How Kenya's growing yoga movement is saving people from poverty

The country, which is now Africa's yoga capital, is using the practice to create opportunities for the younger generation

A group yoga session in Amboseli, Kenya. Courtesy Africa Yoga Project
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When Kelly Alomba arrived on the Kenyan island of Lamu to work as a teacher, he didn't realise he would spend so much of his time leading breathing exercises and correcting postures. Nine years later, he teaches five classes a day as a full-time yoga instructor – a job that was virtually unheard of in the country not so long ago.

Alomba, 36, was introduced to the centuries-old practice by the Dutch mother of one of his pupils. "Before I came here, I didn't even know what yoga was. It never even crossed my mind," he says.

As a youth, Alomba trained as a gymnast and he is using those skills to serve the country's newly health-conscious middle-class. Thanks to a grassroots initiative that began more than a decade ago, Kenya has become the yoga capital of Africa, churning out talented instructors while broadening the country's appeal beyond safaris and white-sand beaches.

The Africa Yoga Project in Nairobi offers subsidised training for hundreds of prospective yogis, as well as free classes that aim to spread the benefits of yoga to the masses. The goal is to build careers around the fast-growing wellness industry to counter the high unemployment rate that plagues Kenya's youths, with the World Bank saying 18.3 per cent of Kenyans aged between 15 and 24 are without a job.

"People have a different picture of what a yoga teacher looks like or where they come from," AYP co-founder Paige Elenson tells The National. The main priority for the non-profit organisation is to create opportunities for young people to be leaders, she says.

Much of that relies on the backing of donors, including fashion retailers Lululemon and Kate Spade, brands that collectively pledged more $1 million (Dh3.7m) last year, with nearly all of it used to provide tuition and other assistance to students. For many AYP graduates, the results have been life-changing.

Kelly Alomba teaches yoga on Lamu Motez Bishara for The National

A year after his first yoga session, Alomba received a scholarship to attend the AYP's two-and-a-half week teacher training course. He became the first Kenyan-qualified yoga teacher in Lamu, which is fast becoming a hub for the practice. The island, known for its Omani-­influenced culture and a ban on the use of cars for the general public, is to host the seventh annual Lamu Yoga Festival from Wednesday to Sunday, March 4 to 8, when more than 300 yogis from across the world will visit Lamu and neighbouring Manda Island. Alomba was instrumental in helping Monika Fauth, the Dutch woman whose child he taught, launch the festival in 2014.

"We are getting more Kenyans starting to teach yoga, therefore we can reach out to the local community more and more," says Fauth, who 20 years ago, opened Lamu's Banana House hotel, which operates as a yoga centre. "That is really my dream. Imparting the knowledge is fantastic, but I am still a white woman from Europe – that has a different connection than an African person teaching other Africans."

It's a trend that's now taking off across the continent. While the AYP began as a local outreach programme, it now provides support to more than 450 teachers spread across more than 20 countries – most notably in Rwanda and Uganda, with 15 graduates operating in both countries. Often, the organisation will pay for travel costs and housing for qualified overseas students who are accepted into its teacher training. Currently, 300 applicants are bidding for 70 spots in the next programme. To be considered, candidates must be aged between 18 and 35 and show a passion for community work, while a lack of access to education and employment would be considered favourably, the AYP says.

Well-being is a source of job creation in Africa, but there are so many skills you need to launch a business

The effect it has seems surreal to Elenson, who met her first students while on safari in Kenya with her father in 2006. As an instructor taught by Power Yoga guru Baron Baptiste, she was quick to display her handstand skills to a group of acrobats performing for tourists. Months later, they found Elenson online and asked her to return and teach them yoga. "Our bodies may not be flexible, but our minds are," they said in their message. She went back to Kenya a year later and taught them while living in the biggest slum in Nairobi.

“That first trip was very eye-opening to a different way of living,” she says. “As a New Yorker, I thought I knew everything, but I really knew nothing.”

During the next few years, Elenson made several trips, instructing the poor for free and charging wealthy locals and UN staff, until one day she had an epiphany. She says that at the time she thought "this is how systemic poverty keeps existing". "People with privilege keep their privilege and make income from it, while people born without privilege are waiting on handouts," she says. "What would it look like if I were to spend my time training young people on how to work in the middle and upper-classes instead?"

She recruited Baptiste to join her in conducting the AYP's first yoga teacher training in the coastal town of Malindi. It turned out that many of the 60 participants in the class came because they had never seen the ocean nor stayed in a hotel. Nearly all of them were employed straight after their training was complete.

The Africa Yoga Project graduates hold classes across Kenya in places such as Nairobi. Courtesy Africa Yoga Project

In 2012, the AYP opened the Shine Centre, a 560-square-­metre community space in Nairobi featuring an enormous yoga shala that accommodates 400 sweaty participants at weekends. Every week, organisers teach hundreds of free yoga classes with an ethos of inclusion rarely seen in the West. A full-time sign language interpreter assists with the deaf and several AYP teachers are trained to guide the visually impaired in their practice.

Stories of those who have benefited from AYP classes are heart-warming. For example, Walter Mugwe, 26, grew up in Nairobi as a drug-runner and pickpocket before Elenson taught a lesson at his school that led to a scholarship. He was recently flown to Washington, DC, as an AYP spokesman and led several classes.

In 2017, 12 AYP-trained Somali instructors taught yoga classes as a means of therapy to young victims of sexual abuse and former child soldiers in the country, while other graduates have worked in prisons and refugee camps in East Africa.

AYP co-founder Paige Elenson. Courtesy Africa Yoga Project

The AYP's next aim is to bolster its academy, which focuses on business development and teaches maths, marketing and law to would-be entrepreneurs. Last year, three graduates opened a deluxe establishment, Yoga Heart Kenya, in Nairobi's affluent Westlands area.

"Well-being is a source of job creation on the continent, but there are so many skills you need to launch a business that people don't realise," explains Elenson. It was "awesome" to attend a full class at her former students' studio, she says.

Back on Lamu, Alomba is busy mixing classes at Banana House with private lessons that cost $30 (Dh110) per session. It's a good source of income in a country where the average weekly wage is about $140, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. But yoga is much more than a job to Alomba. "Before I was not that social, but with yoga you meet so many people," he says. "It's amazing, I want to just connect and share so many things. This is my path now."