“Our goal is to train a million yoga teachers in Africa,” said Paige Elenson, who recently received the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Global Citizen Award for her Africa Yoga Project. “I feel social change happens when we have transformed individuals who transform their communities.”
The daughter of Woodstock resident Joni Elenson, Paige first established a yoga school in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2007. She already had extensive experience as a yoga teacher in New York City, where she had grown up, and had been giving classes internationally.
One day, she was on safari with her family in Kenya, when they saw a group of young men doing handstands in the bush. Paige could not resist jumping out of the vehicle and doing handstands with them. They turned out to be acrobats, performing for safaris. “I have a pretty great handstand,” said Paige, “and they wondered how a white girl from New York had such a flexible, strong body. They had heard of yoga but thought it was for the elite. Later, they found me on social media and asked me to come back and teach them yoga. I said no a number of times, but they persisted. They said, ‘Our bodies might not be flexible, but our minds are flexible.’”
The men felt their acrobatics made them calmer, and they felt they were contributing to other people, discovering within themselves a sense of connection with spirit. “Is that yoga?” they asked her. Moved by their enthusiasm, Paige finally traveled back to Kenya to teach.
She lived in Kibera, a rough settlement where most people survive on less than $1 a day, without consistent electricity or piped-in water. When she was about to start a teacher training, violence broke out over a contested presidential election. Thousands of people died or were displaced. “Yoga helped people deal with the trauma they were experiencing,” said Paige. Inspiration came from five teenage girls who traveled over two hours to come to yoga class every day and said the practice made them feel “clean, strong, and happy.”
At the same time, Paige discovered that over 70 percent of young people in Kenya are unemployed, one of the root causes of poverty. She realized there was an emerging middle and upper class in Kenya, and she had an opportunity to train young people to teach them yoga for a living wage.
With the help of international yoga teacher Baron Baptiste, she has trained over 250 youth in 17 African countries. These young people now earn money by teaching yoga and are able to channel funds back into their communities — while enhancing the well-being of themselves and their students. “We reach 6000 to 8000 people per week with free yoga,” said Paige, who lives in Nairobi with her five-year-old half-Kenyan daughter. “We’ve built over five schools and, what I’m most proud of, have created over 600 new jobs.”
In September, Paige traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to accept the Ali Award, given annually to individuals who have made significant contributions toward the attainment of peace and social justice. “The key is that, if I go back to the U.S., the work can go on without me,” said Paige. “We have a vibrant community across Africa, led by youth from a marginalized socioeconomic group who are now at the source of bringing health and well-being to society. When a movement is led by the largest denomination of a culture, it really has the potential to create social change.”
Joni, her mother, who said she is “ridiculously proud” of Paige, traveled to Louisville for the awards ceremony. Originally, Joni admitted, she was dubious about the Africa Yoga Project, but she supported it, serving as the bookkeeper for several years. “Paige came from an entrepreneurial family,” she said. “Her father and I started a business at 17, selling rock-and-roll T-shirts in the street. Then we ran a factory with 400 employees, two miles from the house. We went from hippie teenagers to selling to K-Mart and Target. So Paige lived with a hard-working entrepreneurial spirit in the house. It doesn’t have to come from a college degree — it comes from within you.”
As a teenager, when Paige discovered how exercise helped her deal with personal stress, she took up boxing and yoga. “The community of yoga leads her to so many caring, sharing people,” said Joni. “She has a good sense of people and what they can do for her and with her. She has the sense of seeing what she could achieve, so why can’t someone else, if given the opportunity?”
For more information, or to donate to the Africa Yoga Project, visit https://www.africayogaproject.org.