“They were piled together like kittens in a box,” says photographer Tim Botsko, referring to the early morning yoga session that took place at the ROP Center for Street Children in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Paula Herring, a newly certified teacher from Yoga One in San Diego, was putting her skills to the test with vulnerable children who are survivors of the 1994 genocide and the AIDS pandemic. Class was held before school started on the cement floor of the abandoned warehouse that the children, until recently, called home. With the help of Celestine, for translation, Paula presented the ancient movements, breath and sounds of yoga to people who had never heard the word, let alone knew what it meant. They called it a game and said, “Let’s play yoga”.
“I began by explaining that there is no competition to this game,” says Paula. “It is three-pronged and involves your spirit, heart and body. I told them that yoga respects plants and animals.” As she spoke, the young people created a circle around her and kept inching forward, squishing their bodies together. No matter how often she showed them how to make space by opening their legs and stretching, they kept clumping together like pick-up sticks which had been randomly dropped in the middle of the floor. “If we were in The States,” Paula thought, “nobody would infringe upon another’s space like this, let alone be touching each other.” She realized that, “There is a deeper sense of ‘we’ and ‘community’ here, than ‘I and thou’.”
She opened with an Om, telling them about its significance, as the vibration of the universe and a way to receive blessings. Instead of resting their hands on their knees, as instructed, the children held them up in the air as if in praise. Being raised in a predominantly Christian country and a like minded orphanage, they interpreted the word “blessings” as “praise” and thus lifted their hands towards heaven.
“The first 2 poses were mountain and tree,” Paula explains. “I asked them when they heard the word mountain what they thought about. One child said, ‘Home’. Others pointed out the window at the nearby hills. I said the mountain and tree pose are strong, like those hills and they never move or change. I squeezed my way around the congested kids, made some adjustments and poked a few to show them that they wouldn’t fall over and could stand strong. We then practiced the tree. I said ‘these are your branches, which rest on the trunk. They hold life, the birds, leaves and fruits, but are strong and move.’ Again, no matter how much I tried to have them put their arms straight up against the side of their heads, they would turn their palms up as if praying in church.”
Next up was the camel. Paula asked if they knew what a camel was and they said yes, it was an animal in the desert, but they didn’t have deserts in Rwanda, so there were none there. She demonstrated the camel and talked about reaching back and opening the chest. “It can help you when your shoulders and neck are tight from studying and you’ve been bent over all day,” she said. After camel she showed them down-dog, gave some adjustments and spoke about lifting the hips and focusing on their core, where their heart is. She said that everything in yoga is led by the heart and then comes the mind and body. One-legged dog came next, with children sliding, losing balance and laughing as they fell.
Miss Herring, the muzungu (white person) from America, followed up with Dolphin and Child’s Pose, informing them that it can help ease pain, if their head or stomach was hurting. Then she told them about the Pigeon and talked about puffing out their chest to expand their lungs and that to be a balanced pigeon they had to do both sides. Before she could finish demonstrating, they were at it, falling left and right. One of the children said they had seen an eagle, which was her prompt to talk about the eagle and show the pose. “To be a really good eagle,” she said, you cross your legs and crouch down and are very quiet, so you can look for food. It takes a lot of concentration.” She finished up the bird section with the crow.
As soon as she asked the orphaned children if they had ever heard of a cobra, they said it was “sneaky” and all started hissing and then proceeded to effectively learn the position. She did the warrior pose and told them that this kind of warrior wasn’t about hurting anyone, but about being strong and protecting your self.
“At the end of the session, we went into Shavasana (corpse pose),” Paula recalls. “I said that this type of pose was not about being sad, but about your body releasing everything and letting go. It is different than sleeping. I went around and started putting my palm on their foreheads, on their temples and gently pulling their ears a little, one at a time. Because of the labyrinth and disorder, it was hard to tell who I had done and who I hadn’t. When I asked if there was anybody I hadn’t touched and if so, to put their hand on their stomach, everyone put their hand on their stomach! They craved being touched.”
At the end of the class, Celestin interpreted Paula’s closing words into Kinyarwanda (the native language of Rwanda). “Put your hands like this.” She put her hands together with her thumb on her heart. “Say, ‘Namaste’. It’s a way to show respect for you, your neighbor, your spirit and your infinite potential.” At once, they all repeated, “Namaste”.
“The most beautiful part of the experience for me,” grins Paula, “Was that not one of the children ever said, ‘I can’t do it’. They didn’t care if they were doing it ‘right’, they just wanted to try. That used to be my personal fear in class, that I wasn’t ‘doing it right’. It helped me realize that it’s not about being perfect, but being willing to try and embracing whatever arises. I was also afraid that they’d get bored, especially the older boys, but it never happened. That was just another one of my needless fears to release.”
There was no sound system, cushy mats, designer clothes, candles or incense, but the yoga being taught on the cement floor at the ROP Center for Street Children in Rwanda was pure yoga. It was cut down to its essence and accepted in the cultural context within which its participants lived. It wasn’t fancy or advanced and didn’t come at a price. Offered freely, with love and respect, it was accepted with the same grace and spirit. The children demonstrated that yoga can be done without ego, self-consciousness or need to “claim” one’s territory. “The progression from them not knowing anything about what was happening,” says Paula, “to being totally caught up in it, was dramatic. I’ll never hesitate to ‘play yoga’ anywhere and anytime.”