After a 24-hour arduous journey from East Africa, I stepped off the plane and was in America again. It was the first time in six years that I had a one-way ticket to the U.S. Delirious and exhausted, I gathered my belongings, hoisted my oversized backpack over my shoulders, and made my way to baggage claim. Despite the jet lag, I was excited to see my family again. Six years abroad, and thirty-nine countries later, I finally returned home.
Before arriving in the U.S., I spent a year at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in rural Rwanda as a year-long fellow. ASYV is a holistic learning community home to 500 orphaned and vulnerable teens. It is a place of healing and transformation. In addition to being a mentor or “cousin” to 16 girls, I also assisted the development department with advocacy and partnerships. This was the most extraordinarily profound experience of my life.
I'll be honest, though. Life at the Village was hard: physically, mentally, and spiritually. There were days when I couldn't bathe. Wearing deodorant was no longer part of my daily routine, let alone washing my hair. When the power was out, I used baby wipes to replace showers. I slept under a mosquito net as a precaution for malaria. In addition to the physical hardships, I worked with 500 orphaned teens in a post-genocide society. The level of suffering that I witnessed in Rwanda was unlike anything I ever could have imagined.
I always knew it was going to be difficult to readjust to life again in the States, especially after living in a developing country. But I had no idea just how much my life would transform after returning.
So, I was back in America. I had electricity, running water, TV, shopping malls, fast food, fast cars, fast internet, and cheese pizza. Cheese was a luxury item in Rwanda. When I returned to the U.S., I was ready for a comfortable bed without a mosquito net, the ability to turn on a faucet knowing water would pour out, and that cheesy pizza I had so longed for. I was thankful to see my family again. I was overjoyed to be alive.
For the first month home, I slept most of the time. I think I was making up for an entire year of too little. Trying to adjust. I started thinking about “real-world” jobs, buying business attire, and mentally preparing for a life of 9 to 5 in an office. I was also planning a wedding—my wedding. I watched TV, went to shopping malls, and did all those things I thought were normal.
But I didn’t feel normal. That cheese pizza never really tasted that good when I returned, and the TV shows I watched seemed meaningless. Everything in my life felt like an illusion. I started to question my existence and my choices with my relationships, habits, even the food I ate.
The question is, how do you transition back after living a year in poverty, and after witnessing so much death, disease, and suffering? I often find it difficult to describe my experience in Rwanda. People ask, “How was it?” How do I explain that every day was beautiful but a struggle at the same time? Every day I felt as if my heart was being ripped out and stamped on the ground, only to be sewn up again ready for the next day. I guess I just smile and say that it was amazing, or life-changing. It was a year of beauty, love, kindness, death, tragedy, and despair. It was like I was on a roller coaster, and I couldn't catch my breath. But I finally found it. I found my breath through yoga.
The question is, how do you transition back after living a year in poverty, and after witnessing so much death, disease, and suffering?
I had heard of yoga before, but I never paid much attention. I was too busy traveling the world. After my return to the States, my mom, who had been practicing Iyengar yoga for six years, invited me to a class. I felt calm and at peace in yoga class. I felt safe. My curiosity piqued, and I began to read Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi. One yoga class led to another, and I found myself signing up for a month of unlimited yoga classes at a local studio. During the 30 days, I went to 28 classes.
For the first time in my life, I allowed myself to be. The studio became my sanctuary for reconnecting with myself. For me, yoga is a deep connection of the mind, body, and soul. It is a spiritual tool that helped me to find myself and to cope with anxiety and quite possibly depression.
For the first time, I felt like I could breathe. For as much as I thought that I'd transitioned smoothly from Rwanda to the U.S., I realized that all of my past experiences had settled in my body. It was now time to release any pain and memories that lingered. Yoga helped me cope with my experiences and release what I had clung to. It allowed me to love myself in a way that I never did before.
Over the nine months since I returned, I let go of a lot of things that were no longer serving me: TV, toxic foods, living up to societal expectations, and negative habits. The wedding and cheese pizza also went by the wayside. I consciously chose to live as simply and deliberately as Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. I no longer yearn for a high-profile career or to live life to please society or my family.
After traveling the world, I never thought that my most significant journey would be returning to myself. Today, I am enrolled in a 200-hour yoga teacher training program. I am continuing to learn about the spiritual tools of yoga, cleaning the lens through which I view the world and myself. I no longer wait with breathless anticipation for the next adventure. And most importantly, I’ve discovered that the journey inward begins with a single breath.