Ten minutes into my conversation with Paige Elenson, I’m ready to pack my bags and move to Kenya, the place she now calls home, to do whatever she needs me to do. Doesn’t matter what; I simply want to work alongside her in the slums, soaking up her infectious enthusiasm, opening my heart, and sharing with anyone and everyone her profound belief that yoga can change the world.
A New Yorker, born and bred, Elenson explains that her love affair with yoga began on a Cancún spring break back in the late ’90s, when she ditched her NYU pals and, on a whim, signed up for Baron Baptiste’s yoga boot camp in nearby Maya Tulum. “The experience was a total shock to my nervous system,” she says, “and it woke me up!” She came home and got certified in the Baptiste method, but, bitten by the yoga bug, she didn’t stop there. She wanted to learn Sanskrit, so she became a Jivamukti teacher; she wanted to combine her love of circus arts and yoga, so she became an AcroYoga teacher; and to deepen her understanding of yoga philosophy and practice, she studied with Dharma Mittra in New York City. Oh, and did I mention she also learned Thai bodywork?
"My dad wouldn’t let me out of the car because he was convinced I’d be raped,” she says, “but I insisted.”
A few years later, completely “lit up by yoga,” Elenson went to Africa with her dad. It was a tough trip, as she remembers it. “I was in the car and my dad kept making fun of yoga.” As they argued, she noticed a group of young guys performing acrobatic tricks at the side of the road. “My dad wouldn’t let me out of the car because he was convinced I’d be raped,” she says, “but I insisted.” She jumped out and started doing handstands with the young men who, as it turns out, were professional acrobats practicing for a show at a tourist hotel. They exchanged information and Elenson made her way back to the States.
Not long afterward, the acrobats found her on Myspace and convinced her to return to Africa and teach them yoga. She lived with them for eight months. “Little did I know I’d be staying in the slums of Nairobi, not at some chic tourist resort. It blew my mind,” she says. Elenson spent a month teaching yoga in those slums, hand in hand with an acrobatic program they called Sarakasi Trust. “We reached hundreds of young people who, without basics like food and shelter, were coming in droves to take our yoga classes,” she says.
To see the poverty all around her and not let the suffering she witnessed destroy her became her practice. “My heart blew open being with these people who have so much hope, possibility, and community.” The experience ignited a passion in Elenson to take yoga outside the studio walls and share it with people who were hungry to learn. In the ensuing years, that flame has only grown stronger.
My heart blew open being with these people who have so much hope, possibility, and community.
What evolved from that first meeting in the middle of the bush is pretty amazing. Elenson went home, raised a bunch of money, and returned to Africa in December 2007, prepared to teach her first teacher-training program in Kenya. But war broke out. “I didn’t even really know what war was,” Elenson says. “It was a very frightening time. A thousand people died, and 300,000 ended up in refugee camps.”
So Elenson turned her attention to the refugee camps. She joined up with a group of Kenyan clowns, dancers, and yogis to form the Amani Circus, a troupe that traveled among 15 different camps, teaching and performing—they even got the two contentious tribes to do yoga together. Emboldened by her new experience, Elenson joined forces with Baron Baptiste to establish the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), a nonprofit that aims not only to bring yoga into the slums and prisons of Kenya, but to train those living there to teach it. To make that happen, Elenson and Baptiste came together in Africa in 2009 to teach a “real teacher-training program.” Sixty people came to South Africa—from Tanzania and Kenya, as well as South Africa—to learn.
Today, AYP pays 48 of those teachers, all youth from the poorest slums of Kenya, to teach in towns and villages most people wouldn’t even think of visiting. They give classes at prisons, brothels, orphanages, and social halls—anywhere they can think of—reaching more than 3,000 students a week in more than 200 free classes. The students range in age from 16 to 30 and get by on about $2 a day. Many live with disabling diseases like HIV/AIDS.
“Besides teaching yoga,” Elenson says, “our team is empowered to make change in their community.” AYP has built two schools, funded critical operations, paid school fees for young women, and helped clean up the environment.
“Our teachers are world-class vinyasa teachers,” she says proudly. Proving that yoga begins wherever you are, AYP teachers delight in adding acrobatics and dance moves to their weekly classes. Elenson and her team of teachers are transforming people and places from the inside out, and, as Elenson says, using yoga as the catalyst to light things up.
How to Get Involved
One way to support the Africa Yoga Project is by participating in Lose to Win. Started by rap artist and humanitarian Emmanuel Jal in 2008, Lose to Win begins with a simple challenge: Can you give up something you love in order to promote positive change for others?
I think that with every great accomplishment comes a choice to give up something.
Here’s how it works: for one month, take the money you would have spent on something for yourself—your morning Starbucks or bus fare—and put it toward a cause close to your heart. “I think that with every great accomplishment comes a choice to give up something,” Elenson says. Five years ago, she gave up buying that cup-a-day; this year she asked others to get involved, too. She stopped eating animal products, and her friends donated $1 for every day she stayed the course.
For more information on how to make a pledge, visit losetowin.net.