Paige Elenson, originally from New York City, was “probably the person that my high school yearbook would have voted ‘least likely to move to Kenya to teach yoga,’” she says. “My life was consumed with the pursuit of success and, in turn, I had some reckless failures of that pursuit. I felt empty, lonely and unhealthy.”
Today, seven years after founding the Africa Yoga Project (AYP) in Kenya, she’s come a long way. This month, Paige, AYP co-founder and executive director, along with instructor Patrick Kiragu, will kick off the final day of the World Happiness Summit (WOHASU) in Miami on the right foot, leading attendees in more than an hour of Baptiste Yoga Vinyasa Flow.
“I realized through my training with teacher Baron Baptiste that anything is possible if you come from a place of being open to what’s next,” Paige says. “Baptiste Yoga transformed my life, and I was compelled to learn how to share that with others.”
Path to discovery
In 2006, a family safari vacation to Kenya and Tanzania turned Paige’s world upside down. While watching for wildlife in the African bush, she spotted Kenyan acrobats doing handstands. It was a can’t-miss opportunity for human connection and shared experience.
“Although I was told to stay in the jeep, I couldn’t help myself,” she says. “I got out and showed them that I could stand on my hands, too.” Thoughts of Kenya and the acrobats stayed with her. “Finally, after lots of thought, I decided to go back. That trip is what changed it all for me.”
She soon returned and found herself staying in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Kenya, where most people live on less than $1 a day. While teaching, Paige met five teenage girls: Catherine, Anita, Irene, Leah and Hadijah. They called themselves the “Ghetto Girls.” The girls, ranging in age from 13 to 19 years old, lived in a small room constructed from metal sheeting with one mattress. Every day they traveled more than two hours to attend yoga class.
“They said it made them feel clean, strong and happy,” Paige says. “From there, a connection was born with Kenya, and with the amazing young people who were coming to class. After doing some research, I found out that one of the root challenges that causes such abject poverty is youth unemployment. Over 80 percent of youth in Kenya are unemployed.”
Her path became clear. In 2007, Paige formed Africa Yoga Project with yoga teacher Baron Baptiste. “We now train girls and boys to teach yoga as an avenue to education, empowerment and employment.
“Kenya chose me, and I said, ‘yes,’” she says. “It was one of the best decisions of my life.”
Africa Yoga Project trains and develops local leaders in their communities who are excited about sharing yoga’s lessons of strength and well-being. Each teacher exemplifies AYP’s motto, “lead the change,” as they inspire positive transformation of their communities, Paige says.
Today, more than 6,000 people participate in more than hundreds of community yoga classes in 13 African countries, according to africayogaproject.org. More than 200 young people, trained as teachers, earn a living wage by teaching yoga to people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to learn it.
“I think what is most exciting about our free outreach classes is how open people’s hearts and minds are once they experience the powerful physical, emotion and community benefits of yoga and meditation,” Paige says. “People feel better and when they feel better, they are equipped to do better. In the words of AYP instructor Patrick [Kiragu], it gives them hope, and hope is one of the most powerful opportunities in the world.”
Patrick, who has been practicing and teaching yoga for seven years, looks forward to sharing stories of Africa Yoga Project at WOHASU.
“I love being of service; it is what I live for,” Patrick says. “Sharing my talent is a way to be of service. I’m looking forward to learning more about happiness in Miami, making new friends and expanding our community.”
Partners in om
AYP is a global partner of lululemon’s ‘Here to Be’ social impact program that makes the healing benefits of yoga and meditation accessible through nonprofit partnerships. Lululemon is also a presenting partner of the World Happiness Summit.
Karen Guggenheim, WOHASU co-founder and COO, says starting each day of the summit with yoga makes sense because “many of us have experienced the transformative power of practicing yoga and have felt the benefits to overall well-being and mood. Given our partnership with lululemon, it gave us an amazing opportunity to share a practice led by top teachers with seasoned yogis as well as novices.”
Practicing yoga for more than 15 years has helped Karen become more resilient, calm and healthy, she says—and she’s happier, too. “My goal, through WOHASU, is to offer people tools that they can implement in their lives in order to make them happy or happier; yoga is one of them.”
“Happiness is a muscle that allows you to feel joy when something great happens and acceptance when all else occurs,” Paige says. “Happiness gets developed through challenge and yoga gives you an opportunity to strengthen your happiness muscle every day on your mat.”
Find out more at africayogaproject.org or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @africayoga.