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Rising Up

Women empowered by yoga lead the change they want to see in the world.

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In 2007, a 28-year-old yoga teacher from New York found herself in a war zone in Kenya when election-related violence broke out, and her neighbors and yoga students split into tribal factions. Suddenly, some of the very students who had spotted each other’s Handstands in her class were battling one another. The teacher, Paige Elenson, was confused and scared by this overnight shift in dynamics. Family and friends in the United States begged her to leave Kenya.

But Elenson had been about to launch a yoga teacher training in the slums of Nairobi. And though she realized that it was no longer the right time, she wasn’t ready to abandon the idea, either. “I had no desire to go home, and I really felt almost like when a teacher is telling you in Warrior II, ‘When things get uncomfortable, stay! Don’t run away.’ From a place of being really sure about that, I just stayed. And it was the best decision I ever made.”

During those difficult days, she discovered the depth of her commitment to bringing the full transformative power of yoga to people in Kenya. “When I saw the situation, the way young people were being manipulated by the government, I knew they would benefit so much from the yogic principles of empowerment, leadership, and transformation—of not being resigned to being the victim of your situation.”

And so, at the height of the violence, she used some of the $7,000 she had raised in the United States for the teacher training to host a forum for people of different tribes to come together and practice yoga, dance, and acrobatics. They played together, they laughed, and they took what might have been their first deep breath in weeks. There was also an open dialogue about honoring diversity. Elenson saw her students begin to recognize their shared values and to look beyond the imposed constraints of tribal identity, gender, nationality, class. “That changed everything for me, and Africa Yoga Project was solidified,” she says.

Today, Africa Yoga Project boasts more than 200 free weekly classes serving 3,000 students in Kenya’s slums. Its Kenyan instructors now teach yoga to members of parliament and other prominent residents, and have bravely stepped into leadership roles in their communities. And Elenson has made herself a true home in Nairobi while gaining a spot on the international stage, teaching at yoga conferences in Asia and Europe, and at Yoga Journal’s New York conference this May.

Elenson’s passion for yoga, her conviction of its life-changing power, her tireless efforts to make her vision a reality, and her inner strength—which she credits her practice for developing—are impressive. But they aren’t unique. Around the globe there are other women like her, who are devoting themselves to making the world a little more like the place they want to call home.

Young women like Elenson aren’t just joining a worthy cause started by someone else. Increasingly, they are the visionaries—self-empowered leaders defining what they want their world to look like and creating their own projects and organizations to make it so. The bold challenge, often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, to be the change that you want to see in the world, is their starting point. But they are also committed to leading the change they want to see in the world, gathering the support they need and inspiring others to join them.

A New Women’s Movement

I like to think that a new women’s movement is brewing—one that’s no longer about equality but about leadership. There is evidence of this new spirit across our society and especially in the yoga community. Every day, stories of brave women striking out in new directions come across my desk. At yoga conferences and classes, I meet women who are modeling new paradigms of leadership and inspiring others to make their own visions come to life.

Truthfully, this movement isn’t exclusive to women. Men, too, are using their yoga training and progressive leadership skills to bring about positive change. But I chose to write specifically about women leaders because of the growing number of them I see woven into the fiber of the yoga community today—women like Elenson, who are bravely stepping off the edge of their comfort zone into roles they hadn’t even imagined for themselves and making a profound difference in other people’s lives.

Grrl Power

Although there have been strong women leaders throughout American history, never have there been as many as we have today. The last five years alone have brought us the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major party and the first woman speaker of the House. With less flash but plenty of impact, women of more modest ambitions are becoming leaders, too: Today, some 51 percent of all professional and managerial positions in the United States are held by women, according to Maddy Dychtwald in Influence: How Women’s Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World for the Better. Dychtwald goes on to sum up our current situation: “In the United States, women already control 51.3 percent of the nation’s private wealth…[and] women hold 57.5 percent of all US college bachelor’s degrees, 61 percent of all master’s degrees, and 49 percent of all doctorate degrees,” she says. These better-educated, wealthier, and more empowered women are opening doors everywhere for women to take on the roles of leadership.

On Their Shoulders

Looking at those statistics, it’s clear that the women’s movement of the 1970s really did lead the change that a previous generation wanted to see: to a world of women doctors, women CEOs, and more. At the 2010 California Governor & First Lady’s Conference on Women, where Maria Shriver hosted Michelle Obama, Oprah, and other powerful women in conversations about leadership, retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor reminded us of just how far we’ve come.

In the 1950s, Justice O’Connor, who had graduated with high marks from Stanford Law School, couldn’t so much as get a job interview at a law firm and was told that clients wouldn’t know what to do with a lady lawyer. So she volunteered her legal services at a small government agency, settling for a desk among the secretaries, so that she could practice law. Thirty years later, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.

Thanks in part to Justice O’Connor’s willingness to stand strong—to believe in herself and to trust that everything changes—things have changed. About one-quarter of all attorneys in the United States are women; three women sit on the Supreme Court; and the expectation is that we will never see another all-male court. It’s empowering to reflect on how the determination of even one impassioned person can begin to shift the possibilities for an entire society.

Our community owes a good deal, as well, to the generation of impassioned Americans who discovered yoga in the 1970s and blazed a yogic trail for American women. Senior Advanced Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden, who at 64 has been practicing for nearly four decades and continues to teach internationally, says, “It hasn’t been an easy path.” The practice was developed by and for Indian men’s bodies and cultural mindsets and wasn’t always applicable to a Western woman’s life. Plus, yoga was distinctly offbeat—it wasn’t easy to find a teacher, and unheard of to make a living as one. Walden endured years of financial hardship to continue her studies with B.K.S. Iyengar in India.

But the journey has been fruitful. “We started fragmented, searching, trying different teachers, different methods—there’s been tremendous transformation.” Along the way, those teachers have evolved the practice, making it easier for American women to uncover its value. “Young women who find yoga in their teens and 20s today are fortunate,” says Walden. “There are so many women who have walked this path ahead of them.”

Because of the foundation laid by the many strong women who have come before us and the self-empowerment lessons yoga offers, even the daily barrage of bad news—of greed, war, hunger, violence, environmental devastation—doesn’t diminish my optimism that we can be leaders of the positive, radical change we want to see. With leadership tools like honesty, mutual support, and a fierce clarity that translates into bold action, and with a desire to dedicate ourselves to service and a healthier world, more and more women in the yoga community are stepping up to make it happen. And because our community is so big and growing—by the latest estimates, some 11 million American women practice yoga—we have the potential to make an enormous impact.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that the future may be shaped by the modern yogini leader. Now’s the time to lead the change you want to see in the world.

Kaitlin Quistgaard is the editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal magazine.