In April 2017, I had the opportunity to assist a 200-hour yoga teacher training with Africa Yoga Project in Nairobi, Kenya. Leading up to the trip, I raised over $4,000 for the organization through events, yoga classes, and marketing efforts. Huge thank you to my family, friends, boyfriend and all the partners that supported this effort, every single dollar helped! Read on for my reflections on the experience:
As I sit in my hotel room on my last morning in Nairobi, I’m filled with mixed emotions, a little teary eyed to be saying farewell to this trip but very excited to be heading home to life in Chicago.
Someone asked me yesterday what my favorite part of the training was (shout-out to Quentin from I Grow Chicago!)….sounds like an easy question right? Anyone that was there with me over the last 16 days knows that question is actually quite hard to answer. My first answer is the people that I met. The first practice we all had together about two weeks ago was when I started to meet all of the amazing participants that I would be assisting and the team that I would be working with throughout the program. I had my mat set up in the back of the room with the other assistants, and I watched the participants trickle in one by one. “How did we all end up here?”, I wondered. There were 110 people representing 24 countries (USA, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Switzerland, Rwanda...to name a few), all there to practice yoga powerfully, dive deeper into themselves, and learn how to be of service. Some people were experienced yogis, some had literally never attended a yoga class. Participants came from incredibly diverse socio-economic backgrounds - participants that work for the UN and non-profits, and participants that live in slums making ~$3 a day. We all got to our mats, dropped into that first child’s pose and started to let ourselves come apart as we breathed, moved and sweat mat-to-mat at the Africa Yoga Project Shine Center. That first savasana was like a “what the heck did I just get myself into” mixed with pure awe and raw emotion….and a lot of different sweaty body smells :-).
This was just the first favorite moment of the trip. Here I’ll try to tell you about the rest of them, but know that some of this training can’t really be explained, things moved incredibly fast and I’ll probably be digesting the experience for quite some time. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more, there are lots of ways to connect with the organization, and I’m truly happy to be a resource for anyone interested in AYP.
The training consisted of a few main activities: asana (physical yoga practice), meditation, inquiry (self reflection and discussion), and community outreach. The days generally started around 8:30am and sessions could go until about 10/10:30pm at night, with snack, lunch and dinner breaks throughout the day. I won’t go in-depth on what was covered in each session, as a lot was discussed and things that were shared there were communicated with the respect of confidentiality. I’ll share to the best of my memory and ability though.
During asana, meditation and inquiry sessions we started covering the Baptiste Journey Into Power sequence and Baptiste methodology. Let’s back-up a second though so I can give you a sense of what this training looked like. Most teacher trainings consist of participants who have been practicing yoga for a little while and might be interested in deepening their practice or are seriously interested in teaching yoga publicly. An AYP teacher training is a little different than this. Participant’s yoga experience ranged from no experience whatsoever (like had never done a Warrior 1 before) to experienced practitioners. Additionally, out of the 75 participants, 50 were on full scholarship and about 10 were on partial scholarship. Furthermore, English is not the first language for most of the participants. So there’s a lot going on here that doesn’t come into play at a teacher training at your local yoga studio. As an assistant, those first few practices were freaking hard. The practice was messy, emotional, and at times frustrating. By about day 4 though, I could actually see things starting to sink in. People getting more comfortable in their practice, their alignment, and starting to understand some of the more complex queues. The space of miracles started opening up in front of my eyes as I actually saw confidence in the room exploding.
On the second day of training we had the opportunity to shadow different outreach programs that AYP teachers manage around Nairobi. I went with a group of about 15 participants and assistants to Five Star Elementary school located in a slum 30 minutes away from the Shine Center. James Njugana is an AYP teacher that lives in the slum and regularly teaches class at the school. He welcomed us into his home to tell his story of transformation from alcoholism and a life on the streets to teaching yoga. We had the chance to meet his family and another young teacher that he is mentoring. He credits AYP as the catalyst for directing his life in a positive direction. He then took us over to the school and the moment the kids saw us driving up and recognized him they started chanting “Yoga! Yoga! Yoga!”. It was one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received! The school is actually tied directly to AYP, it was built by an AYP Seva Safari and the main school teacher is also an AYP yoga teacher. We went into the schoolyard where we sang, danced, and played some fun yoga games with the kids. In addition to this, we watched a video made and produced by students of the school about their composting toilets. I know, probably doesn’t sound like the most riveting content! However, using this compost process reduces waste, the spread of disease, and teaches the kids resourcefulness...not to mention the video editing and IT skills students are learning to produce videos like this. SO MUCH HAPPENING WITH THE BATHROOMS! Seriously amazing.
This first taste of outreach was bittersweet. I was hit with a range of emotions as I noticed the levels of poverty and lack of resources that the community is faced with. However, happiness and laughter filled every other moment - ear-to-ear smiles as I tried to teach them eagle pose, giggles as they did a butt dance that I still have no real understanding of, and pride in showing me their squeaky clean toilets. I tried to let go of my urge to “fix” things and to immediately compare their world to mine, a practice that I found myself repeating multiple times a day throughout this trip. I started to realize the most helpful thing I could do at these moments was to just be present for the people in front of me, listen, and take it all in.
A couple more days into the program we learned about some ways that AYP is working with its community beyond teaching traditional yoga classes. We hosted three different outreach programs at the Shine Center. These included yoga for kids (taught by Patrick Kiragu), yoga for the special child (taught by Millie Weke and Magda Adhiambo) and yoga for cancer patients. These programs were all started because a teacher listened to what was needed in their community and responded with a helping tool. They didn’t necessarily have formal training in a specific area, but simply moved from listening to the people in front of them, they saw what was needed, and provided a service to the best of their ability. This idea of listening would continue to be a theme throughout the training. How are you really listening to the people in front of you and the world around you? How are you listening to yourself? This listening is a truly powerful tool in the community these teachers serve.
