Women in Kenyan jail discover relaxing effects of yoga
By Shabtai Gold Feb 11, 2012, 1:06 GMT
Nairobi - Outside Nairobi's bustling centre and traffic jams, a group of women in striped white and black prison uniforms shuffle into a courtyard, where Margret the yoga teacher awaits them, having already spread out a dozen mats.
'Hold the pose ... Now balance and stretch forward,' says Margret to the women, who giggle a bit as they move deeper into a forward bend, their loose fitting uniforms flowing in the wind blowing through the prison yard.
Several more poses are taught and Margret then guides the women through massage techniques. Paired off, the women take turns working various muscle groups on each other before they settle into a final relaxation pose.
Many of the women - convicted of a range of offenses, including murder - are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Their health has been in decline and long lines run down their tired faces.
But the women say the yoga is a rare source of happiness inside Langata Prison, a chance to free their minds for a few moments.
'We have a lot of stress (in prison), but when I do yoga, I don't think of anything, the head goes empty. And it makes me feel fine,' says Jennifer, who still has nearly three years left of her nine-year sentence.
'I love it when we jump and when we stretch, but I also like the massages we give each other,' says Elizabeth, who hopes to be free sometime in 2012, after serving about five years.
The prison session is run by the Africa Yoga Project, which was founded by an American, Paige Elenson, through a chance encounter when she was on safari in Kenya in 2006.
She was a typical Western tourist with her family in the Kenyan bush, trying to get a glimpse of Africa's wildlife. From inside the car, she spotted a group of boys and girls doing acrobatic flips and handstands in the grasslands of the savanna.
Intrigued, she ignored the warnings not to exit the car during the safari and joined in with the teenagers, doing her yoga moves.
After she returned to New York, Elenson was contacted by the young acrobats who invited her to return and teach them yoga. She agreed, not realizing that she would work with her new friends in Kenya's dilapidated and overcrowded slums.
She trained some teachers, who then went out to their communities and taught others in the poverty-stricken slums. And so the project was born.
'To do yoga you don't need much, you basically just need your body,' Elenson says. Which suits the slum-dwellers perfectly, as their material wealth is very limited.
The 42 teachers she has trained do not charge the poor or the prisoners for the yoga courses. Thousands pass through the free classes.
Instead, the teachers make money by doing private sessions with Nairobi's burgeoning middle class and expatriates who work for organizations like the United Nations.
'If I didn't start practicing yoga, I would have been a thief, hustling people to get money. And now yoga is a job for me,' says teacher Jaspher, whose parents died when he was a young boy.
'Yoga changes peoples' moods and it also helps to process trauma,' Elenson says, promoting the physical and mental health benefits of the Indian exercise and breathing system. But she wants the project to do even more.
'What's going to change the continent is to create jobs and give people an opportunity,' she says.
Back inside the prison, while the women are doing their class, a second yoga session goes on about 100 metres away. There, about 25 young children gather together on carpets, first removing their shoes, and follow the yoga teacher's instructions.
These are the children of the women prisoners, who live with them inside the compound, marked by the guard towers, fences and barbed wire running around the edges.
John the teacher stretches his back as his right hand moves up, mimicking an elephant's trunk. All the children enthusiastically follow, letting out a roar, repeating the motion on the left side.
They do the same as he shows them how to be lions and dogs, with each animal pose moving a different part of the body.
The children and their mothers say they have only one request for Paige and her Kenyan colleagues. 'I would like to have four classes per months and not only two,' says prisoner Elizabeth.