Angela's Blog

A week of blog posts, all in one!!


Graduation Day

We had been planning all week for a big-to-do for the TT’s graduation: invited guest, a microphone, a stage, reporters, planned a demonstration from the student teachers and at the last moment a few things fell through: the reporter couldn’t make it, 5 of the participants were unable to attend their own graduation because the were suddenly required to be present for another project and many of those invited were unable to make it as well. Despite the small turnout of attendants we were all in good spirits, the students were anxious to get their certificates, and I will be meeting with the reporter tomorrow morning so it looks that the story will be in the local paper this Sunday before I leave. (One should note that the reporters here are paid by those who want their stories printed rather than by the paper itself.)
After an asana warm up to some local music via radio I asked the TT’s to work with partners and practice teaching some asana and any other skills that they had acquired (pranayama, meditation, etc) I was so proud to walk around the room and see their progress!!! I’m just so impressed at their focus and desire. I wish I was a better writer further explain the love I’ve developed for these students and this project.
Once we the TTs finished teaching each other we planned their demonstration for the certification ceremony. This included defining what yoga meant to them, centering, pranayama, meditation, and an asana demonstration. I then brought up the point that they needed to create their own opportunities as teachers. I tried to impress upon them that the only way they will be able to continue is if they take it into their own hands to share the work that we’ve been doing. I asked each of them to list three places or groups of people where they would like to teach and how they might go about setting it up. It is at this point that I really wish I had more time here as I could help facilitate setting up regular classes at their various clubs — but its in their hands now and I hope for the best.
All the yoga books, mats and cds donated will be kept at the Never Again office library for checking out. More exciting news is that a friend of a friend whom I met through this project, is arriving in Kigali from the US tomorrow and bringing 4 yoga DVDs (Rodney Yi Doug Swendson, etc.) This DVDs will be given to the Memorial Center and Never again. What’s amazed me most about this project is how many people came out of the woodwork and offered their assistance. Special thanks goes out to my new friends, Laura and Neil who have helped to document the work here with film and photo. Laura has attended many of the classes as an assistant and model student and I think this has served as a guidepost for the students and how to approach yoga.
Just before the ceremony commenced I posed the question, “Can yoga help with trauma?” It was at this point that I acknowledged that part of my purpose to come to Kigali and share yoga was the hope that it would serve as a tool in dealing trauma. Some of the students brought up the week of remembrance. (Every April the country devotes a week to remember the genocide by broadcasting songs of the genocide and showing films; both of the actual event and documentaries about it. Sports, nightclubbing and any extracurricular activities are also cancelled. There seems to be mixed opinions as the whether the week is helpful or causes the trauma to be re-opened in a destructive, rather than helpful, reflective way. I am told that many people have breakdowns and are re-traumatized. In my opinion, it only makes sense that viewing another person’s meltdown not only induces vicarious traumatization but may bring up the viewers trauma that they may have had some success in processing.) We discussed how that although most activities are cancelled during this time, yoga is one that could be continued in the privacy of their own homes. We also discussed the importance of strengthening their yoga practices from now until April and that this is the greatest way that yoga can be useful to them. My ever-attentive student, Phocus, gave a very insightful and accurate description of experiencing sadness and using mediation as a tool. More than any other of the students he seems to grasp that yoga is not meant to alleviate the pain or provide an escape, so much as strengthen a container for understanding the pain and one’s relationship to it. I am most proud of Phocus and am hopeful he will keep in contact with me via email.
If the yoga participants keep up with their practices, I am extremely interested in returning to visit them during the week of remembrance in April.


