Associate professor, Graduate School of Education
Reprinted from The Conversation
Published June 12, 2017
Editor's note: Catherine Cook-Cottone consults for the Africa Yoga Project and received funding from UNICEF.
Yoga is a 5,000-year-old physical mind and body practice. Most present day practices share some variation of yoga poses (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama), relaxation and meditation.
Research indicates that one of yoga’s most powerful effects is to regulate the effects of stress. It increases behaviors associated with well-being — such as healthier eating and improved sleep behavior — and increases socialization. There is also evidence that it decreases behaviors — such as smoking or substance abuse — that are associated with non-communicable diseases. Additional benefits include increased flexibility and strength, and enhanced awareness of the body and emotions.
In acknowledgement of these benefits of yoga practice, in 2014 the United Nations General Assembly declared June 21 as the International Day of Yoga.
In Africa, the Africa Yoga Project has helped to expand the practice of yoga across the continent. Since 2006, it has educated, empowered and expanded the employability of youth in 15 African countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mali, Namibia, Botswana, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ghana and Somalia.
It began when the founder and executive director, Paige Elenson, was on a safari with her family in Kenya and shared handstands and yoga with a team of acrobats. Encouraged by the Kenyan acrobats, Paige came back to teach yoga in Nairobi’s informal settlements where 42 percent of its population of 44 million lives below the poverty line.
Paige discovered that one of the root causes of abject poverty was youth unemployment. About 70 percent of Kenya’s youth are unemployed. She turned this challenge into an opportunity, forming the Africa Yoga Project with Baron Baptiste, an international yoga teacher and trainer. The project now trains youth to teach yoga and is funded mostly by individual donations.
To date, the project has trained 244 young people, seen more than 200 earn a salary and seen more than 300 free community outreach classes brought to 6,000 people in 80 locations, from schools to prisons.
In 2012, I met Paige at yoga teacher training. I had just finished a research study on a kid’s camp for youth in poverty and children with disabilities using a methodology called “Concept Mapping.” This methodology is what we call mixed method. It uses descriptive techniques — these honor the perceptions and voices of the participants as primary sources of information — and methods that count and quantify data.
I offered to bring my team to Kenya to study the impact of the Africa Yoga Project using the concept-mapping method, which is ideal for studying unique, or one of a kind experiences.
In July of 2013, we collected data for three Africa Yoga Project studies based on experiences of the yoga teachers, child students and adult students. The research team was a mix of psychologists, doctoral students, a psychiatrist and seasoned yoga teachers.
In the first set of studies, we asked the teachers and students in what ways the practice and teaching of yoga had affected what they think, feel and do. The findings detailed all the ways that the Africa Yoga Project had changed their lives.
The teachers’ top three answers were:
The practice of yoga enabled them to turn inward and focus on the present moment. It appeared to increase their sense of personal value, strengthen a sense of personal trust — as skills like attention and intention are developed — and brought the practitioners to a higher sense of purpose or contribution in his or her life.
Overall, across the first three studies, the students and teachers identified personal benefits related to health, personal growth, confidence, coping skills and self-compassion. The teachers and students also reported better relationships and a stronger sense of community.
We also found a type of resiliency we call “Mindful Grit.” Grit is conceptualized as the ability to set and accomplish goals with persistence. This goes beyond the goal-setting and persistence found in the grit research by Angela Duckworth and adds a component of self-care and self-compassion that helps make growth and possibility sustainable over time. This is because Mindful Grit includes acknowledgement of effort, rest and restoration to avoid burn out, exhaustion and/or injury.
Interestingly, though pay and employability were identified as outcomes for the teachers, the well-being outcomes were rated highest. We were surprised. I think that teaching yoga is a job, but for those who work with the Africa Yoga Project, it is more than a job; it’s sharing a practice that has positively impacted each of their lives, and that seems to be what matters most to them.
As the body of research grows on yoga in general, we can safely say that yoga is a positive pathway to well-being that spans across continents, cultures and life experience.
Wonderful to see yoga being used to benefit individuals and communities everywhere.