Kenya, the unexpected yoga destination

From the tourists on Lamu Island to the slums of Nairobi – yoga is quickly uniting the people of Kenya 

It’s a quiet morning in Lamu, a small island off Kenya’s northern coast, and a couple of teenage boys are standing on the tip of their toes trying to peek inside the courtyard of a beachfront hotel. They hurriedly signal another friend to join them. He does. They giggle. Behind the white fence, a dozen women in sport bras and yoga pants bend forward while a softly-spoken instructor reminds them to stay connected to their breaths.

They are participants in the Lamu Yoga Festival, an event that, every March, brings hundreds of yogis from around the world to this little corner of East Africa. To most travellers, Kenya is still only synonymous with safaris and Maasai dances, but the country is also home to a passionate and fast-growing yoga community. In the past few years, yoga studios and retreats like the one in Lamu have begun popping up all over Kenya, from luxury beach resorts to downtown Nairobi.

Teachers with the Africa Yoga Project practice acro-yoga in Karura Forest – Nathan Siegel yoga
Teachers with the Africa Yoga Project practice acro-yoga in Karura Forest – Nathan Siegel

Lamu isn’t an obvious destination for wellness tourists. For all its whitewashed castles, turquoise waters and tall sand dunes, the island’s proximity to Somalia and a couple of Al-Shabab attacks in the region have been turning off tourists for almost a decade. But the yoga festival is quickly changing the perception of Lamu. During the week of the festival, the island feels like a sub-Saharan Woodstock as hundreds of yogis take over the beach for sunrise meditation, while others sip coconut juice and watch teachers showing off their skill by getting into impossible acro-yoga poses. 

“I love the variety of styles and teachers of the festival,” says Melissa Menke, an American who has been practicing for yoga for almost a decade and runs a chain of health clinics in Nairobi. “It’s so good to get out of the city,” she adds. On the horizon, traditional sailboats go by slowly, decorated with festival flags and flower garlands.

Still, Kenya’s yoga scene is not only for tourists and expats trying to get a respite from the smog and the grind of city-life. Yoga is also fast gaining popularity amongst the country’s flourishing middle class and most teachers are actually Kenyans, many of whom see yoga as a tool for social transformation. 

Julianne Andrews, a yoga teacher based in Nairobi, poses in a disused library in downtown – Nathan Siegel
Julianne Andrews, a yoga teacher based in Nairobi, poses in a disused library in downtown – Nathan Siegel

While the festival rages in Lamu, in Mathare, Nairobi’s second largest slum, a gaggle of excited seven-year-olds are getting ready to start their school day. It’s 9am, but instead of sitting at their desks and opening up their workbooks, the children rush out onto the dusty courtyard. There, they begin a choreography they know by heart – mountain pose, warrior pose, tree pose, repeat. It’s an unusual sight, children doing yoga among dilapidated buildings and open sewage, but Grace Kimotho, the school’s director, says “it really improves academic performance and it helps them slow down.”

Catherine Njeri, who sold marijuana to survive, says: "Yoga is a very real solution to youth unemployment" – Nathan Siegel
Catherine Njeri, who sold marijuana to survive, says: “Yoga is a very real solution to youth unemployment” – Nathan Siegel

This kid-friendly yoga class is run by the Africa Yoga Project (AYP), the non-profit responsible for much of Kenya’s newfound love for the ancient Indian practice. The organisation was created seven years ago by Baron Baptiste and Paige Elenson, both American yoga instructors. Elenson was in Kenya during the post-election violence of 2008 and decided to go into the camps of internally displaced people to teach them yoga. They enjoyed it. 

Since, the NGO has grown into a team of 200 teachers leading around 800 free classes around Kenya, from Maasai villages to female prisons. All AYP instructors come from disadvantaged backgrounds and attend the training at no cost with one condition: once they finish, they have to go back to teach yoga to their communities – for free.

Catherine Njeri, AYP’s teacher coordinator says yoga is not only a way for expats to stay in shape but is “a very real solution to youth unemployment.” Njeri says she is living proof of the transformative power of yoga. Today, showing off her acrobatic skills in Lamu, flowing from pose to pose, she is the image of calm. But not long ago, her life was anything but peaceful.

Njeri, like two thirds of Nairobi’s inhabitants, was born in a slum. Her single mother struggled with alcoholism and her five children often went to bed hungry. As the eldest daughter, Njeri had to provide for her siblings and she ended up “hanging around the wrong people” and selling marijuana to survive. She admits to being a very aggressive teenager, full of anger and self-loathing. But when she met Elenson, everything changed. Seeing first hand how yoga brought people together after the election violence, Njeri decided she had to become a yoga teacher. “Yoga gave me a way to provide for my family,” she says, “but above all, it gave me hope.”

The Africa Yoga Project plans to expand from Nairobi across the continent – Nathan Siegel
The Africa Yoga Project plans to expand from Nairobi across the continent – Nathan Siegel

To be sure, yoga is still a foreign concept to most Kenyans and the practice often clashes with social paradigms around religion or the role of women. Some fear yoga may not be Christian and assume the Sanskrit chants are prayers to some foreign god. Others see the idea of women’s fitness with suspicion. In fact, when Njeri began teaching her mother’s friends, many of their husbands initially forbade them from going because they thought they were learning how to fight them.

But these fears are fading fast as more Kenyans get first-hand access to the practice and tour operators hurry to cash in on the lucrative field of wellness tourism. Africa Yoga Project is also expanding. They currently have teachers in 13 other African nations and soon hope to set up a network of locally run yoga studios from Cairo all the way to Johannesburg. 

Back in Lamu, the festival is slowly coming to an end and yogis celebrate their last night of the island with a huge bonfire under the stars. Drummers play traditional music to drown the sound of the waves while yogis from Korea and the United Kingdom dance along with the three teenage boys who, earlier that morning, were spying on them over the fence.