Nsanga Village Visit

Nsanga was created some time after the genocide as a place to put all those in Kigali left without families and/or homes. Basically the government swept the streets clean of lost people and dropped them in a prefabricated village on the outskirts of the city. About half of my students live there and all without parents. The village has no official school, no village center and is far enough away from the city, that transportation into can be quite expensive. This poses a major problem when one considers the question of school.
All of my students that live at Nsanga Village, are in their early 20’s and having been living on their own, with siblings or adopted siblings for years. This means that they were between 7 and 12 years old during the genocide. Benon (my friend and translator) informed me that he frequently tells his peers that he doesn’t have parents even though his parents are alive and well. (Benon is 23, and did I mention that he is amazing!!!!!!) This is because such a large amount of people in his age group are without parents that to have parents who are still alive makes one stand out a bit and he finds its easier to make friends by pretending his has also lost his parents. After the genocide some of these orphans lived on the streets, some in orphanages and some were taken into families. JeanPaul, a 21year old participant with bright eyes, a boyish face and fierce determination in my classes lived first in an orphanage, and then with an adoptive family before coming to Nsanga village. From what I can tell, the families that adopted children after the genocide frequently treated them poorly – more as household workers rather than children – at least this was true I Jean Paul’s case.
I visited with Jean Paul at Phocus’s house: a small 3-room home with no kitchen, running water or bathroom to speak of. I was unclear as to how many people lived there. (Phocus is one of the most attentive students I have; he is strong and thoughtful with piercing eyes a powerful presence in yoga class) I learned that a large portion of the village is composed of child-head-of-households and that many of these family-groups have children with severe mental disabilities because of the lack of guidance over the past 13 years. Though the village is supplied with food, there seems to be very little thought about how the village can sustain itself. The government offers some scholarships for school – but then there is the question of getting there and books. I asked Jean Paul and Phocus how they had managed to make it so far – to what they think they owed their success in making it to their first year at college. Neither one had a definite answer but both stated that a variety of workshops and activities assisted them. A government- sponsored group called Association of Rwandaise Contre la Tramatisme brought in councilors who trained Jean Paul and Phocus how to manage their own trauma and to assist others when they needed support. (I hope to meet with this group at some point –possibly when I return.) It was then that Jean Paul stated that he thought yoga to be very helpful in dealing with trauma.
When I asked what he meant, Jean Paul said that he found it helpful when practicing alone in his room in managing his own thoughts. Both he and Phocus suggested that it was, in some ways, more helpful that the counseling they received because it was something you could do yourself. And unlike sports, it was something that involved the mind that everyone could do. I was most disappointed to end this conversation, as we had to catch a bus into town to the Genocide Memorial. Using yoga for trauma therapy is, after all, why I came to Rwanda. We left the house and joined a third TT, named “Pacifique”. As we walked to the bus stop, I felt immeasurable gratitude and appreciation at the sight of 3 Rwandese yogis strolling through the banana tree forest with yoga mats slung over their shoulders.
I had organized for the teacher trainees to attend one of my classes at the Genocide Memorial because these classes are more similar in pace and mood to the classes I teach back in DC. I don’t take time for translation and the classes are in the evening for the memorial workers who have usually had a very long day, so there is a bit more meditation, visualization, restorative poses, and over all fluidity. I had suggested this class as extra credit for my TT’s and it had been a very long day already, but nearly all of them came regardless. Their commitment and desire are strong and on reflection of the effort some of them are putting into the practice, I find myself returning to images of Luke Skywalker and his training for Jedi knighthood. These students are, after all, warrior yogis leaping out into the dawn of a newly formed society after much destruction to a battle is not yet finished.
That evening, at the class at the Memorial Center, only two others showed up to take class: a volunteer and yoga fan from the UK, and my fast friend, Laura who has given me much support in the past two weeks of yoga. It seems that work at the Center that day had been draining and most of the other participants simply wanted to get home by the time the day had ended. Apparently a large group had come through and many of them had needed a bit of counseling after visiting the museum. This is a common event and understandably draining on the staff. If I were to continue classes in Kigali, I’d want to continue to offer the group at the center classes, but I think it might be better if they were are another location (though, almost ironically the Genocide Memorial building and setting are one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in Kigali.)
That evening, the power was out, but we managed to gather a few tea light candles. One of the students remarked that we would just use the lights in our hearts (as we had been meditating and discussing the divine light of Atman within) and I was filled with the sense of how perfect the moment was, despite the lack of electricity and exhaustion that seemed to fill the room. As we begin, Peninha (the Rwandese Shiva Rea) came to life with translation. Her gentle voice filled the room as she echoed my words in Kinyarwanda. She is a natural teacher and I look forward to seeing hearing about her in the next few months and what she does with her new skills.


