The links between yoga values and values in African society are many, and with two such beautiful worlds coming together… What’s not to like? It is a perfect match made… in the mind and on the mat. Yoga lovers in Nairobi are inevitably familiar Africa Yoga Project because the AYP headquarters are in the Kenyan capital. But the teachers and AYP community spend a lot of time on the road so you can bump into them greeting the sun when you least expect it.
We really admire the work that AYP do, in Kenya, in Africa and internationally and it is with great pleasure that we share this interview with AYP yoga teacher Catherine Njeri and Managing Director Nikki Eason, with you. We have been wanting to share this with you for a long time. Namaste.
First to Catherine, please tell us a little about yourself and about AYP.
CN: My name is Catherine Njeri, I am from Nairobi. I am an Africa Yoga Project teacher and the Director of teachers. I have been working here since April 2009. I decided to be a yoga instructor after visiting an IDP camp after the post election. I was an entertainer and with me was Paige the Director of AYP, after seeing how she was able to bring people together by teaching yoga and the fun and laughter in that class was so inspiring, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
How did AYP start and what is it?
CN: AYP started out of a family safari trip that Paige took in 2006. While in Kenya, she saw a group of young Kenyan men doing handstands in the middle of the bush. She got out of the safari van and did handstands with them. As a result of that trip and many persistent requests by these young acrobats to come back to Kenya and teach them yoga, she went back to Kenya and spent three months here. It was during these three months that she realized there was something she could do to impact the youth unemployment issue in Kenya through developing jobs for young yoga teachers. The full story of what happened next can be found here on the AYP website.
How do people in Kenya and from other places usually discover Africa Yoga Project?
CN: Globally, word is spread through our AYP teachers traveling to the US and our Seva Safari participants. I think in Nairobi it’s mainly word of mouth – friends telling friends about how yoga is changing their bodies and lives. We also have over 100 teachers currently teaching free outreach classes in the community. Each week we reach over 6,000 people through these free classes. In addition to that, our teachers are teaching private classes all over Nairobi, to so many diverse groups of people. And from this work our teachers are doing, every week we have new students at our Saturday Community Class. So word of mouth combined with social media, is probably what brings new students and supporters into our community in Nairobi.
We have community members and supporters all over the planet. So much of how people discover us globally is through the participants on our Seva Safari service trips to Africa. Each participant commits to raising $4,000 for Africa Yoga Project. They individually are reaching out and spreading the word to their network of friends, family, coworkers and business connections. And often those people get so inspired that they themselves become Seva Safari participants. And, once you come to Africa and spend time with our community in Kenya, you are always a part of AYP. The community keeps growing.
We have over 48,000 likes on our Africa Yoga Project FaceBook page. It’s so awesome to see postsgetting shared and new likes every single day. Plus great partners like you at Meanwhile in Kenya are getting us connected with new people every day. (MiKe: Thank you… It’s a pleasure.)
All of that to say, there is no one specific way that new people usually discover AYP. We are so grateful that people are inspired by the work we do and spread our word. We could not do it without the amazing friends, donors, supporters, participants, sponsors, media partners and community members that believe in what we are up to.
Tell us about the connection between yoga practice and community work from your perspective, how do they connect and strengthen one another?
CN: The word yoga literally means to yoke or come together or community – so it is a natural fit. Yoga brings people together and when we unite with a common goal of being healthy relaxed and all the other benefits that come with yoga, we create a community.
This community is willing and ready to see some change in the world. What we do in AYP is to create such communities.
Who can participate in AYP projects and how?
CN: We welcome anyone who wants to be involved in AYP. Anyone can come to the Shine Center in Nairobi at 10 am every Saturday for our free community class, which is always followed by a free vegetarian lunch. We have studio classes at the Shine Center and in Pop-Up studio locations across Nairobi throughout the week, please visit our website for an updated calendar. If someone wants to come just once, maybe they are in Nairobi for tourism and business, they are always welcome to the Shine Center for community class on Saturdays at 10 am. We usually have over 200 people practicing together and it is free.
