On a mission to bring yoga, compassion to Kenyan prisons

Irene Auma, at center, helps conduct a yoga class at Thursdayin Seattle. Auma plans to start the first yoga-in-prisons program in Kenya. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Irene Auma, at center, helps conduct a yoga class at Thursdayin Seattle. Auma plans to start the first yoga-in-prisons program in Kenya. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Irene Auma is not your typical yoga teacher. She grew up in a neighborhood she refers to as a “slum” in Nairobi.

She came to yoga, which she says is uncommon outside the wealthiest communities in Kenya, when an American woman saw her performing in an acrobatic troupe at 19 and recruited her for a yoga teacher-training program.

The program was the Africa Yoga Project, an organization that helps bring yoga and yoga-training opportunities to young people in East Africa. The impact on Auma’s life has been profound.

“Yoga has helped me become a great leader,” says Auma, now 29 and a full-time yoga teacher with a private practice of her own. “So if you know yoga, you should share it with other people so they can know the benefits.”

She’s in Seattle this week as part of a plan to share those benefits with an unlikely group of people in her home country: prisoners. She’s taking a training course with Yoga Behind Bars, a local nonprofit that brings yoga and meditation to prisons, jails and detention centers throughout Washington state.

Once certified, Auma plans to start the first-ever yoga-in-prisons program in Kenya. She currently volunteers in a women’s prison but says certification would allow her to expand to as many as 10 more prisons throughout the country.

Auma is in Seattle getting certified by a local "Yoga Behind Bars" program. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Auma is in Seattle getting certified by a local “Yoga Behind Bars” program. (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“I think it’s a calling. It’s my goal to see people behind bars have yoga, have love,” says Auma.

She believes the mental and physical impacts, as well as community-building opportunities, make yoga particularly beneficial to such populations. She says that after a yoga session, the women she works with are often relaxed and “open” enough to reflect on their crimes.

The Yoga Behind Bars teacher training is intense, 17 hours spread over 2½ days, but it is designed for teachers heading into a prison setting.

“The focus is really on how to use yoga as a tool for healing of trauma, for building of resilience in individuals and giving people an opportunity to cultivate their own practice behind bars,” says Rosa Vissers, executive director of the program.

She adds that yoga classes in prisons tend to be more restorative, as opposed to physically vigorous, and encourage participants to define their own pace and experience instead of aspiring to a standard set of expectations.

Whether inside or outside of prisons, both Vissers and Auma acknowledge, the U.S. and Kenya practice yoga differently. For example, Auma says Kenyan yoga tends to forgo meditation and chanting and is often practiced in informal settings without mats or equipment.

But becoming a sensitive yoga instructor, especially in a prison setting, requires many of the same skills, regardless of country or culture.

And Vissers says that cultivating humility, exploring power dynamics and developing a sense of service are all key to Yoga Behind Bars teacher trainings.

“We try to create … a space where people can figure out how they best would like to serve, how we can all play a part in building a more just world for everyone,” says Vissers.

Irene Auma, seen helping conduct a yoga class in Seattle, grew up in a Nairobi slum and came to yoga through a program called the "Africa Yoga Project." (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Irene Auma, seen helping conduct a yoga class in Seattle, grew up in a Nairobi slum and came to yoga through a program called the “Africa Yoga Project.” (Photo by Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Yoga as service resonates deeply with Auma, who says her experience living in a Nairobi slum inspires her to give back, especially to the most marginalized.

“Always in the back of my mind was the thought that one of the women in prison might be the mother of my best friend back home,” she says of a recent class she taught in Kenya.

And her compassion extends to those incarcerated in our region, as well. While in Seattle, she’ll guest-teach three yoga classes at the Be Luminous Yoga studio downtown and donate the proceeds to support local Yoga Behind Bars efforts.

“I believe yoga is for everyone,” says Auma with a huge smile. “Wherever you are, every corner of the world, we share one common love and we share the same breath.”

From a Seattle yoga studio all the way to a women’s prison in Nairobi.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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