Yoga is a good fit for Kigali

I’ve taught two classes with some people form the embassy and USAID and discussed whether or not there is a need/desire for more yoga in Kigili. It seems that the answer is a firm, “yes.” There are two or 3 places where people take classes like aerobics and jazzercise. There was once even a Thai – Chi class, but the general consensus was that the classes were overcrowded and mediocre – which is a great sign for the potential of finding work here. The biggest issue would be the cost. Do I charge local or US or something in between? Benon, the head of the youth organizations for Never Again, is encouraging me to return with the promise that yoga will continue once I have left. Suddenly the idea of renting a little hut with a stone floor on the edge of the city for a yoga studio seems quite appealing.

I came into class this morning after the weekend with a new plan: The fist week was a bit of a whirlwind. By Friday we had covered many poses, practiced tra-tik (candle gazing), a bit of yoga nidra, lotus meditation, and enjoyed all sorts of cultural and language adventures together. Since I only have a week left, I’ve decided to go Ashtanga-style and stick to the same program each day. In this way I hope to increase concentration, focus, and relaxation by dealing with familiar poses. Also, I really want the students to see some improvement in their individual practices’. We will not be doing the Ashtanga sequence itself, but another sequence that I find a little more varied and appropriate for what we’ve learned so far.

I began class by asking if anyone had practiced over the weekend and nearly half the class raised their hands! Some said they had done sun salutations, others said they showed their friends poses, others said they just practiced quietly in their rooms. I asked how they felt after their yoga practices and these were some of the responses – roughly translated of course?

Jean de Dieu: “After I practiced the yoga, I found that I was able to sleep much better.”

Peninah: “I haven’t done sports in four years and after I’ve done the yoga I feel more energized, ready to do more and my mind feels clear.”

Lorando: “I tried do some of the sun salutations and felt very good and refreshed afterwards.”

Musi: “After practicing yoga, I found that my memory stays fresh.”

Rosette: “I think it makes things more simple. My sister an I were having a fight about using the cell phone and she was very upset but I just, told her, “you want to use it, then fine just go ahead.” And I didn’t get as upset as I might have another time.

Mariko: “I used to hate sports and the thing I like about yoga is that you don’t have to be good at it; I can do it even if it is sometimes hard. This is why I would like to teach to women, to show them that they can exercise even if they are not strong.”

Today was also the day that I announced which of the participants had “made the cut” —– just awful I thought. But what can I do? With a smaller group of teachers in training I’ll be able to cover more and in greater detail. Especially given that everything must be translated, as I’d like to form a cohesive group of teachers so that they can feel they can rely on each other once I am gone. I let all of the students know that it had been very difficult to select the teachers and that I hoped that those who were not selected would continue their practice. Teachers, after all need students, and students need teachers. I also encouraged them to consider all they had learned and what yoga had given them in only a week and the importance of continuing the practice in order to discover more benefits. I hope that those who were not chosen will still come back for the regular practices this week, but am not sure. We had a 30 minute break between class and teacher training and all of the new teacher trainers (TTs for short) immediately began to peel through their new teacher training manuals.


I Am Doubtful

What is my purpose compared to international officials, human rights workers and peace negotiators? How practical or useful is this yoga anyway? Yes, true yogi ascetics believe in having nearly nothing to get by, monks eat once a day and rely on hand outs and donations — but how can I teach these principals to those who are already living in this way? Even the Buddha had to live with great wealth and grow fat in order to appreciate nothingness. You can’t tell someone that wealth is meaningless if they’ve never had a taste of it. I believe yoga changes people – but do I really want to continue this life of spiritual aspiration? Do I want to be a great teacher? Do I have what it takes? Do I believe in this yoga enough? I always thought of myself as a realist, not an idealist and suddenly I see that I have come to this place of war and genocide to share some incredibly idealistic principals.
And, yet, on the other hand, each time I delve into my own practice, each time I reconnect with the divine on my own or through teaching, each time I find the tender spot of bodichitta within or without, any doubts that have been draining me are dissolved and I am filled with something much stronger than a theory or idea. I am then filled with something more than knowledge; I am full of the awareness that this path of yoga is the only way. I know that this pervasive experience of being awareness is more important than any thing else. In is this awareness that reminds me that compassion, grace, forgiveness, and loving kindness are endless in supply and in permanent expansion in the universe.