Anyone can also arrange a private class in their workplace or home with our qualified teachers and we also send teachers to hotels.
You can also register for our annual 200 hour yoga teacher training by applying on-line, and you can apply to a scholarship if you live in Africa and meet our criteria.
One can also volunteer by being part of the Seva Safari team, which is an opportunity for an adventure, service, yoga practice, and building community. We have trips planned all year round.
Opportunities to plug in are plenty; I would encourage you to visit our website www.africayogaproject.org to learn more.
I read on your website that you are looking for mentors for your teachers. Can you tell us some more about that and what kind of people are you looking for?
CN: As a mentor, the Mentor Program is a 12-month commitment. The monthly contribution of $125 pays for the salary of an AYP teacher. Mentors and AYP Teachers engage in monthly Skype conversations and email exchanges. In order to facilitate learning and sharing, a new theme is presented each month, based on the year of the mentee. We look for people who are committed to empowering, educating and elevation their mentees.
NE: Everyone has a gift to give. We are looking for mentors that are willing to give of themselves, be vulnerable and explore with our teachers. Each month we provide content that the mentor will use to facilitate the learning for the monthly call. The ideal mentor is someone that will take the time to review the content, help guide the AYP Teacher through the learning, and be willing to use personal examples to help land the learning. I believe the key to being a great mentor is being willing to listen and share your own experiences.
What types of yoga do you teach and practice mainly at AYP?
NE: We practice Baptiste Power Yoga. Baptiste Yoga was founded in the 1940′s by Walt Baptiste and through his son Baron, it has evolved into a practice that holds true to the spirit of its creation while remaining accessible to anyone today. The physical aspects of Baptiste Yoga style are inspired by the hatha yoga teachings of Krishnamacharya and his students Iyengar and Desikachar, whom Baron Baptiste studied with personally from a young age.
The Baptiste Yoga practice and programs are designed to empower you with the focus, training and insight you need to achieve consistent results in the most important areas of your life. A potent physical yoga practice, meditation practice and active self inquiry are used as tools of transformation –encouraging participants to reclaim their full potential, discover creativity, awaken passion, create authenticity, confidence and new possibilities. To learn more about Baptiste Yoga visit www.baronbaptiste.com.
You teach yoga in many different contexts and probably some of the people you meet have perhaps never really heard or thought about yoga. How do you introduce it to them –what is the first step and description and step?
CN: Yes, we do meet people who have never done yoga before. Some people have heard the word yoga and think that its meditation, most people thinks it’s a religion.We focus on the physical part of yoga and that is easy to explain to people. The first step is explaining and making sure everyone has an idea of what they are going to do.
NE: The most common statements I hear from a beginner is ‘I’m not flexible enough to do yoga’, ‘Once I lose weight I will come take a class’, ‘I need to practice before I go take a group class’. I get it. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 8 years. When I took my first class, I thought I would sit and ‘Om’for an hour. I had no idea what I was getting myself into with power vinyasa yoga. There were moments during the class where I thought I was surely going to die. And I didn’t! I made it through the class. I remember the teacher in that first class. She got me in my body. It was the first time in a long time that I had really experienced and discovered my body in any way other than to judge it for what it was not. In the Baptiste Methodology, we start with physicality. So that’s what I do with new students. I first talk to them about ujjayi breath and get them to try that. The studio I primarily teach at is heated. So the other important thing I share are some tips on handling the heat, like staying in the room and taking childs pose, or simply sitting and breathing. . I typically do that before class. And if I don’t get to demonstrate breath with them, that’s ok too. And really, more than anything, I simply get them to move their bodies. And throughout class, no matter the experience
Two questions I ask everyone I interview for MIKE: why do you love doing what you do? And what do you wish more people knew about Kenya?
CN: I love teaching yoga because anyone, all ages can do yoga, after yoga, I feel so relaxed and full of clarity. And I wish people know the peace we experience in Kenya as well as how beautiful our country and our people are.
