MEET: Paige Elenson, Cofounder Africa Yoga Project

Africa Yoga Project is CATALYST's NGO of the Week, and MISSION talks with the organization's founder Paige Elenson about how this amazing organization came to be and who would be the ideal volunteers to travel with them on their journeys.

Can you describe the inspiration that led you to create the Africa Yoga Project?

I had been teaching yoga since 2000. It was in 2006 when I was on a safari with my father that I first experienced yoga in Kenya and felt truly connected to the land. I was warned not to jump out of our safari vehicle, but for some reason I couldn't hold back. I jumped out of the safari vehicle and ran into the field where a group of Kenyans were practicing acrobatics. I learned they taught acrobatics in the informal settlements surrounding Naorobi, and decided to teach them some yoga right there in the bush. In that moment, something clicked but I didn't know it yet.

When I returned home in New York City, the group of acrobats found me on MySpace. I sent them yoga books and DVDs, but what they really wanted was for me to come back to Kenya to teach them yoga. After many messages back and forth they wrote me saying, "You may not think that our bodies are flexible but our minds are flexible." At that moment, I decided to go to Kenya and that trip led me to forming AYP.

Since 2007, AYP has trained 71 yoga teachers and on a weekly basis provides 300 free outreach classes in community centers, schools, women's groups and prisons. At the same time, these teachers are earning a living wage through Africa Yoga Project.

Perhaps some critics wonder why in areas of the world in need of food, shelter and health care, why the focus on yoga and meditation, can you speak to that?

My first response is why not! This practice should be offered to every Body no matter where they live or their needs.  To directly answer your question though: We use the power of yoga to support economic development and alleviation of poverty by creating a local market for yoga.  At Africa Yoga Project we train young leaders and empower them to share yoga. We also employ teachers - we have 71 employed teachers at the moment and our goal is to have 200 employed teachers by 2015!  In sum, the question about why bring yoga to an area in need of food, shelter and health care is because we are helping alleviate these topics through the power of yoga. You just have to look at our bigger vision which is creating job stability. 

Can you describe the changes you have seen through working with African communities in your program? 

The changes I see on a daily basis are indescribable. I see complete lifestyle changes. The students and teachers become healthier and more aware of their choices. I see our teachers becoming leaders in their communities empowering others to make better choices in their lives.  I see our teachers having the ability to provide a sustainable living for themselves and their family in a healthy way. They have become the providers of their family because of yoga.  The biggest thing I see is people opening up to what is possible in their lives. I see hope in their eyes which brings in so much possibility. Yoga is transforming and elevating their lives physically, mentally and financially.  See the link for a story of how this work is changing lives.

Who would be an ideal volunteer to travel to Africa and work with your organization, and is yoga training required?

I believe the ideal volunteer is someone who is ready to change lives through the power of connection and togetherness. I think we can change the world with the belief we are all the same and we can connect with every single person on this planet.  We are looking for volunteers with this same idea. 

Yoga training is not required.