As you may know, Liquido has partnered with Africa Yoga Project to create an exclusive legging to support the organization and its outreach programs in Africa. Today, we have guest blogger and Africa Yoga Project volunteer and champion, Michelle Johnson, explaining her inspiring experiences in Nairobi with AYP.
My first exposure to the Africa Yoga Project (AYP) was through Franklin Street Yoga Center in Chapel Hill, NC. The studio was leading a yoga mala to raise money for AYP and they shared a three-minute video on Facebook about the project. I was so inspired by what I saw that I went home and told my partner, Jeff, we were going to Kenya.
I was moved by the story of Paige Elenson, a yoga teacher from New York who visited Kenya, did some handstands with the locals, and then began a project that is transforming communities and informal settlements in Nairobi. I was moved by the story of the teachers who were from the slums of Nairobi who started practicing yoga and then became yoga teachers who are now leaders in their community.
After deciding that Jeff and I would venture to Kenya, I wrote to Paige inquiring about AYP’s Ambassador Program. After she understood how serious I was about coming to Kenya, my fundraising began, tickets were purchased, shots were given (ouch), and we were on our way.
And so, on New Years Day 2012, we began our tenure as ambassadors for this amazing project--an experience that would forever change me.
At that time, the AYP teachers reached five thousand people a week by offering free yoga classes and a large community class on the weekends. Africa Yoga Project thinks of yoga in a holistic way. They strive to change communities through yoga, build coalitions, and create peace through yoga. This was evident by the way they taught, who they taught, and the understanding that if basic human needs weren’t being met then yoga wouldn’t resonate. In other words, children need milk and nutrients to practice yoga, so the project brings milk to the children in the outreaches they provide. In addition, AYP feeds all of the attendees of their 200-person community yoga class on Saturdays. The organization also builds schools, community toilets, supports its teachers’ higher educations, and creates leaders. Africa Yoga Project is changing the face of yoga, one person at a time, one community at a time.
I was so amazed by what I saw and experienced that on our third night in Nairobi, when I couldn’t sleep because of the time change (Jeff was fast asleep), I emailed Paige and made a commitment to raise $100,000 for the project in my lifetime. Jeff greeted Paige in the morning, where she immediately said, “Thank you so much!” Jeff had no idea what she was talking about, but quickly learned that I’d committed us to something that I believed in; something that had cracked my heart open and made me realize that yoga could be so much more than the mat, down dog, and physical practice.
I’ve deepened my understanding that yoga is more about what happens off the mat than on the mat. We transform our bodies so we can transform our lives and make this world a better place. From this place of transformation, I’ve focused on working with the teachers to help them move through the trauma they had experienced in response to the post-election violence of 2007-2008. Many of them had witnessed friends dying or experienced frightening violence, and they were suffering from PTSD. They had no language for their experience or tools to respond.
Each time I travel to Kenya, I add to the teachers’ ability to respond to trauma and in turn, they have share these skills with their students. They are spreading tools that will truly provide healing, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually.
I’ve been to Kenya three times and am planning a return trip in August 2015. Many people know about my involvement with AYP, so I am taking a group of yoga teacher trainees from my teacher training, Skill in Action, and local yoga teachers with me. Together, we will engage in a community project and enjoy the beauty that Kenya has to offer. We’ve raised $36,000 for the project so far and we will keep going.
The Africa Yoga Project has enhanced my teaching, allowed me to better understand the intersection of yoga and social justice, and has inspired many in my classes and beyond. What I see happening through this project is deeper than what I see happening on the mat in The States. People roll out their mats, assume their parking space on the yoga studio floor, practice, and roll up their mat and leave. AYP asks us to think about how to build community through the practice of yoga, how to understand that yoga continues once you step off of the mat, and to think about how to make other people’s lives better through the practice. It asks us to dedicate our practice to something bigger than ourselves, bigger than the ego. It reminds us that this practice is about the breath, the opportunity when we breathe in and the release and offering when we breathe out.
Decide to do something big; let a three-minute video inspire you--let a person, a word, an experience--inspire you to be something so much bigger than you thought you could be. There is an African Proverb that says, “Pray by moving your feet.” I interpret this to mean that we pray, vision, and dream by moving our feet and through our belief that we must take action to make change and transform.
Michelle C. Johnson, MSW, LCSW RYT 200Hr 500Hr
Michelle teaches yoga in Chapel Hill and Carrboro and currently leads a yoga teacher training focused on the intersection of yoga and social justice. To learn more visit: michellecjohnsonyoga.com