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Leisure Management
2015 issue 1

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Leisure Management - Township Yogi


Township Yogi

Kate Cracknell talks to Elle Matthews, director of the Township Yogi Project – an initiative that takes yoga to the townships of South Africa in a bid to spread calm and wellbeing to deprived communities

Kate Cracknell
Elle Matthews, director of the Township Yogi Project
The aim of the project is to spread the peace of yoga into townships across South Africa and give people a tool to find calm
The yoga classes are free and anyone can join in. People who attend often bring friends along with them the following week
Many join through word of mouth
Locals are trained to become teachers
Basic yoga clothing is provided
Potential yoga teachers are picked out and put through a 200 hour training course. Locals have embraced the classes

What’s the Township Yogi Project?
It’s a non-profit organisation that we launched in February 2013, where we go into South African townships, set up grassroots yoga studios and offer free yoga classes.

Classes are run by volunteer yoga teachers, but we also identify and train unemployed people within the townships to become teachers. They’re then able to teach their own communities, with classes generally running once or twice a week in each location.

The Township Yogi Project started in the townships of Inanda – where Nelson Mandela cast his first vote and Gandhi created a settlement – and KwaMashu near Durban and is expanding into a number of other townships in the area. We also started up in Johannesburg in April and will be offering classes in Cape Town soon.

Why did you do this?
I’d been a practitioner of yoga for a few years, but in 2012 I went on a yoga retreat to Thailand and it changed my life. I could feel the effects on my mind, body and spirit. When I returned home to South Africa, I found myself focused on the suffering of people all around me. I could see the desperation of people sitting on the curb as I drove past, hoping for a job. Or the despair of people I knew who lived in the townships and were victims of crime and violence, or living with the effects of HIV/Aids and TB. I had a deep knowing that they needed to do yoga. I can’t explain it – it was just something I was sure of.

Even if I only reached a few people, I wanted to be able to share the physical, emotional and spiritual tools that yoga offers (see box out overleaf). It’s a tough, tense, stressful existence and I wanted them to know the kind of peace I’d experienced – even if just for one hour a week.

Can anyone attend your classes?
Absolutely. We have kids from as young as three, right up to ‘gogos’ – elderly women who arrive at class leaning on their canes. Everyone and anyone is welcome and classes are free. We just ask them to clean the mats afterwards – or sometimes they’ll sing a special song for the teacher, just as an exchange of energy.

We also provide basic yoga clothing for students – many of them don’t have more than two or three items of clothing to wear, and none of it’s appropriate for yoga – so nobody misses out.

Word of mouth plays a big part in getting people involved. People walk past a hall, see the class happening and ask about it. Many people who attend also come with friends the next week.

Are there any other aspects to it besides yoga?
Other needs have come out of the yoga classes – like people wanting to eat more healthily, but not knowing how, given their dire financial situations. So we’ve given classes on cooking healthy food on small budgets – including encouraging people to grow their own vegetables and become self-sustaining.

How have you funded the project?
We rely on donations, although hopefully we’ll soon be able to start tapping into some international foundations and funding organisations that focus on the social issues we’re trying to help alleviate.

The only ‘salaries’ paid are the small stipends given to township yoga teachers who take classes in their communities. They get ZAR100 (US$8, €7, £5) a session.

At the moment we need about ZAR20,000 (US$1,630, €1,470, £1,040) a month to set up new classes, pay township teachers and to train others. One of our biggest costs is paying for these courses – they do a full 200-hour training course, which takes about six months, and are SETA registered when they complete it. This cost will only grow as we expand, but in terms of international funding it’s a sustainable project.

I believe there’s also a film being made?
My husband and I are filmmakers and we could see the potential for amazing stories. So we decided, right at the very beginning, to make a film about it – a documentary that follows the journey of five people in the Inanda township – as a way to build awareness and raise funds to sustain expansion of the project into the whole of South Africa.

We also hope the film will show the power that yoga has to help change lives – hopefully making some government departments sit up and take notice of yoga as a potential tool to help communities.

How effective has the project been?
At the start I saw the benefits for individuals – a way of them coping with the social issues in townships. But then I began to see the potential for yoga to change others through a ripple effect: the positive effects filtering into neighbourhoods and then into broader communities.

We haven’t tried to quantify results, although we’re now running formal research across a couple of social areas. So far we’re continuing with the project because people tell us how yoga is helping them change their lives for the better, or because we see small changes happening in communities. We’re not saying it’s directly attributable to yoga, but when people tell us how they’ve changed since doing yoga, and so do their families, then we know we’re achieving what we set out to achieve with the project.

What can spa and fitness operators learn from your experience?
The main reason the Township Yogi Project works is that yoga is brought into the heart of the townships. If more spas and health clubs went out into their communities, they’d engage people who, after a few sessions, might be more inclined to make the effort to attend classes.

It’s also about making things accessible and relevant. When our volunteer teachers take people through the yoga poses, they often relate them to activities people do in their everyday lives. For example, uttanasana (standing forward bend) is something women working in the fields do all the time, so teachers refer to this when showing them how to do the pose correctly.

What are your immediate plans for Township Yogi?
We’ll continue with the formula we have: identifying townships where poverty, crime, violence, unemployment, drug abuse, HIV/Aids and TB are rife. We then set up venues and classes and eventually hand them over to teachers who’ve qualified through us.

For now, we’re focused on setting up as many yoga classes as possible, because the demand and need is so great. We’re teaching at schools, in community and church halls, and even in the yards of township teachers. Further down the line, we’re looking to establish a yoga centre in Inanda.

What about in the long-term?
Five years from now, I hope the Township Yogi Project will be running in countries bordering South Africa, and that the power of yoga will be spreading throughout southern Africa. We’re already looking at setting something up in Namibia. Ten years from now, I’d love to see yoga happening regularly in every township in South Africa and its neighbouring countries. That would be amazing.

Would it work outside Africa?
Definitely. It’s a simple principle and one that can work anywhere. There are similar townships in South America and many other Third World countries which would certainly benefit from a similar model.

Wherever we take the Township Yogi Project in the future, I hope to be able to impact families, neighbourhoods and broader communities and bring about lasting, positive change.

The benefits of yoga

How can yoga help those living with HIV/Aids and TB?
Studies have shown that yoga benefits people with TB and HIV in a number of ways.

Living with HIV and Aids is stressful and yoga can greatly assist with stress reduction, as well as helping ease some symptoms and side-effects of HIV medication including joint pain and digestive problems.

Other research has shown yoga can improve mental health, body image and even help prevent the spread of the virus by encouraging a more proactive approach to care and treatment.

In terms of TB, yoga is all about breathing and improving lung capacity. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of yoga in treating people with TB.

Any other benefits of yoga for these communities?
Studies have shown a significant and lasting effect of meditation on drug and alcohol abuse. Many addictions begin as coping mechanisms, or ways of filling a spiritual void. When you replace this with yoga, people in treatment can learn to deal with their emotions and environment in healthier ways.

Yoga also shows potential as a treatment for drug addiction as it’s been found to help reduce depression and stress. The intense breathing patterns of yoga release the body’s natural pleasure-producing endorphins, which helps suppress addictive behaviours while restoring the brain’s dopamine functions to healthier levels.


Yoga has a wide range of benefits

Originally published in Leisure Management 2015 issue 1

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