In consideration of the genocide, I am reminded of Kali and her ravenous destruction, or Shiva opening his third eye and burning up the universe – Both of these destroyers give way to rebirth – new universes, life from ashes, movement from stillness. After discussions with Rwandans, I believe that is what has happened here. Everyone I’ve encountered seems to believe that Rwanda is much improved compared to what it was before the genocide. It appears that the destruction of 1994 gave way to a Renaissance of belief in a better society, desire for equality and peacefulness. But this is not without flaws. Truly this is what has happening in Rwanda — but as much as the government pushes forward and as much as the people insist that all has changed for the better and that there is no separation between ethnic groups and that they all are “Rwandese” something remains unspoken or discussed only in dark corners or the safe confines of a private home. I find that I am even censoring what I have to say on this topic a bit.

I visited a place known as “Millennium village” — a product of Columbia University created to fight poverty and develop a self-sustaining community. The project is still in the works, but quite remarkable. Genocide perpetrators and survivors live next door to each other. A man who had killed several members of a women’s immediate family lived down the street from her.

Imagine if the US released all of its “murders” to live among the rest of its citizens? Imagine if there were so many murders that the jails could not contain them all? Imagine too that all of these murderers were the Hollywood type: blood and gore – not the usual impersonality of guns. This is Rwanda. And they are living together. Many people are in the jails, but many are not.

People still profit off the genocide . . . and who’s to say that’s a bad thing in some cases with all that has been lost? After my tour of a church where 10,000 people had been massacred so violently that blood stains from crushed skulls remained on the ceiling, the tour guide collected huge amounts of cash from sorry, shocked, and disturbed tourists. The tour guide herself had picked up, sorted through, and organized the remains of most of the bodies buried outside the church, so shouldn’t she be compensated for her work? (The interehamwe had cleared out the bodies and mopped the church with the idea of using it again after the massacre.) This guide spends each day at this church retelling her tale and collecting donations and she’s been doing it for years.

But as my dear friend Mike wisely reminded me before I left: I am not here to solve these problems, I am here to teach yoga. I look forward to another class tomorrow.

I am a student

Language. The thought of having to learn how to say poses in Kinyarwanda never occurred to me before I began this project. Now its seems to be the only way. “Down dog” is “jmbwa,” “mountain” is “umusozi,” cobra is “inzoka” and so on. I could just stick to Sanskrit but have been hesitant to add yet another language to the mix. Of course, I don’t really know that anybody would know the difference anyway, but for my own brain it seems a bit challenging. Explaining the “divine light within” and “expansion of the heart” with a translator has been difficult enough. Often times I can only guess at what is being relayed and hope for the best. I was truly impressed today when my translator (named, “Bennin”) balanced in half moon while translating the importance of having a “drishti” (focus point for the eyes) during the practice. Bennin is nothing short of remarkable. He helps me manage participants, negotiate with taxi drivers, gather receipts from each student who is relying on donations to provide their transportation, and participates fully in the whole class while translating. In addition to this yoga project, Bennin works, goes to school, and facilitates youth clubs throughout Kigali. His desire to bring people together in peace and reconciliation is unparalleled.

This morning I was able to catch a ride to the warehouse/yoga studio easily enough. I am getting really good at holding a stack of yoga mats, yoga books, and my purse while riding on the back of a motorbike (the best way to get anywhere around here.) In fact, squeezing the seat with my adductors since my hands are otherwise engaged is proving to be quite the core workout.

The students seemed increasingly focused and attentive today. I suspect that my interpreter has been telling them that in order to participate in the teacher training (next week) they must be demonstrating drive and commitment. I will only be training 10 teachers but was blown away when 17 out of the 21 participants expressed interest. At a moments pause during sun salutations, the driven eagerness of some of these students nearly moved me to tears. In just 3 days time, they are beginning to open up a bit, proudly demonstrating their newly learned poses. Bennin. hopes that those who are trained next week will then teach others and form yoga groups, possibly even having yoga competitions and that I could come back and do an “evaluation.” . . . . . Part of me wonders if any of the philosophy is getting through? But, on the other hand, whatever opens the door to yoga is great and how wonderful would it be to come back and see what they’ve come up with.

