The final part of the WCMT fellowship was with the Africa Yoga Project in Nairobi.
Like many of the others I have spent time with, the AYP is an organisation I had been following for a while, and additionally I had really wanted to visit Africa for a long time so I was definitely ready for some travel adventure and new experience as I landed in Nairobi 4 days after I flew back from the USA.
Typically, I had just packed and jumped on the plane without considering small issues like visas, cash availability and the ATM situation in Nairobi so when I arrived at 11pm and realised that there was no working ATM from which to obtain the required cash to pay for a Kenyan visa in order to leave the airport and no card payment facility I realised I had possibly underestimated travel in Africa.
However the upside to travelling in places where everything is difficult is that someone will always help you in exchange for a bribe or your phone number (joking) and 1 hour later with the help of an airport official and a quick scoot to the front of the visa queue on the promise that I was said officials girlfriend, I was outside the airport meeting with George, a friendly English bloke who owns Run Beyond, Nairobis first dedicated running shop and the place to get Asics, Ronhill and, I was delusionally hoping, the ability to run like the elite Kenyan marathon runners. I was put in touch with George by Kate Dyer, our business strategy advisor who spent many years in Africa. Her knowledge and contacts really made the trip for me and I was regularly grateful during my time in Africa for existing in a community of well travelled people back in Edinburgh.
“Educates, Empowers, Elevates and Expands Employability with youth in Africa using the transformational practice of yoga. Our vision is to create opportunities for youth to step into their greatness and become self-sustaining leaders in their communities”
The work of the AYP is not just about teaching yoga. It’s health equality and education and leadership building skills and creating community through the practice of yoga, and through community development. The Africa Yoga Project understand that the way out of poverty is more complex than simply training yoga teachers and they have created a world class three year apprenticeship model that truly gives people the skills they need to contribute meaningfully in society.
The social determinants of health and health inequality has always been my true passion, and is what lies behind our vision and mission at Edinburgh Community Yoga in offering yoga outreach programmes to people who don’t access regular classes. We believe in a more equal and fairer society of all, and recognise that socio-economic deprivation does not just make yoga inaccessible for people, it makes education and employment less likely, good physical and mental health outcomes less likely and social isolation, low confidence, poor self esteem, inter personal violence, interaction with the criminal justice system and early mortality more likely. There is a 13 year gap in the life expectancy in the richest and poorest areas of Scotland for a baby boy born in 2019. Yoga won’t solve this. Obviously. (Getting rid of the Tories from Westminster might but that’s a different discussion). However I do believe that the tools we learn from well delivered yoga programmes can be profoundly useful in supporting people to develop agency, empowerment and confidence as well as improved physical and mental health that can support individuals in their life.
In order for yoga to become truly accessible there needs to be more diversity in representation across demographics of race gender and socio-economic status. It’s difficult for this to happen when teacher training is expensive and a pre requisite skills set is assumed prior to embarking on a standard 200 hour teacher training. The Africa Yoga Project are addressing this with a scholarshipped programme where clear expectations are outlined and students are supported through a community based education and yoga teaching programme, based around Baptiste Yoga Programming
Students commit to teaching free yoga in their communities, creating social interaction and a sense of mutual support, connectedness and space for fun and relaxation. I spent time at various outreach projects in Nairobi and was struck by how yoga can be taught and practiced in very different ways but the result is often similar. Community. Relaxation. Exploring window of tolerance. Moving. Breathing. Sometimes laughing which I always appreciate as I often tell my students how I got kicked out of my first yoga class for laughing (true story). Why so serious!
I visited a childrens remand centre where 45 kids squashed in a circle in a dark room practiced together with an AYP teacher called Jackie, responding in-group conversation at the end with statements like ‘I feel strong and brave after yoga’ ‘ My mind feels calmer and happier’ and ‘I get to have fun with my friends and feel stretching in my body’. Not that I understood any of it as my Sawahili doesn’t extend past Muzungo which is a mildly disparaging word for a white person that I hear ALOT, usually with a bit of laughing and pointing. For these kids mostly from impoverished areas and often in remand for long periods of time awaiting sentencing for petty crime, the opportunity to practice yoga is a welcome relief, and the fact that the yoga teacher is from their area allows for positive role modelling and opportunity for hope in the future.
I spent time in a couple of other community outreach projects, took part in a community B-Boys dancec class and had a lot of fun practicing yoga in unlikely locations with fun groups of Kenyans of all ages. I will say that the handstand practice is real in Nairobi, lots of people have grown up learning acrobatics and they are STRONG.
In addition to spending time on outreach projects I learned a lot from spending time at the AYP office in the Shine Centre, their community yoga studio and home base. I joined in community yoga to Afrobeats where over 300 people praticed together and in between having fun, got a lot of useful work done. The business model of the AYP is excellent and they have grown from a one woman show in the shape of Paige Elenson who’s determination, vision and dynamacy as the founding director means it exists at all, to a team of 27 that keep the business running smoothly and growing and responding to the changing nature of the organisation. Everyone who works there is smart, assertive and clear in the goal and shows in all of the work streams. I learned a lot about programming, monitoring and evaluation strategy and working with the idea of a theory of change to underpin the direction you move in. Everyone was committed to producing good work and excited to share collaborate and discuss how their work could inform ours as we begin to develop our current small scholarship programme.
There is a lot more to say about Africa, but I have probably written enough. After spending time at the AYP the fellowship was wrapped up and I headed overland to Moshi for a mountain bike safari, and then to Zanzibar for a few weeks of beach time. I won’t say Africa changed me, as I feel like I have travelled enough and am old enough that I am a fairly fully formed human however the opportunity to explore, interact, adventure and be immersed in different cultures gave me new perspectives, allowed me to have freedom and curiosity in thought and action and reminded me how good it is to take yourself out of your comfort zone and explore. Whatever that means for you.
Being offered the opportunity to complete this fellowship with the WCMT has truly been an experience I couldn’t have imagined. I started this blog back in October mentioning how I used to spend hours researching yoga not for profits and how to start them. To have time to stop and review how far I have come from that point, and also to feel excited about what Edinburgh Community has achieved, and what we could achieve as we move forward was invaluable and to collaborate, share knowledge challenge and idea with people who are our international counterparts is validating, exciting and important.
I am constantly surprised by the human experience, both my own and that of the people I meet along the way. In a time of political uncertainty, fear around climate change and the future of the planet and seeming polarisation of world views, being able to connect with human beings around the world and witness kindness, compassion and grass roots work creating change for good has been re-energising and motivating. We are not dead yet.
I am incredibly thankful to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for this opportunity, to every person who met with me talked with me, allowed me to attend their yoga classes and gain insight into their organisations and to my family, friends and colleagues who have supported me to complete it. I haven’t written much about the actual learning and goals of the fellowship on this blog as it is probably only of interest to a small number of people but I am about to write a 20,000 word report so if you’re interested I’ll probably need some proof reading… and coffee.
In particular I am indebted to our ECY team; Our teachers who I could trust to cover my classes, Laura, my business partner, best friend and family who always entertains my sometimes; scratch that, often, ridiculous ideas and has supported me in this evolving journey both personally and professionally every step of the way. Kat, our administrator who has changed the landscape of our organisation and our workload with her ability to stay on top of Laura and I’s scattered schedules, educate us about social justice, manage all our day to day enquiries and teach yoga all over the place while also sneaking off to Skye to get married to her love in between. Congratulations Kat! I could not be more grateful to have these women in my life and to work for Edinburgh Community Yoga as we move forward in our mission and vision.