Yoga In Uganda
By Leyla Ahmet
Yoga is defined in Wikipedia as the physical, mental and spiritual practices to transform body and mind. The word, "yoga," is derived from the term for the yoking together of horses or oxen, but it came to be applied to the "yoking" of body and mind.
And here I stand, a yoga teacher in Uganda with no sense of yoking or union to the very people whose country I choose to live in. Our differences are huge: skin colour, education, diet, hair texture, religion, upbringing and food preferences. This is all the exterior. Beneath, I know and feel we are one. The mind may think different thoughts and believe different things and the body may thrive on different tastes, but we are not just the body or the mind. We are one spirit, sisters and brothers -- we are all the same. We all have the same basic needs, to be loved, to love, to feel connected, appreciated and needed.
With the Africa Yoga Project as a role model, and with my friend’s encouragement and with my own determination, I began to teach a free community yoga class in Jinja, Uganda. This was my first leap to bringing yoga to the community I found myself in. This community is as diverse as you could imagine: white knuckle extreme sports folks spending their days tackling some of the finest white water in the world; volunteers building playgrounds and initiating a change in the way kids here are brought up; earthy souls, raising their children and caring more for the quality of life than the quantity in the bank; missionaries spreading the word of Jesus; backpackers muddy-footed and full of enthusiasm; overlanders looking to stretch their legs; geologists studying how and when this section of the River Nile formed; doctors volunteering at local hospitals; PhD candidates studying climate change and gases in the environment -- and that is only the expats.
The first class was attended by a few friends and a staff member they “dragged along.” It took place in a small, dark, windowless room with sex education notes scrawled on a blackboard. Together we worked through the Baron Baptist sequence. Our physical challenges were different, but we all faced them. It did not matter our tribe, religion or sex, our sweat, laughter and ability to feel was the same.
The following week, our group had already outgrown the classroom, so we boldly ventured out into the most incredible, sunlit room: the community church. We inhaled and exhaled through the sequence beneath the words, "faith," "hope," and "love." I felt a deep connection with myself and with every person in the class. This sense of connection can only be described as experiencing pure love. Love for all, love for those in the class, love for those in the town, love for those in the country, in the continent, love for all in the world. My heart burst open during the igniting sequence – back bends had never been more joyous as we breathed, giggled and smiled together. We shared each others' pulse and the pulse of the universe – its spanda. I finally got yoga!
Now, six months into this community class, it is still growing. Each Saturday around 30 of us gather. Mats are rolled out neatly beneath the stained glass window. Grandpa is in the back, with his three-year old granddaughter on a mat beside him. She does not stray during the 90 minute practice. The beads in her hair shine like the light in her eyes. Angie is in the front row with the two orphans she is in the process of adopting. The running group is smiling as they forward bend. They laugh at their gift of tight hamstrings. The smell of chapattis on the coal burner and of coffee brewing keep us rooted in the moment and are a reminder that after class there will be a free breakfast for everyone.
We emerge from savasana together, as one. Relaxed, bright and energized. Ready to greet the day and face what it may hold. Mats are rolled and placed back in their bags. We unite in the café to share our experience. Those that can afford to donate a few shillings do. 5000 shillings is equivalent to $2 and buys one breakfast.
The word is spreading through the local communities of how yoga is fixing sore backs and making everyone feel more relaxed. For the first time in years, participants are sleeping through the night. I can only imagine the trauma some have experienced in their lifetime. When a comment like, “I finally feel connected to my body,” is spoken, the magic of this practice is once again revealed. The proof is in the experience. I believe in magic and what we practice is magic.
For the community class to happen, I give thanks to Emily Ward who is a beautiful friend and dedicated yogi. She has supported this vision and co-teaches with me. I also acknowledge Paige Elenson for inspiring me and for her poignant words, “the only thing stopping you is you.” And mostly, I give thanks to the community for being open, receptive and for showing up each week.