In Conversation with Africa Yoga Project Founder Paige Elenson.
Paige Elenson was on a Kenyan safari with her family five years ago when first she encountered acrobats practicing outside a Masai village. Not one to let life pass her by, she jumped out of a safari vehicle to practice alongside them in an act that would later inspire the Africa Yoga Project. An international non-profit, it trains young adults living in East African slums and rural villages to teach yoga and earn their livings leading classes in their communities.
Elenson, a New York-born, Nairobi-dwelling yoga instructor extraordinaire, just wrapped up the organization’s first Seva Safari. The two-week trip brought 17 volunteers from around the world to Kenya to offer their hands and $5K each in funds to create a safe space for residents of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. We spoke as participants packed up and Elenson considered the power of yoga as an employment and non-violence mechanism.
How do you stay inspired?
PE: By going and visiting outreach classes that Africa Yoga teachers lead in their communities. It’s really easy for me to stay behind a computer all day and get work done, but visiting outreach and seeing how other people are contributing keeps me energized. The creative fundraising that our supporters undertake around the world also reinspires me.
I really try to stay involved in the larger picture. Poverty is a problem we’re trying to solve, and we consider deep trauma and how yoga can help. AYP partners with other Kenyan organizations so we can look beyond what we have to do to better understand what is actually happening here.
How do you choose AYP’s partners?
A lot of this organization’s work to reach people who can benefit from yoga is led by the heart. So our criteria for choosing partners is “who is doing work that has the most impact?” I consider which organizations I’d want to donate my own money to. Shining Hope for Communities and Flying Kites both qualify, and it’s great that I don’t just have to donate but can work with them in larger ways [like Seva Safari participants building a Shining Hope space space].
How did the concept of Seva Safari lead to 17 people coming to Kenya to pitch in?
Yoga changed my life in the form of one of Baron Baptiste’s retreats, a teaching bootcamp. I saw the power of a dedicated group of people that are up to something. And my life has been so changed by coming to Kenya, and part of the organization’s mission is giving others the change to contribute in meaningful ways.
I figured that anyone committed enough to fundraise and ask people for money for something they believe in would be able to be at peace with the complexity here. It’s always been a dream of mine to host a chance for yogis to experience Kenya, and now I’m excited to continue the work that started on the Seva (“selfless service”) trip.
As you look at AYP’s future, what has you excited in the long-term?
Definitely the opportunity to provide a framework for people to be of service. I want to facilitate four Seva Safaris a year as a really concrete way to partner with great organizations and build collaborative relationships in Kenya.
My inspiration [former child soldier and musician] Emmanuel Jal’s Lose2Win tour offers the possibility to bring yoga and emotional intelligence to schools around the world. We have so much in America but lack perspective about how other people in the world have it. I think the real life examples our AYP teachers can offer students about taking action will be really valuable as we grow.
When other non-profit founders come to you for words of wisdom, what do you share?
I’m all about being in action—I started AYP’s work long before I started a foundation. My advice is to build a network of support, see if the community wants the work you thing they want, and figure out the rest later. We offer internships for a few months to learn about our methodology, and that’s been mutually beneficial for the organization and volunteers.
It’s important to mention that our offering—a strong dynamic physical practice—is combined with a focus on self-inquiry. A focus on individual transformation translates really well when combined with meditation and development work.
As soon as you started teaching in Nairobi, your practitioners said they wanted to teach as well. What should we know about them?
Our teachers inspire me with the way they take feedback and integrate it immediately. They have the ability to be honest and unstoppable and a real desire to succeed and exceed. Their teaching is life or death—their lives depend on AYP succeeding—and when we operate with the stakes being so high, we get excellent results.
AYP teachers have largely lived lives of resignment. Before they came to yoga, many had resorted to stealing, selling illegal things or their own bodies. Yoga has offered them the opportunity to be part of a community with a belief system that’s inspiring to them while improving their fiscal lives.
We have the opportunity in the West to find alignment between our personal, professional, and health lives. That’s not the case here. I hear teachers say all the time “I don’t know where I’d be” without yoga and it’s not because of what we’re giving—it’s what they’ve taken away.
How have AYP teachers in Kenya changed the way you teach yoga?
My voice is louder—and I also now have a lot more to lose. I’ve realized the global power of yoga and what it makes possible. As an instructor, I’m in constant exploration and looking to use yoga to invite people to do good things.
Teaching is about sharing. Sharing the yoga practice with whomever you meet is enough. There’s a simplicity in sharing your asana practice, and you don’t have to be a yoga missionary who must find the most desperate situation. Teach where you are and practice empowered self-sacrifice.
You were the first person to bring yoga to Kenya on this scale. What is it’s potential here?
Yoga is how big of an industry on every other continent but Africa? We have an opportunity to grow the industry in a really conscious way in Africa today. We have to start training more local people to lead classes at a large scale.
This year’s Yoga Aid in October will be raising funds for Africa Yoga Project to train and pay 50 new yoga teachers in Kenya.
Emily Goligoski is a Bay Area-based writer, yoga teacher, and producer. She started the Women 2.0 In Conversation series to share the advice of successful entrepreneurs and has worked in online publishing for the past five years. This fall will find her at Stanford’s d.school studying Learning, Design & Technology and teaching with the Art of Yoga Project. You can follow her @emgollie Twitter updates.