What is the vision and plan for the next steps for AYP? What new steps are you hoping to take?
CN: AYP plans on becoming the biggest and highest quality yoga training academy in Africa, where we graduate the best of the best in terms of wellness experts. The potential of the wellness industry in Africa still remains largely untapped, but our instructors/graduates are slowly filling the niche.
Do you do exchanges for example that a yoga teacher from AYP goes to a yoga center somewhere abroad for a retreat or week or something?
CN: We are open to such opportunities should they present themselves.
NE: We just completed our first Cultural Exchange Internship of an AYP Teacher to the US. And we are excited to start creating more opportunities like this. Check this article out to get a sense of how it all unfolded. For the past two years we have also done a Handstands, Hugs and Highways tour through the US. This is a time when 4 –6 our of AYP teachers travel throughout the US teaching fundraiser classes and outreach classes in the communities they travel. It’s a great chance for our teachers to get to see part of the country, connect with supporter and donors, and raise money for Africa Yoga Project. We are continuing to look for opportunities for our AYP teachers to travel. I would love to send some of our teachers to week-long training programs, and it takes funds to do that. The more scholarships / sponsorships to programs we can get, the more opportunities we will be able to fulfill.
The last question goes to Nikki who has much experience of teaching yoga in different countries. It is about the topic of global yoga. There is a global yoga community that is always open to new members but at the same time countries in the world are very different. As humans, we have much in common though. What do you think? Do we bring the same challenges to the mat everywhere around the world? Is there something that is particular about teaching yoga in Kenya? Is practicing yoga in an African/East African context different somehow from European or US or Asian?
NE: This is such an interesting question. I just spent about a month in Kenya. While I was there I taught the Community Class one Saturday. There were close to 300 students in class and the students in the class were very diverse. When I got home to Charlotte, NC, I taught my regular Monday 5:30 pm class with almost 60 students in class. From my looking, the students in my Charlotte seemed less diverse. In both classes I had students who were working so hard and students that needed to be pushed to work hard, students who were smiling and seemed free in their bodies and students who were so serious and clenching their teeth, and students who were very experienced practicing yoga and students who were brand new. In both classes there were assistants giving hands on assists to empower the student on their mat. I taught the same Baptiste Journey Into Power sequence in both classes. One was 2 hours long and one was 75 minutes long. One class was at the Shine Center in Nairobi, Kenya, and one was at Yoga One in Charlotte, NC. From my experience teaching, here were the biggest differences in teaching the two classes.
When I taught the class in Nairobi, students were set up mat to mat, with barely an inch of space between their mat and the person’s mat next to them. When I asked them to look at their neighbor, or hold their neighbor’s hand for support, they did. When I cued the students to express themselves, I saw creativity, wonder and freedom generated in their bodies. In the midst of doing the work and the sweat, fun, play and smiles seemed to come easy. My class in Charlotte is in a studio that holds 112 students. As the students came in and set up, they gave themselves about a mat space between themselves and the people around them. When I cued for them to express themselves, I saw more hesitation and less creativity, wonder and freedom. It seemed difficult to get the students to make a connection with each other. As a teacher, I had to work much harder to bring a sense of lightness and ease in the midst of the work and sweat of the asana practice. All of this to say, I think it’s the same everywhere in the world. People come to their mat. Some come for the physicality of the yoga practice, some come for inspiration, some come for connection and community, some come because it’s something to do. And everyone that walks into every class around the world brings something from their past with them. As a teacher, I seldom know what experiences and past my students are stepping onto the mat with. And this practice works for everybody everywhere. Whether you grew up fighting for your next meal and a place to live, or you grew up always knowing you would have a place to live and food to eat, yoga works.
We each can get exactly what we need from the practice,
no matter where on the globe we roll out our mat. – Nikki Eason
Hope to see you on a mat somewhere at the Shine Centre. Until then we wish you this. Thank you so much Catherine and Nikki for taking the time to share you experiences and thoughts with Meanwhile in Kenya.