Earlier this year, before any of us could have foreseen the magnitude of Covid-19 and the impact it would have on travel, my friends and fellow Yoga Teachers Kate DeLarue and Muthoni Njogu reached out for guidance on hosting retreats and evolving their offering of yoga in Kenya, where they both live and teach.
I first connected with Kate and Noni in Nairobi in 2018 while hosting a Seva Safari with the Africa Yoga Project, centered around Yoga for 12-Step Recovery Training led by Yoga Therapist and Addiction Recovery Expert, Nikki Myers.
The mission of Africa Yoga Project is to educate, empower and create employment opportunities for Africans, now reaching 21 countries across the continent. Kate and Noni are two of over 400 teachers who have been certified through AYP’s transformational Yoga Teacher training programs, and given the opportunity to earn a living wage teaching yoga.
Inspired by Kate & Noni’s plans to start leading retreats in Kenya and their entrepreneurial spirit, I was eager to offer the lessons I’d learned in building my business to help mentor them through the process. But as the global pandemic continued to unfold in the months that would follow, our conversations quickly shifted from retreat planning (which was of course out of the question), to understanding the global crisis through a new perspective.
In the interest of sharing their insight and expanding the Yoga Trade global community by welcoming our first Kenyan members, it is an absolute privilege to introduce Kate & Noni for this spotlight interview. Be sure to check out the links below for how you can become involved with the Africa Yoga Project community and continue to support Kate & Noni’s work.
What inspired you to become a yoga teacher?
Muthoni: The first class I ever took, made me feel like I was awakening from a dead zone. I realized how much my body had shut down from the activities of the routine life I had been living. I felt so inspired to awaken and I took time, (2 years) to develop and immerse myself into my practice, then I was sure that that’s the life I wanted to live. I dropped what I was doing and took the step to become a yoga teacher for myself and others.
Kate: Every time I went for our 2-hour community donation based class of about 300 people in one room, I felt at home. This class brought together the rich and poor, white and black, differently abled people, people of all ages and we all felt a sense of belonging with one another. I was not in a position to donate at the time because I was already struggling with transport to get me to the Saturday free class, but every time I attended a session, I looked forward to the next Saturday. I felt the need to share this inner happiness with others around me, especially those who were not content with what they were doing. With at least half of educated youths in Kenya being currently unemployed, I felt like this was something that was liberating to do and introduce to my other peers. Lack of good employment can get frustrating and Nairobi life is demanding not to have a good income. I therefore saw this practice as a passion and also a way to sustainable living. I am grateful I chose this path and I hope I can inspire other youths to do yoga or use yoga to find what they love.
What does “living yoga” mean to you?
Muthoni: Living yoga to me means being able to transfer qualities that I learn in a yoga session and incorporate them in my life. For instance, before yoga, I was very impatient. Through the practice I have gradually learnt how be calm, patient and resilient. In my life when faced with challenges, I am now able to use the tools learnt to tackle the issues. I also struggled with anger issues but now from the practice, I have developed a stronger emotional maturity.
Kate: When I look back to four years ago, when I just started doing yoga I don’t think I would have imagined I’d come this far. Today yoga is my main career and I am happy that I have been able to use this practice as a way to make a positive difference in people’s lives. It has been a journey where I have seen progressive growth in my body, my mental growth, networking and stepping into leadership roles I never thought I would.
Is yoga popular in Nairobi?
Muthoni: I would say that yoga is popular in Nairobi but mainly among the middle and upper classes. The idea that yoga is foreign and for the rich is very present in the society here. However, through the efforts of Africa Yoga Project (AYP) and Yoga Heart Kenya, community outreaches and classes, yoga is steadily gaining more popularity. That said, there are several yoga studios and gyms that have incorporated yoga into their schedules.
Kate: At this time however, yoga was not very popular within my community, and most people did not know what it was all about. Most of those who knew about it associated it with Hindu religion and worse, with demonism. Four years down the line, today yoga has gained popularity and mostly for all its good reasons such as to improve the mind body wellbeing for individuals among others.
What role does it play in your community?
Muthoni: My observation is that yoga in Kenya has made people more aware of themselves, their bodies and their health. It is also a healthy form of release and expression for a lot of the youth who would otherwise end up in activities that would affect them negatively.
Kate: Yoga in my community plays the role of bringing people together. It has created a space where people can pause on their busy lives and practice together, regardless of their backgrounds, and share their breath and positive energy.
What would you like people who have never been to Kenya to know about your country and culture?
Muthoni: Kenya has a lot to offer and to experience. While there are the conventional tourist sites and attractions, I would suggest for them to get in touch with a local and have an unfiltered adventure of the country/city. This might be a big mistake because they might never want to leave after this. Also, the local music and arts scene especially in Nairobi is definitely something they should check out, it is just amazing. Most importantly, do get in touch with me because I know some very awesome places, people, and experiences that I would love to share. Let me know when you are in Kenya:)
Kate: That Kenya is a loving country with welcoming people. Our 42 tribes from different parts of the nation have taught us to live as one big community. When you come to Kenya, you will have a taste of diverse cultural foods made uniquely from each region, each community has its own traditional jewelry, dress code and way of living that you can experience. Moreover, as part of having unique expeditions, hiking is one of my best activities, we have Mt. Kenya which is the second highest mountain in Africa and this always feels like home number two every time I hike here or bring people to have their one in a lifetime experience. Come hike with me when you land on our soil.
