Yoga Is Helping End Poverty in Africa—No, Seriously

One organization is spreading peace and love by helping marginalized youths earn a stable income as yoga instructors.

A Seva Safari participant practicing yoga with members of the Maasai tribe in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. (Photo: Courtesy Africa Yoga Project)

Feb 23, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Melissa Catelli is a contributing writer based in New York City who specializes in global health, development, and international security policy.

For most travelers, a Kenyan safari involves days of patiently waiting for a glimpse of lions, elephants, or an elusive leopard hiding in the bush. For native New Yorker Paige Elenson, a 2006 family safari yielded a far less conventional sighting: a group of young Kenyan acrobats doing handstands in the middle of the bush.

“As a yoga teacher, my first reaction was to jump out of the vehicle and do handstands with [them],” Elenson says—so she did, leaving the safari group behind.

It was a brief encounter, but Elenson’s skills—honed over 15 years—impressed them more than she could have imagined. Shortly after returning to New York, she discovered a message in her Myspace inbox: The acrobats, who are members of the Sarakasi Trust, asked her to come back and teach them yoga. At first, Elenson, a full-time yoga teacher, declined their requests, sending them yoga books and DVDs instead. But their persistence paid off. “My heart said yes, and I came back to Kenya,” she recalls.

Funding her way to Nairobi in 2007 with personal savings, Elenson started volunteering in some of the informal settlement communities and then was invited to teach yoga at an upscale gym in a different part of the city. “I was able to earn over $300 from a weekend workshop in a country with an average salary of less than two dollars a day,” she says (UNICEF estimates that 46 percent of residents live below the poverty line).

At the time, the city was home to just five yoga teachers, says Elenson, and the health and wellness industry in Kenya was only accessible to a small number of wealthy individuals. On average, a single yoga class cost each participant 500 Kenyan shillings, or approximately $5.50.

So Elenson came up with an idea: Why not create a way to train unemployed youths from marginalized communities and help them earn money teaching yoga?

Nairobi local Eliam Wanji, in half moon pose, has been teaching yoga through AYP for the past five years. (Photo: Courtesy Africa Yoga Project)

That year, she founded the Africa Yoga Project. The program provides a scholarship-based, 200-hour teacher training course to residents ages 18 to 35 from slums and informal settlements across Kenya; the goal is to help the teachers spread health and well-being throughout their communities while also providing them with a stable income. As of 2013, 9 percent of Kenya’s working age population of 17.2 million was jobless, and according to a study by the U.N. Development Programme, young people ages 15 to 34 account for 80 percent of those unemployed. To qualify for the program, Elenson requires that applicants be African nationals, demonstrate financial need, and be “committed to becoming a yoga teacher and serving communities.”

Participants who have completed all of their requirements are provided a stipend of roughly $100 per month over the course of three years to teach five weekly outreach classes free of charge in their communities. By comparison, an independent yoga instructor teaching classes at a gym typically makes between $5 and $10 per session, but unlike AYP jobs, steady work is not guaranteed. AYP also provides health benefits, which most gyms do not, and promotes the teachers for hire as private instructors. Teachers are required to open a bank account in order to receive their monthly stipend, encouraging long-term financial responsibility as well.

The weekly outreach classes take place in various locations, including schools and acrobat training camps, but also areas of need such as orphanages, HIV centers, and prisons. More than 200 local AYP-trained instructors teach approximately 300 classes and reach 6,000 people each week in Kenya.

“People locally are practicing yoga, they know people who are teaching, and they see the change in their lives and what’s happening for them,” said AYP’s managing director, Nikki Eason. And thanks to social media and word of mouth, students and teachers come from all walks of life in Kenya and across Africa.

To fund-raise for the scholarships, AYP hosts more than 100 attendees through each of their Seva Safari health and wellness trips and teacher trainings per month, which bring travelers from around the globe to learn yoga and get a taste of the local culture and sights. Participants commit to raising $4,000 per person in donations outside of travel expenses, all of which goes toward AYP’s stipends and program costs.

Eason says most of the current teachers were unemployed prior to working with Africa Yoga Project and were living in some of Kenya’s poorest slums. “For many of them, their way of making a living [was] through pickpocketing or theft,” she says.

Nairobi local Eliam Wanji, 27, had never heard of yoga until her sisters started practicing with AYP. Wanji’s older sister was an acrobat at Sarakasi, where she met Elenson in 2007. Once her siblings began to make a living teaching yoga, Wanji decided to give it a try as well. Prior to AYP, she held a variety of different casual jobs, from beading to garbage collection, but her income was never consistent.

“The most I made one time was 7,500 shillings [equivalent to $82], and I felt like I was the richest person on earth,” she says. “There is no way I can compare AYP and former jobs. It’s like comparing death and sleep.” Today, four members of Wanji’s family are teaching yoga, and she’s been with the organization for five years.

For Wanji, the most challenging and rewarding part of her training with AYP was learning about forgiveness. “We were asked to call people that we needed to forgive and also ask for forgiveness,” she says. “I am the better for it, as it helped set me free [so] I could move on with my life.”

According to Eason, this is something that a few of the teachers particularly struggle with for various reasons: “When Paige trained them and said, ‘Now you have to go back and teach in your communities,’ that was tough. These were people they had stolen from, and now [they] had to build trust to get them to come do yoga or send their kids to do yoga with.”

Eight years in, Elenson says she’s most proud of how the program has helped participants enter Kenya’s middle class while serving their communities and doing something they enjoy. “Some AYP teachers have moved from living in what they referred to as slums to new homes, starting families, supporting family members with school fees, and working on new income generating projects,” she says.

AYP is in the process of expanding its teacher training programs to Uganda, Rwanda, and South Africa. It also recognizes that some participants may decide that yoga is not the right fit for them at the end of the program; as a result, the organization also offers career counseling and mentorship for those who want to explore other options.

In one case, a teacher who completed the yoga program realized her true calling was working as a seamstress, so Eason helped place some of her handmade yoga accessories in AYP’s retail section. “We’re really creating the space now for them to think about what it is that they want to do long term,” she says. “And if there is a way that we can support them in that, then we want to find it.”