Yoga Project Changes Lives In Nairobi's Slums

On a rooftop in a Kenyan slum, a group of people are doing yoga poses. Yoga has been introduced to them as a way to help cope with their lives, and develop a livelihood to help others.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The slums in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, are among the biggest in Africa. There is crushing poverty, high unemployment, poor sanitation and rampant crime. It is not the kind of place where you'd expect a burgeoning yoga scene to take root, but that's what reporter Jill Craig found.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOGA SESSION)

UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: (chanting) Ohm...

JILL CRAIG, BYLINE: Twenty-four year old Sophia Njoki has been a yoga instructor since Kenya's post-election violence of 2007 and 2008. During that time, she witnessed horrific acts being committed right outside her door in the Kariobangi slum - one of the hardest hit areas.

SOPHIA NJOKI: Here in Kariobangi, I was seeing people were cutted on their head, they were killed.

CRAIG: Njoki says that people were being wounded and killed by men wielding machetes.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOGA CLASS)

NJOKI: Inhale. Exhale slowly. Find a sitting position.

CRAIG: Today, she is teaching yoga on the crowded rooftop of a friend's apartment building. One of the 71 instructors in the Africa Yoga Project, Njoki gives five free classes per week in the slums. The project started six years ago and its instructors now teach thousands of people every month.

As Njoki's students do their moves on ragged mats, women doing chores step over and around them to hang up their laundry in the scorching noontime sun. Cars and motorcycles honk from the streets below and babies cry - not exactly the typical yoga experience in the West.

Yoga may seem a luxury for people living in the slums. But Njoki says that yoga was exactly what she needed to deal with her stress, and to help her stop using drugs and alcohol.

NJOKI: Because I see yoga has changed many lives.

CRAIG: Changing lives is precisely why Africa Yoga Project's co-founder Paige Elenson brought yoga to Kenya in 2006. While on safari the year before, she met some acrobats performing at the resort where she was staying. They lived and practiced in the Nairobi slum of Kibera and were eager to learn yoga, after Elenson taught them a few poses.

At their request, Elenson returned to Kenya to teach yoga to kids in the slums. She and her own instructor, Baron Baptiste, soon began training young people as teachers so they could earn a living while giving back to their communities.

Elenson began the training program at the end of 2007, which coincided with an explosion of deadly ethnic violence following a contested presidential election. She said yoga was healing.

PAIGE ELENSON: We said, wait a minute guys, get in the same room, get on your mats, and let's do yoga. And, you know, when you have a prejudice like that, if you're put in some intense challenging physical situation, after about 10 minutes, you pretty much forget that the person that's next to you is from a different tribe.

CRAIG: Sadick Kachisa is an instructor who agrees that yoga transcends exercise.

SADICK KACHISA: When you're practicing, on your mat, that is yoga. So, like, you have to apply yoga off the mat, whereby you have to do all the things like preaching peace, being humble, being there for each other, helping others when they need you.

CRAIG: For instructors like Njoki living and working in the Nairobi slums, yoga is what helps them stay positive.

NJOKI: For me, I know yoga is all about peace and love.

CRAIG: And she says that's what she's trying to preach when she's teaching yoga.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOGA CLASS)

NJOKI: Namaste.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: Namaste.

CRAIG: For NPR News, I'm Jill Craig, in Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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