Little did Paige Elenson’s parents know that trip to Kenya, Africa would change their daughter’s life. As a teenager on safari with her father, Elenson was intrigued by young men doing handstands in the middle of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
A yoga instructor from New York City, Elenson jumped out of her vehicle and asked the young men if they’d do handstands with her. What she didn’t know was these young men lived in one of Kenya’s informal settlements and performed acrobatics as a means of supporting themselves. They became fast friends, and Elenson eventually returned to Kenya inspired to teach yoga full time.
This unlikely meeting would spark Africa Yoga Project (AYP), a Kenya-based empowerment initiative using the power of yoga to affect change.
“Africa Yoga Project really started with a handstand,” said Elenson, who is the co-founder and director of AYP. “Starting Africa Yoga Project, I’ve realized the true meaning of yoga: that yoga really is a practice that takes us to understand that we really all are the same at our basic level.”
“No matter if I’m from New York City, on Wall Street or live in an informal settlement without a toilet — when we’re moving our bodies; when we’re experiencing heartbreak; when we’re experiencing celebration: we’re all the same. We’re all the same at our basic level,” she emphasized.
Expanding from one tiny room with 50 people “squished with people doing yoga in the bathrooms in the hallways,” three years prior, AYP opened its own space called the Shine Center. Eight years after it began, the project empowers more than a quarter million Kenyans each year through the power of yoga. With almost 100 local teachers and many volunteers, AYP is making an impact and giving back to the Kenyan community, the economy and its people.
AYP teachers teach for free in some of Kenya’s poorest areas. Donations, grants and paid classes taken by the more fortunate in Kenyan society fuel these programs.
“When people think about being of service in Africa, a lot of time the question I’ll get is ‘why yoga?’ People need food; people need housing; there’s war; what is yoga going to do?” Ellison asked. However, in a community with an 80 percent youth unemployment rate, AYP has created thousands of jobs.
Millie Weke is an instructor at AYP’s Shine Center in Nairobi, Kenya. AYP trained her to be a teacher free of charge, and now Weke gives back to her community. She aspires to own a yoga studio herself.
James “Jomo” also teaches in the communities around Nairobi and does private training with the skills he learned at AYP.
“I really take it as a big inspiration for life. It’s a big step forward; it changed my life,” he said.
According to its website, AYP’s core weekly activities include yoga practice, meditation, self-exploration through inquiry, performing arts as a vehicle for empowerment, health education (HIV/AIDS), relationship building and community activism. All programs are designed to increase physical, emotional and mental wellbeing on the individual level while also building healthy and empowered communities.
See more details on Africa Yoga Project.
This article and video originally were originally presented on dptv.denverpost.com through a partnership with The Denver Post.