Breathe in… breathe out… and again, breathe in those afflictions and worries that are firmly slumped over your shoulders at this very moment. Hold it in, collect it and slowly let it out. Reflect. Eyes closed, you are present in the moment, it is your time to free your mind and open your soul. If you focus, you can feel the air around you and the soft breeze across your fingertips. If you just remember to breathe you will simply… be.
It’s a tricky concept to grasp at first, Yoga. It appears complex and perpetuates the need for suppleness, and an incredibly patient demeanour. But yoga is a lot more. The art form is the pathway to a healthy soul. This ‘yoga for the soul’ concept all began with the vision of a woman who believed that every single person deserves a shot at a life of meaning and significance. Elle Matthews had a vision for hope.
2012 marked the year when Elle visited Thailand for a 10 day yoga retreat. “Those ten days changed my life” she explained with a deep sense of gratitude. “When I returned home, I was increasingly aware of the desperation of thousands of unemployed people sitting on the curbs all over KwaZulu Natal, hoping for a job. Or the despair of people I personally knew who lived in our townships- victims of crime and violence- or those I knew of living with the effects of HIV/Aids in their lives. I kept saying to myself, ‘They need to do yoga’. For some reason I truly felt that. By February 2013, I’d decided to launch the Township Yogi Project, which would bring yoga to the townships of South Africa- because I honestly believed it would change people’s lives.” This was the beginning of something incredibly special.
There is something truly satisfying about the image of a little boy rolling out his colourful yoga mat, smiling from ear to ear as the little man eagerly awaits his Yogi. A guru of sorts that gives him all the courage in the world- to be brave (strong and centred). This is what Township Yogi is. It represents a bruised and broken South Africa eagerly awaiting for something, or someone, to save and nurture it. It represents a promising youth ready to stand up taller, learn better, breathe better and be better. Our South Africa with raised arms and an open chest reflecting an inner dignity that once seemed completely lost.
This Non-Profit Organisation comprises of four directors Elle Matthews, Peter Matthews, Christine Withiel and Tazmin Mahomed. The centre of the entire project are the volunteer yoga teachers that teach free classes within the townships as well as township teachers who have trained, qualified and are now giving back to the community. From 2012 there was a steady growth in the project as the township teachers were mentored and trained with the intention of wholeheartedly giving back. Its circular and it’s beautiful. On being asked what the project means to Elle and the communities they reach she gently explained, “Yoga is about balance- physical, mental and emotional. And we continue to see the benefits across all these areas in different people who participate in township yoga. We want to change hopelessness and desperation to peace and hope, ill health and suffering to strong, empowered people who can face their ill health and difficulties with true strength of spirit. That’s the kind of change we’re seeing because of the power of yoga.”
This project invites all people regardless of age, gender, sickness or ability. An unconditional invitation to help the body, mind and soul. The project became so close to my heart when I not only saw, but felt the immense love and appreciation that flourished in that space as arms were raised and placed in the salutation position. Breath and focus merged into peacefulness. This is a place for the young and old. But what struck me is the positive impact this practise has on the youth. Elle expressed that “children living in townships carry tremendous stress, and they are constantly faced with negative influences such as crime, violence and drugs. As a form of physical exercise, yoga helps them develop flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness. Mentally, it helps their concentration and brings more calmness and peace into their lives. It also helps them connect more deeply with their inner selves and develops their self-esteem. We’ve seen first-hand how the Township Yogi Project benefits children, and our intention is to offer township children an alternative to drugs like Whoonga, which are destroying their lives.”
Furthermore, Elle believes in the power of yoga to transform the whole person. Yoga is about body, mind and spirit. The project aims at providing a form of exercise that will assist in dealing with the excessive stresses dealt with in township life. So delicately put, Elle believes, “they need the meditation aspect and they need yoga lessons to carve out their little corner of peace in their otherwise very intense lives. Yoga helps with breathing, strengthens the immune system, and reduces stress- and we believe this will go a long way to helping those living in the townships who deal with daily stresses of HIV/Aids, crime, violence, unemployment and poverty. Yoga promotes strength, flexibility, relief from pressure on the abdominal organs, and enhances circulation, and can be hugely beneficial to the millions of people we having living with illnesses such as TB and HIV”. Elle reached out and said “it’s inspiring.”
The dedication of this team is touching and provides that much needed faith in humanity. 2016 will bring the repeated process of training new teachers, setting up more classes in new townships, fund raising for training and yoga mats, and the goal is to roll out the project nationwide. This ambitious objective is so close, and with the help of people like you and I, this project could blossom and positively impact the future generation of South Africa.
Five years from now? Elle smiles and says, “I hope the Township Yogi Project will be running in countries bordering South Africa, and that the power of Yoga is spreading throughout Southern Africa. 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.”
May this inspire you to centre your mind soul and body for 2016. Centre your being and find your centre.