Yoga is growing in America by leaps and bounds. A practice once thought of to be reserved for flower children or patchouli oil-wearing vegans is now attracting carnivores, CrossFitters and executives worried about being unable to touch their toes.
All of this can seem contrived and elicit the occasional eye roll – especially from longtime practitioners who shame commercialization and the recent proliferation of nontraditional yoga classes. But I love the fact that more people are finding their way onto a mat and doing it in their own style. Because more important than whether you take your yoga hotor room temperature, in English or Sanskrit, fast or relaxed, is how you translate your practice off the mat.
For example, presence, acceptance, equanimity and non-judgment are words we lean on in our classes, but how are we yogis walking our talk once we leave the studio? Where do the hashtags end and the real impact begin? How can we use yoga as a tool for change?
These are questions I asked myself when I became an ambassador for Africa Yoga Project, a program that trains unemployed youth from marginalized communities to earn a self-sustaining income as community yoga teachers. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, AYP has trained more than 200 yoga teachers who provide free yoga classes in 80 locations across Africa to those who wouldn't otherwise have access. As an AYP ambassador, I spent 14 days in Kenya working with schools, informal settlements and prisons to get a firsthand look at the impact yoga is having on these communities.
Here are the top five things I learned from taking my yoga off the mat:
1. Community is our lifeline.
Many people I spent time with in Kenya live in poverty, do not have access to clean water and have lost parents and loved ones to illness or violence at young ages. In dealing with tragedy and heartbreak, their yoga community became their lifeline; their method for dealing with and overcoming extreme hardships.
In an increasingly digitized world, we are witnessing more and more people flocking to yoga studios seeking real connection. My suggestion is to pull your mat a little closer to the person next to you, make eye contact with your teacher and open yourself up to the like-minded individuals with whom you are fortunate to share your practice.
2. Limits are self-imposed.
During my first week in Nairobi, I accompanied AYP teachers to community classes, often in the slums, usually followed by lunch in their homes. Seeing firsthand the environmental challenges these instructors overcome while having tremendous impact on their communities by teaching yoga was by far one of the most inspiring things I have ever experienced. In a place with no yoga mats – let alone fancy gear – these yogis were transforming lives.
It became clear that any limits we place on ourselves are self-imposed and that much of what holds us back from seizing opportunities is our own self-doubt. Setting an intention at the beginning of your yoga practice is an invitation to reframe your thoughts, let go of resistance and work toward your highest potential.
3. Authenticity is the key to great leadership.
The most effective instructors and practitioners I encountered in Nairobi were not necessarily the most credentialed or anatomically knowledgeable, but were those who spoke with openness and led with their hearts. In fact, some of the most powerful leaders didn't speak at all: One class I attended included participants and instructors who were deaf. They led with such passion that no words were needed to express themselves.
This is not to discount the value of solid training, experience and continuing education, but when looking for a yoga teacher, both physical and spiritual alignment should be considered. In addition to finding an instructor who challenges you physically, seek out someone whose ethos inspires you to make conscious choices, take action and have a positive impact on your community.
4. Being teachable is the foundation of personal growth.
My second week in Nairobi, I gave a presentation I had prepared for for weeks before my arrival. But after spending seven days in the city, I realized that most of what I planned to share did not translate meaningfully to what these teachers were experiencing daily. I had to ask questions and listen intently to what challenges they faced and – together – discuss ways to enhance their teachings.
It was a reminder that to be teachable means being consistently open to learning from anyone at any time in any environment – especially if it's one that's unfamiliar. By letting go of control and being open – whether it's to an unexpected substitute teacher or a challenging new flow – we learn to be truly present and grow as individuals and yogis.
5. Human suffering is universal.
After a particularly emotional day spent visiting outreach programs, I discussed how difficult it is to witness this degree of human suffering with the co-founder of AYP. Being face to face with such extreme poverty and inequality that we know exists but almost never see caused me to question a lot about my perception of the world. It was then that she reminded me that all suffering is universal – regardless of age, race or income level.
In that moment, I truly understood that while we all live differently, we are all connected as a global community. While our individual challenges may be unique, we all experience pain, joy, fear and love. In every country, all over the world, our yoga mats are a place to cultivate a deeper sense of compassion for ourselves and for one another. Compassion, like yoga, is a daily practice that we must commit to and choose to come back to over and over again.
Before leaving Nairobi, I asked one of my African hosts if yoga had changed his life. He said, "No, it didn't change my life – it saved my life." So fellow yogis, the next time you step onto your mat, remember that yoga can be a powerful tool for change in your life, whether professionally, personally or spiritually. Nailing a handstand is just an added bonus!