Africa Yoga Project

Eliott Foust

The Africa Yoga project (AYP) is an organization that brings yoga to East Africa through leadership development, community building, and yoga instruction. The organization is targeted to the population that dwells in the slums of Kenya, but it is open to all citizens. Since the Culturs Multicultural Global Magazine team and I were already in Nairobi, we arranged a video shoot at the AYP studio called the Shine Center. For the shoot, I was responsible for getting video footage of a yoga class and setting up a few cameras for some video interviews.

Students get into a yoga pose during  a class taught at the AYP Shine Center
Students get into a yoga pose during a class taught at the AYP Shine Center

Going in to the assignment, I didn’t know much about yoga, and I didn’t know what to expect from the classes. My knowledge of yoga was limited to what a friend  (who was a yoga instructor) told me about it and what I have seen on television. I figured this would be an ordinary assignment, and I would simply get a few shots of people from interesting camera angles. Despite my naivety, my time with the AYP was a tremendous experience.

The studio we visited was located several floors up a large commercial building. After navigating several hallways we came to a dark corner that was tucked away from the majority of the other businesses. On one side of the corner was a restaurant, and on the other was a door with “Africa Yoga Project” labeled above it. As soon as we walked through the door, we entered the lobby of the AYP and I noticed the space was huge and very open. From the lobby, you could look up and across the room and see into the main studio on the second floor. Below the main studio, was another large open area that served as an overflow, if the main studio filled up. Behind the overflow studio was a large kitchen and dining area that offered panoramic views of the city.

After greeting some of the employees, one of the instructors led us upstairs to the main studio so we could set up our equipment. When we got to the main studio, the room was already half full and the instructor informed us that the room would probably fill up by the end of the class. This is because we were there just after the New Year, and many people wanted to try yoga going into 2015.

After I assembled my equipment, I took a moment to survey the studio. When I looked around the room, I was struck by the fact that nearly all of the students in the room were black. It was obvious, and I knew the participants would be black, but the reality hit home because my prior perception of yoga was restricted to Indian culture. In addition, my exposure to yoga students was shaped from advertisements, commercials and studios around the United States. I took the time to “take it all in” and the reality sank that I was in a yoga class that was full of people who look like me.

Paige Elenson, co-founder and director of the AYP, instructs one of her yoga classes.
Paige Elenson, co-founder and director of the AYP, instructs one of her yoga classes.

Leading up to the start of the class, a guitarist was strumming soft melodies as people began to fill the room. Just as class started, the room reached capacity and the instructor, director and co-founder of the AYP, Paige Elenson, addressed the students and informed them to pace themselves because the class was two hours long. As time went on, I got the shots and footage I needed. Since I was busy filming, I wasn’t able to immerse myself into the lesson, but I did find it interesting on how the poses and breathing help the students center themselves and use the energy they have for specific purposes. Before long, the temperature in the room was almost unbearable due to the lack of ventilation and the overcrowded mass of people. Even though I stepped out occasionally, being in such a hot, muggy and crowded room made the two hour class seem like an eternity.

When the class was over we managed to pull aside Paige, as well as a few of the staff members for an interview. After a few sentences into the interview, it was very evident that all of the staff members were very knowledgeable about yoga, and they took their classes very seriously. Page discussed the origins of the AYP and how she was able to meet all of the other instructors. Each of the instructors that we spoke with told us their unique story on they joined the AYP, and how yoga became important to them. In addition to their history, all of the instructors stated that they plan to expand beyond the AYP and open up their own studio. I found it very impressive that the AYP also serves as a platform for people to create and hold jobs that were previously not available.

An instructor helps a woman with a pose during a yoga class at the AYP Shine Center
An instructor helps a woman with a pose during a yoga class at the AYP Shine Center

After filming and getting photos of the AYP, I came to realize how interesting it was to embrace other cultures. Prior to the day, I associated every aspect of traditional yoga with India. I viewed western yoga as superficial and merely a fad or an excuse to exercise. By talking with the instructors and students, I see that they carry a great amount of respect for yoga. They are well versed with its origins and they adhere to the traditional roots of yoga. However, they still managed to hang on to some Kenyan culture. During the lesson, the instructors taught the students how how to apply the teachings of yoga to situations that were relevant to their daily lives in Kenya. After the class all the students had a meal that consisted of foods common to East Africa. Overall, this experience was a personal reminder for me to get out and see more things that I am not directly exposed to.