Yoga In Prisons In Kenya [Part 1]

Nairobi Children’s Remand Centre in Lower Kabete, Nairobi, Kenya

Every Wednesday afternoon, a team from the Holistic Community Kenya (HCK), led by Fazilah Bazari, one of my yoga teachers in Nairobi, facilitates a yoga session with the kids at the Nairobi Children’s Remand Home.  I’ve been meaning to go to one of these sessions for a while because I was intrigued by the whole idea, and had read about the difference yoga in prisons is making in other parts of the world, including India.  So I finally made the time and joined Dalia, Sheila and Sammy last Wednesday and I have to say it was the best use of my time that day.  Part of me was anxious about going to the children’s remand center because I’ve never been inside a prison, and also because the idea of incarceration of children just makes me ill.  I imagine the center is very different on other days, but on that afternoon as soon as we walked in, my spirit was at ease.  The big boys, aged 14-18 were already in position and had started their class under the leadership of Karanja*, one of the kids at the center. Fazilah really wasn’t kidding when she said that the yoga class was the highlight of their week and that the kids often started without them because they didn’t want to waste any time waiting for the teachers.  In terms of a sustainability model, this is already a really good indication that at least some of these kids might just maintain a personal yoga practice even after leaving the center.

Reverse Triangle pose – demonstrated by one of the older boys at the Nairobi Children’s Remand Home Yoga Session with HCK.

On the way to the center, I asked Sheila to tell me more about the program – how they started, what challenges they had faced, and what results they were observing.  To my surprise she told me that the director of the center was the one that had contacted HCK asking them if they would facilitate yoga classes for the kids.  I had actually just assumed that it was the other way around – that HCK had expressed an interest in teaching and then been invited to do so.  Just goes to show that demand-based initiatives are always more successful than projects that are started because some do-gooder from outside a community thinks that they can “come save the people”.

HCK has been successfully conducting these weekly yoga classes for the past 2 years and while there has been great progress, especially with the children who have been at the center for months, they have definitely had some challenges.  When they first started teaching yoga, many of the children were hesitant to do it because they had preconceived notions about the practice. These included anything from believing that yoga was a form of devil-worship, to thinking that it went against their religion because they thought it was a Hindu practice.  To help them ease into the practice Sheila says they explained to them that yoga was not religious and that by doing the various postures and breathing exercises, it would help them relax, strengthen their bodies and minds, and also open up new and unexpected things for them.  They also assured them that if they felt uncomfortable at any point with the practice, that they should feel free to say so.  Finally, they challenged them to take on an attitude towards life that allowed them to try on new things, experience it, and then decide for themselves if it worked for them, instead of simply listening to other people’s views.  This was therefore the beginning of many life’s lessons that the HCK teachers have been sharing with the children through the yoga practice, stories that they share & group discussions that happen at the end of each class.

The children are divided into three groups – the big boys aged 14-18; the small boys aged 8-13; and all the girls together (8-17 yrs old).  It was so moving to see these children sit quietly in lotus position as they meditated at the beginning of the class, and then moved into their sun salutations, which led to a series of other asanas (postures).  I wished I could split myself into 3 people so that I could document the entire process of each group, but I had to just keep going from group to group and taking pictures without causing too much distraction.  You can see all the pictures on the ZeroByZawadi facebook page. Note that all the faces of the children have been blurred so as to protect their identities.

I really wanted to participate in the class myself, but I guess I’ll have to go back to do that. And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get to the point where I’m comfortable enough to teach a class myself :-).

The best part of the experience for me was at the end of the girls class when Sheila asked them all to lay on their backs for final relaxation and then proceeded to lead a Journey Process for children in Kiswahili.  All the girls looked so incredibly peaceful, and even though I was filming it, what I really wanted to do was just lay beside them and allow myself to travel into whatever imaginary world Sheila was helping them create with her silky and gentle voice.  By the end of the journey, at least a handful of girls were fast asleep.  As if this wasn’t enough, Sheila asked them all to sit in a circle and share what they had learnt from the class, from the story she told them, and what they were taking forward with them.  She also asked them to cross their arms, hold each others’ hands, and talk about what this symbolized.  Unity, equality, community, togetherness, love and peace are just some of the words that they shared.

The girls’ circle at the end of the yoga session with HCK at the Nairobi Children’s Remand Home

Yoga Circle with Girls at the Nairobi Children’s Remand Home

Last, but not least, I got to interview one of the girls, who I’ll call Atieno, because Atieno is my middle name, and I really connected with her.  Atieno is a 16 year old, extra-intelligent young girl who was arrested just over two weeks ago.  She ran away from home 2 years ago and has been living with friends and lovers since.  Atieno was scheduled to go to court last Friday August 17th, 2012. I have yet to hear what the verdict of her case was, so I prefer to share her story once I know. I don’t want to risk negatively affecting her case in any way, so stay tuned for Part 2 of this blog post. Part 3 will feature insights from HCK & the staff of the Children’s Remand Centre on what difference they think the program is making and what plans they have for the future.

What about you? Do you have any other examples of how yoga is being used in prisons in other parts of the world? What about other holistic practices like meditation, Tai Chi, etc?  What difference has yoga made in your life, if you practice it? If not, what other contemplative practices do you do to maintain your Mind, Body, Spirit balance? Please share.

Finally, as usual, I like to leave my readers with a little “Zawadi” (gift).  Here’s some #AfroZenMusic by Kenya’s Ayub Ogada:


4 thoughts on “Yoga In Prisons In Kenya [Part 1]

  1. beautiful initiative, I cringed abit when i read the “do gooder part” lol. SOme years back i and a few other friends wanted to start a rehabilitation initiative for ex-offenders from the Kenya Prison system.. Turns out we weren’t the only ones -lacklustre support from inside wasnt forthcoming and we put it on pause. Its great that people are opening their minds more to realise ther is no such thing as a lost soul – everyone is gifted in someway.. its just how you reach /connect with them..

    The Remand-HCK partnership is great to hear about on so many levels and i hope there are constant stories on them to show and remind others.. how big and impactful it is to reach out and touch someone.

    • Hi sis. Thank you so much for your comment – I’ll be sure to share it with the HCK team. So why did you cringe at at the “do gooder” part? LOL, I’m curious to know.

      I’ll keep writing about all these wonderful initiatives I’m coming across through this ZeroByZawadi journal. If nothing else, the inspiration keeps me going on a daily basis.


  2. wow what a wonderful story,we had a great time with you and at that time i felt like i would continue teaching the kids yoga more and more because its a morale to the kids seeing new faces.They do fill honored and loved and this really motivates them.I hope more people will be inspired to do the same.Be blessed.

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