“I was probably the person that my high school yearbook would have voted ‘Least Likely To Move to Kenya to Teach Yoga’,” says New York City-native, Paige Elenson. “My life was consumed with the pursuit of success and, in turn, had some reckless failures of that pursuit. I felt empty, lonely and unhealthy.”
It was when she found her way to the mat, with the guidance of yoga teacher Baron Baptiste that she came to the realisation that, “anything is possible if you come from a place of being open to what’s next. Baptiste Yoga transformed my life,” she explains. “And I was compelled to learn how to share that with others.” Today, Paige is the executive director and co-founder of the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), that’s trained 200 yoga teachers (the majority from under-developed areas in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and beyond) who in turn share the practice – and its numerous benefits for body and mind – with thousands. It’s little wonder then, that activewear leader Lululemon, having recently launched their social impact program Here to Be, headhunted AYP to be part of the story.
“I remember my first conversation with Paige, and the feeling I came away with, which was a resounding ‘hell yes!’ to getting into partnership with them,” says Here to Be Program Manager, Alison Murphy. “From there, we have worked closely together on a film, mat donation, and supporting the AYP academy through our grant. Our partnership is just beginning and we are focused on supporting, monitoring and evaluation, as well as opportunities that will help them scale.” AYP currently holds 300 free community classes in Kenya each week, where 7000 people from all walks of life chant a collective ‘namaste’. According to Paige, its dreams extend right across the continent. Here’s what she had to say about the movement and her own personal journey.
We love the story of how this all started. Can you share it with us?
In 2016, I was on a safari with my family in Africa when I saw some Kenyan acrobats doing handstands in the bush. I got out and showed them that I could stand on my hands too. After the safari, I came back to New York and kept receiving calls from the Kenyan acrobats pleading with me to come back and teach them more. Finally, after lots of thought, I decided to go back. This trip is what changed it all for me. What I did not realise was that I would be staying in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya, where most people live on less than US$1 a day. After doing some research, I found out that one of the root challenges that causes such abject poverty is youth unemployment. Over 80 per cent of youth in Kenya are unemployed. I turned this challenge into our opportunity by forming Africa Yoga Project with Baron Baptiste. We now train girls and boys to teach yoga as an avenue to education, empowerment and employment.
How has your outlook on life changed since starting AYP?
There is an African proverb that says: smooth seas do not make a skilful sailor. As a leader, a mother and a yogi, there are days where my patience wears thin and I doubt the decisions I make and I judge the decisions others make. When I stated Africa Yoga Project, I imagined success to look like things were all good, all the time. I wanted to save people from suffering, as I wanted to save myself from suffering. My time in Kenya has taught me that every single life experience is fuel for my own personal development as a leader, as a mother and a yogi. Suffering may be optional, but challenge is not. I have learnt to experience challenge as an important part of my growth – and a teacher that truly allows me to discover who I am and why I am here.
What change have you seen as a result of the free yoga classes in Nairobi?
I think what is most exciting about our free outreach classes are how we change perception for the students of what they can accomplish in their own lives. Here they are practicing yoga, something they would have never considered doing – likely have never heard of before, through the instruction of someone who was just like them! It is so powerful to have our yoga instructors go back to their communities and have the people around them see their transformation. In the words of one AYP instructor, Patrick Kiragu, it gives them hope, and hope is all they need.
Tell us about some of the early challenges when teaching yoga in a different country?
Globally, I have found the biggest challenge with sharing yoga is that people believe they are not flexible enough, or too old or that they will not be successful at it. I have not found Kenya to be very different. What I find inspiring is that once people take their first class they notice the very real benefits like improved sleep, greater vitality and an amazing new community.
Why do you think yoga has such a transformative effect?
BKS Lyengar said, “Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” Baptiste Yoga at Africa Yoga Project provides the opportunity for true wellbeing; a harmony and unity between mind, body and spirit. We live in such a stressful and toxic environment today that it’s important to be in a practice of cleansing, renewing, detoxing, and strengthening.