I must admit that I was a bit drained after this morning’s class and filled with doubt about my purpose here. I am confident that the students are engaged and eager to learn more, wonder about the usefulness of such a practice to the practicality of their every day lives. What is the point of giving them a skill that doesn’t improve their socio-economic condition? Am I providing false hope? Can a bit of meditation really improve the lives of those who’ve lost their families to AIDS and war? Perhaps tomorrows visit to the genocide orphan village will provide some insight? I was asked today if the are professional yogis in the sense that there are professional athletes and “are people paid to be in competitions in yoga?” For a moment I doubted that my whole point of this being a peacefulness project was lost. After explaining that the financial gains of yoga are few and in fact, not the point, I tried to relate a metaphorical story of nonattachment, but am unsure as to how exactly it was taken. We shall see. In spite of my doubts, I know that, at the end of class these students do share the same yoga after-glow many of us find so addictive so I will keep my hopes high.

What is most surprising is the bravery of several of the girls. Up till now my experience with Rwandan youth girls was that they were shy and soft spoken. When I asked for volunteers to demonstrate sun salutations and a variety of poses, one girl bolted up to the front of the room without even raising her hand. Maybe she’ll be the next Shiva Rea?

Did I mention the textile mill (now yoga studio) is Indian- owned? I’ve gotten quite a lot of interest from the mill workers and several of them have been borrowing CDs and Books from the small yoga library I’ve brought over. Who would have thought?

I’ve also been teaching at the Genocide Memorial here in Kigali. This has been some of the most rewarding work so far. They are all genocide survivors and split their time between international travel for genocide education and prevention conferences and guiding tours at the museum. They also share their personal experiences on a regular basis, so the need for a mindfulness practice to process and refresh their spirits is high. I’ve only taught a few classes there, but they want me to come back next week and the number of attendants is growing. I’ve only scratched the surface with using yoga nidra but am hopeful for next week.

I’m off to and ex-pat party and then a Kigali nightclub called “Cadillac” for some much needed dancing after a week of assimilation.

I carried ten yoga mats on my head today . . .

Finally! A blog!!!!!! I’ve been here nearly two weeks and email has proven to be a harrowing experience. Much thanks to my roommate Jen who shipped my my computer!!!! There is a lot to catch up on and so much has happened since I set out to teach yoga here, but I will begin with today:

I’m staying on the outskirts of Kigali in a sort of warehouse/ woodworking mill/district. Its dusty, hot and there are very few taxis or motorbikes from whom to get rides. Armed with sunblock, water and hope that I would get picked up somewhere along the long dry road to the warehouse where I teach my morning class, I began walking. I had 10 yoga mats to transport and followed the locals by carrying them on my head as they were too bulky and heavy otherwise. The usual yelling of “Umuzungo” (white person!) was followed by much pointing and chatter at my feeble attempt. After nearly a mile, a car finaly stopped (clearly amused) and gave my a ride to my destination.

This yoga studio is otherwise known as the “Utexrwa” (textile mill) At 930am, I meet a group of 20 Rwandan students looking to learn this thing called “yoga.” The group is made up of about 10 genocide orphans, and 10 others from a variety of backgrounds. Most are in their early 20′s and trying to work and go to school. Thanks to the generous donations I recieved before leaving the US, I am able to provide my students with water and transportation. Those who are not orphaned provide their own transportation, those who are, are given a ride from the camp they they’ve been living at for years.

When I arrived this morning I found my students already practicing the sun salutations they had just learned the day before!! This group is going to keep me on my toes, for sure. I managed to bring a wide array of yoga books (also thanks to donations) and they appear to be eating them up, looking at them every spare second.

Unlike the US, the majority of my students in both classes are men. Don’t get me wrong, I love the ladies, but this is . . . in strange way . . . a bit refreshing. It creates a new energy that I’m enjoying working with. Off

Getting yoga mats to Africa

I depart for Rwanda on September 14th. I will attempt to deliver 30 yoga mats, and several yoga books carried in an extra suitcase.