The healing effects of yoga in Africa

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The healing effects of yoga in Africa

Nisreen Ismail

21 Jun 2019

3min min read
  • Peace-building
  • Economic development

n 21 June, millions of people will celebrate a tradition that can be traced back to around 3000 BC and was once only practised by Hindu men. The International Day of Yoga (IDY), first approved by the UN in 2014, seeks to raise global awareness of the benefits of yoga and to promote harmony and peace across humanity.  

As the practice of yoga has proliferated, so too have studies supporting its positive impacts on physical health, emotional development and psychological wellbeing. However, across Africa, yoga is now being used to promote peacebuilding, heal trauma and provide economic opportunities in countries with long histories of severe violence and poverty. 

Rwanda is one such country exploring this technique. Called “an idea whose time has finally come”, Project Air was the first official programme by the UN to use yoga to help sexual violence survivors and their children. Launched in 2007, the programme uses this ancient practice to help Rwandan females who have been traumatised by genocidal rape, sexual violence and HIV/AIDS overcome these events. Women in the programme have reported that by practising yoga, they are able to sleep through the night, suffer less from depression, can cope with haunting memories and have improved appetites. Project air is now planning its first major regional expansion into Eastern Congo – one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman or girl. 

"Across Africa, yoga is now being used to promote peacebuilding, heal trauma and provide economic opportunities in countries with long histories of severe violence and poverty."

Yoga has become even more popular thanks to The Africa Yoga Project. A non-profit organisation founded by two American yoga teachers in Kenya in 2006, the Africa Yoga Project has trained over 380 people as yoga teachers to date, enabling them to earn a living and lift themselves out of poverty. The project is now represented in 19 different African countries including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Angola and Sudan. 

The Africa Yoga Project has also conducted yoga-focused research projects in the region. In one such study in Somalia, the effectiveness of yoga to help individuals overcome trauma was assessed. In 2016, a Mind and Body Wellbeing Programme that incorporated trauma-informed yoga was field tested with individuals who were at-risk for trauma related to civil unrest, war and poverty. Preliminary results revealed that such yoga could be used as guidance for both yoga teachers working in high-risk locations and in classes that may include vulnerable and trauma-exposed individuals. 

Another institute that has found an alternative and creative approach to social issues in Somalia is the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre. Established by Ilwad Elman, who returned to Somalia from Canada in 2010, the centre integrates the healing effects of surfing and yoga for victims of sexual violence and previous child soldiers. Known as ‘Ocean Therapy’, the centre organises waterside meditations, yoga, water games, and sharing circles, to help young men and women overcome their traumatic experiences. Elman was named one of the Quartz Africa Innovators in 2017 for her work.

South Africa is another country that has also embraced the positive effects of yoga. In response to the many challenges facing individuals living in the country’s informal settlements - which includes crime, violence, domestic abuse, drug abuse, high unemployment rates and HIV/AIDS - non-profit organisations (NPOs) are now promoting the practice of yoga. Township Yogi and Yoga4Alex are two such organisations who not only offer free classes but teacher training programmes as well, with highly positive results.

Even correctional facilities have turned to yoga. In South Africa, the Prison Freedom Project is supported by the National Lotteries Commission and was introduced by a Cape Town-based volunteer organisation, Sevaunite, in 2010 (Seva translates to ‘service’ in Sanskrit). Currently, over 435 inmates across several facilities in South Africa - including Pollsmoor, a maximum-security prison, and Malmesbury - are enrolled in the programme. The initial course consists of six modules of Yoga and Mindfulness and is completed via correspondence. Some prisoners have requested to further their training with six modules on the Yoga Teachers Training course. One attendant from Brandvlei maximum-security prison noted that where he was once previously angry at “everything and everyone”, the course has changed his entire outlook on life. Free Inside, a 12-minute documentary on YouTube, provides valuable and personal insight into how yoga has rehabilitated these prisoners.   

There are multiple case studies substantiating yoga as a means to achieving well being globally and in Africa, begging the question as to why global leaders and key decision makers are not actively exploring the possibility of yoga as an initiative to transform countries adversely affected by war, sexual violence, racial oppression and poverty. 

At the upcoming 28th World Economic Forum on Africa, scheduled for September 2019, one of the five key points to be discussed is ‘strengthening governance and peacebuilding institutions’ within the fourth industrial revolution. Specifically, attendees will be asked ‘what steps should be taken to strengthen peacebuilding institutions in a multipolar and multi-conceptual world?’ With high-ranking public figures, young global leaders, civil society organisations and cultural leaders, among others, present, attendees have the opportunity to creatively review the concept of peacebuilding, wellbeing and economic opportunity by incorporating alternative methods in this regard. As demonstrated through the various yoga projects across Africa, this ancient practice can not only help heal various communities but can uplift individuals from poverty through employment as well. 

(Main image: Smiling woman learning yoga with arms outstretched -stock photo/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.