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:


Start Before You Are Ready

Just Do It!

There have been so many times in my life that I haven’t taken on a challenge because I didn’t feel quite ready for it. And while it is true, that one has to learn to listen to their inner guide to figure out what steps to take in life, I also know that some of the greatest accomplishments I have had has been when I just got on with it, did what I had to do, and just trusted in the process.  ZeroByZawadi is a perfect example of that. I still don’t know exactly where this journey will take me, but I’m loving every step of it, and meeting such amazing people along the way.  Just yesterday, my friend Joyce Muthoni, whose son I had written about in my blog post on City Council Police Brutality in Kenya, introduced me to a whole group of other incredible young women who I spent the morning with trying to figure out the best way to make newspaper bags. More on this another day.  It was really nice to finally meet Andrew, and he managed to make 2 newspaper bags that he was really proud of.

Anyway, the reason why I’m writing this post is really as a challenge to myself. I woke up this morning feeling like my brain was stuck on Gear 1, and even though I knew I should just get up, do yoga, and start working on my long list of things to do, I didn’t. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about my amazing visit to the Nairobi Children’s Remand Centre, where the Holistic Community of Kenya does yoga with the kids every Wednesday, but two days later, I still haven’t done it.  I’ve shared some lovely pictures on the ZeroByZawadi facebook page in the meantime though.

So one of the things I do, to motivate myself when I’m feeling tired, weak, sad, or just bleh, is turn to my #Note2Self board on pinterest – my new social-media love. If you haven’t explored the big, wild, juicy, fun & incredibly informative world of pinterest yet, BEWARE!  Yes, yet another social media platform to get addicted to.  For me though, it’s good eye candy, what my girl @Lafrohemien refers to as “Eyegasms”, but also the place I go to curate content that I can then share easily. Check out my pinterest boards & let me know what you think.

Last, but not least, I present you the new ZeroByZawadi logo designed by one of my favorite cousins – Kwame. This is just the start of our identity design process. I figure, I can’t forever, I JUST HAVE TO START! At least now we have something ready for the International Etsy Craft Party – Kenya Edition, happening on August 25th 2012 in Nairobi.  If you are on twitter, follow @CraftAfrika and #CraftPartyKe for details & updates. We are so excited about the new stock we are working on for the ZeroByZawadi stand where we’ll create a #ZenZone in partnership with the MindBodySpirit store.

“Wish You Were Here” Etsy Craft Party in Nairobi, Kenya – August 25th at Kuona Trust, hosted by @CraftAfrika. Follow #CraftPartyKe on twitter.


What are some of the things you’ve been meaning to do, but haven’t started yet? Feel free to share if you like.


Mbona Juma Tatu Milestone?

Mbona #JumaTatuMilestone?

I have been meaning to start writing again, but I just wasn’t sure how, why, what or when I would write.  God knows the past few months have been quite a challenge for me, and those who are nearest and dearest to me, know exactly why.  I actually thought my first blog, after this period, if I was ever to blog again, would be a sort of “Coming out” story, but that’s a story for another day.  The inspiration behind this post today is a conversation I started on twitter last Monday, called #JumaTatuMilestone.  (For non-Kiswahili-speaking folks, Mbona means “Why?” and Juma Tatu means “Monday”.)

So why #JumaTatuMilestone?

Isn’t it obvious – most of us have suffered from the Monday-blues many a time in our lives.  So I figured if we could just take a minute every Monday to share a milestone in our lives, however small or big, it would make a significant difference, not just to us, but to others who might be inspired by our sharing.  When I say however BIG or SMALL, I really do mean it.  There have been days in the past few months when even just getting out of bed was a BIG MILESTONE for me, and on days when I was able to accomplish more than that, I still wasn’t able to appreciate all the blessings in my life.  Somewhere along the way, I started writing a gratitude list. So each day, no matter what, before I go to sleep, I write a list of everything that I am thankful and grateful for.  This is just one of the things that has helped me shift my thinking, embrace life, and start sharing my light again.

So when you ask, “Mbona #JumaTatuMilestone?” my answer is this:

 I hope that each Monday, wherever you are, no matter what is going on, that you have at least ONE THING to celebrate, and that as a community we can celebrate it with you.

You never know, it might just be the one thing that gets you or another person through the week.

And wouldn’t it be great if we could get #JumaTatuMilestone trending every Monday, so that we all have thousands of reasons to smile each week? Goddess knows there’s enough crap on the internet and nothing but bad news in our daily newspapers.

With that, I leave you with Daddy Owen’s song “Mbona”, which is a true inspiration! I first heard it when he and Denno performed it live at Mavuno Church, here in Nairobi, Kenya, but it wasn’t until today that I watched the video.

Love and Light!