Leo Rising is a New York City-based yoga teacher and cosmic personality who recently visited Kenya on a service trip with the Africa Yoga Project organized by his yoga center, Laughing Lotus. The trip participants were yoga teachers, yoga students and others whose primarily goal was to do service in communities such as the Kibera slum in Nairobi, a womens prison and Maasai community, all places in which the Africa Yoga Project has programs teaching yoga—they teach more than 300 community classes per week in Kenya.
What drew you to Africa and this project?
I always wanted to go [to Africa] and… I have always been struck by the tie to lineage and culture my Jewish friends had. There is a system set up where a Jewish person can go on a pilgrimage home, a birthright journey. I have always experienced a pause when I would hear about that—a quiet envy, as in what is my birthright, where I am from?
This is a whole longer conversation but there is a conditioning in the minds of many Americans of African descent. Maybe they’ll make stops at an island where long ago someone’s grandparents paperwork was processed, but not many can go to the continent of Africa and find that area of land they are from.
I think it’s important, it’s truly my genetic history. And when you come into the science of yoga you start diving into your genetic history and asking yourself some serious questions. I didn’t know there was yoga in Africa, so when the opportunity came for me to do yoga, in Africa, on this trip, I couldn’t pass it up. It felt like my birthright.
There are many who might question offering yoga in communities in which even basic necessities like food, water and medical care are scarce. What are your thoughts?
From my understanding yoga started in those types of scenarios. The developed world now has plumbing, supermarkets, and bottled water but yoga started when people had none of that. There’s a specific teacher I met in Kenya, Kevin Oguto. Kevin lives in a slum called Lunga Lunga and he doesn’t have much by standards of the American mind. He earns 6,000 Kenyan shillings (about US$69) for being a AYP teacher, that’s his allowance for the whole month. For his water he has to walk 2 miles. He and 6 of his friends are building outdoor plumbing since they currently have none. What Kevin does have is a ferocious passion to help others, that he discovered through yoga and the Africa Yoga Project. In any environment where there is human struggle, yoga is completely necessary and if it can be offered it’s nothing but a gift.
Can you talk about the service projects you did?
When we were in Kibera, which is the second largest slum in the world, in Nairobi, we visited an orphanage, called Flormina. To go on this trip, the participants each had to raise $4,000, and some of this money was budgeted to the service projects we worked on while we were there. There were 14 of us on the trip, and we went out to buy second hand clothes while the kids were at school. We all physically washed clothes for the kids, the old fashioned way, did you ever watch I Love Lucy? We scrubbed the clothes in the bucket and the water came from a faucet coming directly out of the ground. We visited a womens prison where Africa Yoga Project offers yoga classes. There is a full time school, home care within the prison, these are the children the incarcerated mothers. Yoga is taught in the prisons to give these women the self-sustaining practice of self-love and mindfulness of their actions, I would pray they learn forgiveness and deeper dive into faith.
How was teaching yoga different in Kenya from your NYC classes?
A lot more screaming! The Kenyans are very loud, like a lion's roar, a sound of praise for every movement. They are audible, and I love that. I am an audible person. Also, any time you teach a group of people even those you have never met before, before they even move you are very aware of how a class is going to go. And they are an electrifying and receptive group. They want it. They want yoga like a person in a drought would want water.
I didn’t do much teaching of yoga since the focus of our trip was service. My focus was connecting to the environment and connecting to the people, learning more about the Africa Yoga Project, why they were servicing these communities and how I could communicate their work back here to help service those communities… why it’s important not to just pour money into someone’s hand…. because people are not looking for superman to come and save them, they are becoming supermen themselves.
I did teach two times. I co-taught at the Shine Center with Dana Flynn the founder of the Laughing Lotus Yoga Center. Dana was downstairs and I was upstairs teaching her sequence and that was a phenomenal experience. I equate it to singing the Star Spangled Banner in a huge show. The Shine Center is the nucleus of the Africa Yoga Center, it’s the master ship. They have room for 300 yoga practictioners to take community (free) classes, and they feed everyone after every class with vegetarian food donated by the local Hare Krishna Center
You visited the Maasai communities In Amboseli National Park where the Africa Yoga Project has programs, what was that like?
Oh my god the Maasai are so freakin interesting! Their beads were from the Czech Republic, that was a hilarious moment for me, and their scarves were from China — it’s funny, but it doesn’t matter since that is how it is wherever you go. They make the designs their own, they use the gifts of the world and put their spin on it. They are such a beautiful people because they keep so many of their customs and they are bold and honest about it. Even if some of the customs make some women clutch their pearls, like drinking cow blood. It was like looking at images from National Geographic in real life. But they are assimilating into the world too. They are beautiful in their wonder and mystery. There are only 2 Maasai yoga teachers in the area of Africa where we were. One of them was Jacob one of our guides. Regarding yoga, the older generation, they accept and they want the younger ones to do it.
Yoga aside, what about Africa?
I am so clear that this is my life's purpose and I want to go back. I will go back and I will serve even longer for there is so much more to discover. There’s a horrible stereotype about Africa planted in the mind of a lot of African Americans and not an appreciation of it. If there was a means and a way for struggling youth in disadvantaged communities to make a journey or birthright to Africa, I think they would really wake up. For me, there was a genetic, spiritual and cerebral awakening, deep on a subatomic level. Just landing there was enough for my inner lotus to start blooming. So now I am at that stage where the plant is really budding. Something has really shifted. I didn’t have problems sleeping in Africa. I adjusted to the time difference as if I had lived there my whole life. I think that trip was actually the start of the best days of my life.
Connect with Leo Rising at on Instagram and twitter @leo_risingyoga and on his website www.leorisingyoga.com. Connect with Africa Yoga Project and with Laughing Lotus which will offer a similar service trip to Africa in 2015.