, there would be more seeds planted for social change.”