Africa Yoga Project empowers slum youths through mindful mentorship

Laureus is passionate about supporting young people in marginalised communities around the world through sport – and that support extends to their physical and mental wellbeing.
The global lockdown due to coronavirus has had a significant impact on the mental health of the world’s population, but for those in disadvantaged communities keeping positive and healthy is a content challenge when faced with so many challenges each and every day.
Laureus supports the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), which has used yoga to expand employability, empowerment and access to mental and physical wellbeing tools across the continent for more than a decade.
It started when native New Yorker Paige Elenson was on a safari with her family in Kenya in 2006 and shared handstands and yoga with a team of local  acrobats that she came across in the Maasai Mara. She told them about yoga and they were eager to learn more.
Paige returned to Kenya in 2007 and started working in the informal settlements of Nairobi where almost half of the 44 million population live below the poverty line. Around 70% of Kenya’s youth are unemployed, and many survive on less than $1 a day. AYP now works with marginalised communities across the continent, including refugee camps, people living with disabilities and people in recovery from addiction. AYP also has a trauma-informed yoga programme incorporating mental health first aid skills. 
AYP runs a three-year employability academy which teaches job and life skills through yoga as a vocation and change through community service. Through AYP’s academy, young people are empowered to earn income in the wellbeing industry and beyond and access opportunities to partner with global wellbeing industry leaders. AYP’s vision is that as the wellbeing industry in Africa grows, youth from marginalised communities across the continent will be positioned to lead it. 
Academy participants are committed to holding five free classes each week in their own communities whilst learning skills in an academic programme that will prepare them for future employment.
“We have trained more than 400 teachers in 21 countries across Africa,” says Paige, AYP’s Executive Director. “100% of new teachers feel that AYP’s training has improved their ability to earn an income on a long-term basis – and after joining our training academy, their incomes tend to double.”
The practice of yoga helps the young people to concentrate on the present moment, giving them increased self-esteem and improving their focus, confidence and ability to manage stress and emotion.
Paige added: “This project is the first of its kind in Africa and based on rigorous academic learning. We have a thorough monitoring and evaluation framework that focuses on employability and physical and mental wellbeing. 
“We also established a community centre called the Shine Centre where we run both free and paid classes. Before COVID-19 the outreach classes led by our teachers in their communities reached over 6,000 people on a weekly basis, which translates to over 300,000 yoga experiences per year.”
Several studies have shown that meditation may be able to strengthen the immune system by positively impacting genes involved with the infectious cycle.
Meditation is proven to help manage and alleviate anxiety, stress and depression, all of which are heightened by being in the midst of a pandemic with little ability to predict the future and when government support may not exist and the already limited employment opportunities related to tourism have disappeared. 
Measures taken to slow the spread of coronavirus, such as social distancing, have led to greater isolation and severe financial distress which could inflict lasting emotional trauma and impact on mental health. 
“Since the lockdowns here, we have had to innovate a lot,” Paige added. 
“Our teachers now lead their outreach classes online and we have moved all our Academy and Shine Centre programming online as well.” 
Laureus has been working with AYP since 2018 and their support has been integral in helping the organisation to grow.
Paige said: “Laureus funds a lot of our programmes across the board, providing support for scholarships to train new teachers, teachers’ participation in the Academy and leading outreach classes, running the Shine Centre, enhancing our monitoring and evaluation systems as well as developing robust safeguarding mechanisms.
“With child safeguarding efforts, they are driving the rigour in our processes and they have helped us to mitigate risks for our beneficiaries.
“They are great at sharing resources from across their networks so we can learn from other projects doing similar work.
“It’s been great working with Laureus as a thought partner and collaborator, brainstorming strategy and bringing practical knowledge and skills to the table.
“During the pandemic, Laureus has also been very supportive in encouraging us to develop our e-learning capabilities so we can reach more people across the continent.
“Laureus has also helped us with conceptualising and piloting an international expansion plan around social franchising, including virtual components to suit the current needs of organisations and the communities they work with.
“This year we also started a campaign called Amplify Black Voices, engaging with the global social justice movement. We published videos of our teachers leading meditations and breathing practices, sharing their skills with the world to advocate for the diversification of perspectives and employment opportunities in the wellbeing industry globally.” 
Paige was awarded the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Global Citizenship for her work with disadvantaged youth in 2017 and her pursuit of spiritual wellbeing in Africa continues to reap huge dividends.
Looking ahead to 2021, AYP will look to further enhance its capabilities to reach beneficiaries through virtual and in-person channels. 
The virtual Academy will continue to be developed as well as their virtual yoga classes through a subscription-based service called The Tribe where they provide weekly meditation, fitness and yoga philosophy content. 
The latest batch of graduates from AYP’s first-ever 200-hour teacher training in Mombasa will enrol in the Academy and continue to build the yoga community of Mombasa in partnership with local community centercentre Swahilipot. 
The plan is to conduct similar training across the African continent in partnership with local organisations as a way of expanding and deepening AYP's international programming.

CASE STUDY: Nancy Wambui

One beneficiary of the AYP is Nancy Wambui, who grew up in the slums of Lunga, Nairobi, with her family.
She initially went to high school but had to drop out after her parents struggled to pay the fees, causing conflicts at home that prompted her to fall into bad company. She risked following many other young women in her community which had a prevalence of early pregnancies, drug use and high crime rate.
Wambui joined a community group, Mukuru Talent Development (MTD), which included dancing and beadwork and in 2014 she discovered yoga through a beneficiary of AYP’s teacher training scholarship who taught an outreach class at MTD.
Her boyfriend, who she had recently moved in with, successfully applied to join AYP’s annual 200-hour teacher training scholarship and attended yoga teacher training and having seen the positive changes it made to him, she followed by undertaking AYP’s training.
Wambui explained: “I did not want to get involved in the wrong things, or get pregnant while still living under my parents' roof and be an embarrassment to our family, and have a bad reputation in the community.
“I never knew that I could stand in front of people, people facing me and listening to me. I also never knew that I could tell people to do something and they do it. I started believing in myself a little bit more.”
Now 24, Wambui started teaching yoga in outreaches in her community, providing a valuable service and earning the respect of locals while also earning herself a living.
AYP has trained over 200 youth like Wambui from marginalised communities in Africa as yoga instructors and Wambui added: “AYP has given me the skills for teaching yoga that I did not have before. I now feel like I can go to big organisations and talk to big bosses with no fear of being judged.”

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