Yoga in Kenya: Growing the Conversation around Mental Health, Mindfulness & Positivity
Yoga is more than a physical practice
The yoga scene in Kenya is flourishing. In Nairobi, you can find as many styles of yoga as there are days of the week: power, vinyasa, kundalini, ashtanga, hatha, aerial, acroyoga, and more. Lamu Island is host to one of Africa’s most celebrated and well-attended yoga festivals, drawing yoga aficionados from all corners of the globe. A scroll through the Kenya Yoga Community Facebook page indicates that yoga workshops and retreats are on offer year-round. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Kenya is the continent’s yoga capital. And it’s not just expats or tourists who are finding their way to a mat to contort their body into strange shapes; yoga is becoming a wellness practice for Kenyans across socioeconomic sectors, faith practices, and ethnic backgrounds.
What I want to see more of in the Kenyan yoga sector, however, is an appreciation for the impact that yoga has on the mind and how it can be used as a healing modality, especially for mental health. If you’ve been to a yoga class, you’ve likely experienced a shift in your energy or mental state when you rose from savasana or final resting pose – perhaps there was more space between your thoughts or you felt a sense of being lighter. There’s science behind this shift, and a growing body of evidence that suggests yoga and its accompanying practices (meditation, breathwork, mindfulness) can serve as self-healing tools for a variety of mental ailments, including anxiety, chronic stress, depression, insomnia, grief, and trauma, among others.
Let’s face it, almost all of us are battling high levels of stress and an overactive, at times torturous, mind. Loss, grief, and trauma are inevitable experiences of being a human. We all need self-care and healing for our mental well-being.
Yoga can ease emotional pain in times of crisis
Like many, my journey with yoga went from a superficial physical practice to a daily ritual for self-development and healing after a period of intense emotional pain and transformation. I started a consistent yoga practice in 2010 during graduate studies in order to manage stress, but in 2014, after a stint in South Sudan during civil war and a combination of personal losses, I entered into a state of disorientation and sadness. I had a general feeling of having had the rug pulled out from under me: many of the things that previously gave my life meaning began to feel empty and the stories I told myself about who I was felt like they were slipping away. I also began to notice for the first time my self-dialogue and the awful way I was talking to myself in my head.
I started a daily yoga and meditation practice in order to journey through the darkness and to try to understand what was happening inside of me so that I could find my way to the other side as a stronger, more expanded human.
I didn’t want to run away from or repress the sadness and pain.
I wanted tools to help me fully feel it, and I had a hunch from previous experiences in yoga class that there was something profound to the practice that I could tap into. Such was the power of my healing experience with yoga and meditation that three years later I quit my full-time job in Washington, D.C. to become a certified yoga teacher and specialize in yoga for trauma.
So what does Yoga have to do with the mind?
The practices of yoga lead your attention inward and teach you to examine yourself without judgment (bad, good, like, dislike, etc.) so that you can begin to see the root cause of your pain and, perhaps, how you may be contributing to your own suffering. It starts simple: the first skill you develop in a yoga class is to observe your breath. As you practice more and more, you develop an ability to observe deeper parts of yourself, for example how certain thoughts or mind stories cause you to feel and act in a way that brings negativity or harm into your life or the lives of loved ones.
You might notice that in challenging postures when you feel uncomfortable, your mind is screaming to get out of the pose and as a result you find it impossible to be completely still – to just be. This likely translates into your life with patterns of avoidance, whether it’s running from difficult conversations or an inability to be present and still. If you sit down for meditation, you’ll notice your mind follows patterns of thoughts, repeating stories about the past or running through imaginative scenarios in the future, and you may start to notice how these make you feel and act. Once you begin to understand these things about yourself and with compassion, you can begin to change your attitudes, behaviors, or lifestyle so that there is more joy and peace and lightness in your life.
Getting the most out of your Yoga experience
If you already practice a mindful, breath-centered version of yoga, you’re likely already reaping the therapeutic benefits of the practice. You’re breathing deeper and more consciously which brings greater balance to your autonomic nervous system (responsible for stress regulation and the fight or flight response in our bodies) and more capacity to your respiratory system.
You’re holding your body in unique positions that move your joints through the full range of motion and increases the circulation of synovial fluid – critical for joint health. You’re developing your concentration skills and ability to be in the present moment, which translates into your work and relationships. You’re building mental and physical strength, and a more connected and affectionate relationship with your body.
While all styles of yoga are beneficial for your health, not all have the same impact on mental well-being and self-development. If you aren’t aware of your breath and consciously taking control of it through most of your practice, you’re likely practicing something more akin to aerobics or gymnastics rather than traditional yoga.
Try to find classes in the style of ashtanga, hatha, dru, or kundalini – all available in Kenya – if you want a practice that helps you work with your mind as well as your body. Make sure the teacher is certified to teach yoga. Most certification programs meet a minimum standard of training in the full aspects of yoga, including philosophy, anatomy, adjustments, breathwork (pranayama), and meditation, and will produce a yoga teacher that can meet every student where they’re at in mind and body.
Seek out experiences that take you beyond the physical aspects of yoga. Join the Kenya Yoga Community FB page for announcements of meditation workshops. Do a silent weekend retreat with Mindful Living. Download the HeadSpace or Insight Timer app to start a meditation practice at home. Attend yoga retreats that incorporate meditation, breathwork, and the philosophy behind yoga.
I believe it’s just a matter of time before Kenya’s yoga community takes the practice to a deeper level, and I’m excited to be a part of that movement. At the same time that yoga is becoming a more widely-accepted well-being practice in Kenya, mental health is emerging as a more public and urgent topic.
I want to see the yoga and mental health space converge and work together on expanding access to healing throughout Kenya and beyond, in a region of the world where healing from the trauma of conflict is desperately needed in order to build long-term peace.
Finally, Kenya – with its unparalleled access to wildlife and nature – is the perfect place to explore the integration of yoga, mental health, and healing, because any solution to mental dis-ease needs to incorporate a connection to nature.
I leave you with this: every day you brush your teeth, take a shower or bathe, maybe you go to the gym, jog, or walk a few times a week, and perhaps you watch your diet and try to eat healthy. All of these are laudable efforts to take care of your body. What are you doing to take care of your mind?
Jessi is a freelance consultant that splits her time between the U.S., Kenya, and wherever work takes her. She’s also a 200-hour certified yoga teacher that specializes in yoga for trauma, and she leads a mind body therapy program with young female survivors of gender-based violence in Kibera.