Two Kenyan yogis are bringing mind-body practices to child soldiers, at-risk youth, and aid workers in Africa.
Growing up amid challenging circumstances in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, Catherine Njeri and Walter Mugwe never dreamed they’d be mentoring others as part of the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), a nonprofit that uses yoga to empower and employ youths throughout Africa. Njeri, 30, who is now AYP’s director of teachers, was the firstborn of five and raised by a single mother. She was able to finish high school, but “life was not easy—we would often go to sleep without food,” she recalls. As a teen, Njeri became a hairdresser to support her siblings, and she joined acrobatics troupes to earn money. Mugwe, 27, also responsible at a young age for supporting his family, says, “I did whatever I could to make money,” including getting involved in drugs and gambling, and joining a separate acro-troupe.
It was through the acro-troupes that Paige Elenson, co-founder of Africa Yoga Project, discovered them in 2009 and recruited them for an AYP yoga teacher training. “They demonstrated a humble strength that allows them to listen, learn, and contribute,” says Elenson on what first attracted her to Njeri and Mugwe as teachers.
What drew Njeri and Mugwe to yoga was something they hadn’t been able to find anywhere else: purpose and a boundless sense of connection. “Learning yoga gave me this energy and compassion for others that could not be contained,” says Njeri. “I felt so much hope, and I couldn’t wait to share that feeling with others.” Mugwe felt a similar surge of motivation: “Yoga saved me. It taught me that the life I was living wasn’t helping me or anyone else because it wasn’t focused on love. I also realized that I could use yoga to make others feel better.”
After the training, Njeri and Mugwe—whom Elenson describes as “always looking more for purpose than for profit”—started their own free classes in Nairobi. “It was challenging at first and took time for people to accept what we were teaching,” says Njeri. “Some thought we were talking about ‘yogurt,’ not ‘yoga.’ Others thought we were trying to convert them to an Indian religion. And in Africa, anything physical is for men, so some people were afraid we were training the women to go and fight with their husbands.” Nevertheless, their classes began to fill with students.
In 2012, Njeri and Mugwe began to offer Kenya-based teacher training to youths from more than 13 African countries, including Ethiopia, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.
“I try to be vulnerable to my students by sharing stories about my life, both good and bad,” says Mugwe. “And I listen to students and encourage them to express themselves. I want them to feel empowered.”
Since January, Elenson, Njeri, and Mugwe have also been spearheading an innovative United Nations–sponsored project in the Horn of Africa (because of the threat of terrorism, the location cannot be revealed) that is bringing what they call “mind-body well-being” practices to help child soldiers, at-risk youths, humanitarian and aid workers, and survivors of gender-based violence. The mind-body practices they are teaching have been proven to help lessen the symptoms of things like anxiety, stress, PTSD, and other physical and emotional repercussions of trauma, says Elenson. Going forward, Njeri and Mugwe will continue to be the project’s lead facilitators and ambassadors, teaching classes under incredibly challenging circumstances, including threats posed by authorities, language barriers, violence, and poverty.
“What we hope to give all of our students is peace,” says Njeri. “Not just peace from war, but peace with their bodies, peace within themselves, and peace with their families.”