On Saturday, we got ready to head to Amboseli National Park for the second half of training. Before we set out in the vans we had the opportunity to attend the weekly community class at the Shine Center. This is not your average community class, this class is an EXPERIENCE. Attendance for the class is about 300 people deep and mats are set up in the lobby, hallway, entranceway, just everywhere. There’s love and excitement filling every single nook and cranny of the Shine Center. Mats are basically touching and you can expect assists from the person next to you as well as from one of the many talented assistants walking around. Let me tell you, the assists alone are a reason to take class at the Shine Center. Truly out of this world! From about 9:30am until class starts it is a party in the studio. There are dance-offs, people practicing acro, and running hugs as friends connect and welcome one another to this weekly celebration. It is a scene full of sweaty, messy, imperfect and absolutely beautiful people. Truthfully, I’m tearing up just thinking about the energy in that room. You know when you can tell that you’re like right on the edge of something special? Maybe you got that feeling right before the Cubs won the World Series, maybe it hits you when you’re heading out on a big trip….well that’s how I felt about this day. The practice was everything and more. It goes without saying that I got my fair share of handstands in to the point my arms were shaking and I was drenched in sweat. I can only hope that I can bring this energy into some of my classes at home.
From the community class we set out on our way to Amboseli National Park for the second half of training. Our hotel featured a full view of Mount Kilimanjaro and the morning walk to breakfast took my breath away daily. Asana and inquiry were intense here, for both participants and the assisting team. One thing I’d like to mention about the assisting team is that it consisted of both people like myself, who fundraised to be there and were mostly from the US and Canada, and a group of Kenyan assistants. We were responsible for everything from setting up the practice spaces and keeping participants hydrated and healthy, to holding space for the participants as they moved through the program physically and emotionally. Although many of us had been through Baptiste trainings before, an Africa Yoga Project training is a totally different ballgame. We had two amazing leaders holding us all together, Laura Tropea (a yoga studio owner from Detroit, heyyyyy Midwest!) and Patrick Kiragu (a Kenyan and AYP teacher, it’s worth mentioning that his wife is actually one of the facilitators, Catherine Njeri, and their daughter Tully tagged along to the training as well. Gotta love the Irish names!).
(posing in Amboseli before practice with a view of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background.)
It wasn’t all asana and inquiry in Amboseli though, we spent a day exploring the national park with a game drive full of elephants (so many ele’s!), water buffalo, a few giraffes, and a whole lot of gazelles. We also took part in a community service project painting a school and finishing desks for a local Masai village. This Masai tribe is special to the AYP community. Paige, the founder of AYP and one of the facilitators for this training, connected with the village when she was first starting Africa Yoga Project. Some of the Masai have participated in past AYP trainings and are yoga teachers themselves, so we were warmly welcomed once again to this unique community. After helping with the school, we walked over to the Masai village where shit got real. When I say shit, i mean literal poop. Yep, we were led to the center of the village where the cow dung is stored, loved, and cherished to form the walls of homes throughout the village. We danced, jumped, and laughed on top of the poo. I was honestly so hot from the sun and a little loopy from paint fumes that this seemed like the most natural thing to do. I was also so deliriously happy that I decided on the close-toed shoes for the day! My close-toed shoes did not make the trip back to Chicago FYI. After dancing, we walked around the village and even toured some of the huts. Living is minimal for the Masai and they’re a polygamous society so the men travel among huts to their different wives throughout the year. Definitely a different way of living.
It was around this time that I really started to feel and notice a shift in the energy of the program. One of the participants from Sierra Leone started using the phrase “This is yoga!” for pretty much any activity or in general when things got rough, weird, emotional, you get the picture. And when I say that he would “use the phrase” I mean that he would usually yell it powerfully and the whole group would erupt in laughter and start fist pumping. It was so perfect to explain everything that was happening in the program, we were truly experiencing yoga - which literally means “to yoke” and is often interpreted as forming a union. All 110 of us were united and yoked together in this experience. We came from every corner of the world, every walk of life, and somehow all ended up at this one yoga training in Kenya. Isn’t yoga amazing? Isn’t life amazing?!
The next few days were fast and full of fun and emotion. Dance parties broke out spontaneously. We sweat a lot and showered very little. We crushed the buffett and two block practices. We really saw each other and let ourselves be seen. We practiced a lot of yoga and taught a lot of yoga. We eventually returned to Nairobi where we proceeded to even have a talent show. Queue all the amazing dancers. I brought out some good old fashioned Irish step dancing and nobody knew what was going on except the one other Irish girl from America named Erin.
The program wrapped up with a community class at the Shine Center. Some of the participants volunteered to teach and they kicked some serious butt on the mic leading 300 people through another amazing yoga class. Tearful good-byes followed as people set off to the airport and tried to squeeze in last minute souvenir shopping from the street markets outside. I stayed an extra day and visited an elephant orphanage with some of my new friends and Jacob, a Masai from the village we visited earlier in the trip who happened to be in Nairobi for a few days.
If you’ve made it this far into my post give yourself a high five and maybe a glass of wine! Now I’ll leave you with a couple major thoughts that I brought home with me from this trip:
Wow. All in all this trip was truly amazing. There's definitely more to come from this and I don't think my time in Kenya is quite done. Stay tuned and stay connected.....
Love, laughter and handstands,