What effect has Covid-19 had on your community in Nairobi?
Muthoni: Oh this is going to be a long response. I would say that Covid-19 has amplified the already existing issues that have been in Kenya. The issue of unemployment has become greater as more people have lost their jobs, increasing the rate of unemployment. Gender based violence, child abuse and human trafficking, have also been amplified and exposed as a result of people being idle, and made to stay at home. On the positive side, kids are at home full time and that has brought life back into the hood as they are all over playing, and their creativity levels are so evident which makes life more interesting. Covid-19 has also made people realize the effectiveness of technology in that, people can still work, conduct business, and connect virtually. During this time, people have also had more time to spend together with their families, and neighbors, thus coming up with creative ideas to grow the community.
Kate: Initially, we had outreach yoga classes; this means that as a yoga teacher I take time to volunteer on free sessions on a weekly basis, for people who are not able to afford a paying class. Since Covid-19, all group classes had to cancel and maintain social distance. Everyone who was depending on these classes is currently now not able to practice. The situation led to the closure of studios, and cancellation of classes, thus negatively impacting most yoga teachers’ financial status.
Are you still teaching yoga during the pandemic?
Muthoni: Yes, I am grateful that I am still teaching during the pandemic, although I have had to adjust to virtual classes from one on one sessions. That means I have learnt the specifics of setting up and conducting a virtual session, which I am sure it would have taken me longer to learn were it not for the pandemic.
Kate: I have to adjust from leading physical classes and switched to build an online Zoom community. This platform is a blessing in disguise, I have met people across the world I had not envisioned I would and created connections from there. I have practiced in sessions being led by teachers from places my feet have not stepped and this has enhanced my skills more diversely at this time.
What made you decide to start teaching retreats?
Muthoni: First of all, on a very basic level, I want to travel to many parts of the world. From being hooked in a routine lifestyle, I experienced the dangers of a fixed way of living. I want to heal people by taking them away to serenity, a place away from distraction so we can dive into wellness and be vulnerable to release the stress built up in our system.
Kate: Unlike having a yoga routine at a studio or at home, retreats are a way to pause on the routine, create time for self-nourishment and rejuvenate. I attended my first retreat led by one of my teachers at the coastal Kenya. I woke up to beautiful beach meditations, my meals were prepared by Swahili people with a touch of their culture, I was on the mat and not the one teaching, I learned how to do Stand-Up Paddle yoga, and I learned so much about the way of life of our coastal brothers and sisters. I was taken care of the entire time and the experience made me feel worthy. That single experience made me decide that is what I want people to feel. To feel loved, to feel appreciation, feel young and vibrant and most importantly to feel whole.
What has been your biggest challenge so far as a yoga teacher and retreat leader?
Muthoni: My greatest challenge has been being able to reach a greater audience with my available resources and dealing with insecurities of whether people sign up or not for the retreats. Currently with the pandemic, my challenge has been to cancel the already planned retreats for 2020 and not being certain about a time when to reschedule the retreats.
Kate: During this journey as a teacher my biggest challenge has been the feeling of limitation of not being good enough. I have had moments where I leave the class and felt like I did not give what the students really needed. This has made me felt like I have not met the students’ expectations.
How did you overcome it?
Muthoni: Honestly, I haven’t overcome my challenges yet.
Kate: I am grateful that around me I have mentors and more experienced teachers who have consistently taken me through this journey of learning and unlearning. They are present in my teaching and have given me constructive feedback as assistance to build on my teaching skills. Additionally, I extend compassion for myself to understand that I am doing my best with the resources I have at the time and that to free myself from attaining the myth of perfection.
What is your biggest goal for the future?
Muthoni: To achieve my biggest goal I want to first of all work on my short term goal which is to do more wellness trainings in areas like Ayurveda. I am curious about astrology and very passionate about feminine holistic coaching and wellness. If you have any links please reach out and share.
Kate: When I look down the road in the future, my goal is to be a leader, to use this unique skill as a passion and a sustainable business, to advocate more yoga for hikers and to promote green environments regionally and globally.
With Yoga Trade being born out of a vision to build a worldwide wellness community, we recognize there has never been a more important time than now to expand our global perspective and share resources and support one another. How can we support your work?
Muthoni: We are getting a hang of the online classes. Schedule a one on one session with any of us and sign up for our yoga retreats! Also, follow our Instagram pages @nonitheyogini and @katedelarue, and look out for our upcoming website. Thank you!
Kate: Muthoni and I are building ourselves in the retreats industry and we’d love if you joined us here for yoga in Kenya. It would also be great to partner with other yoga teachers around the world and on this platform and be able to grow a global connection through yoga.