“Are you bleeting?” he called in a loud, almost shrill voice as I stretched one arm higher, straighter, shakier toward a ceiling decorated with pastel-colored paper chains. “Bleet in,” he called, then half a minute later, “Bleet out.” The other six people in the room, finding solidarity in our self-imposed suffering, laughed at our drill instructor of a yogi as he finally released us from the pose and called the next: “Warrior three!” We adjusted our feet, and shifted back into position, the slightly sour smell of sweat airborne for another moment. Rwandans, like many East-Asian language speakers, don’t differentiate between /L/ and /R/ pronunciation, and, like many, many non-native English learners, struggle to form the /th/ (for my IPA-fluent friends, /θ/) , resulting in “warrior three” sounding more like “wallior tree.” I paused, glanced at the teacher and the other students, and found my way into the correct position.
Yoga in Rwanda, born out of a chaotic globalized chain. The Rwandan man leading the day’s practice had been trained by Americans in Rwanda and Kenya, who had no doubt learned “second hand” from other Americans in the States. Somewhere, back in the history, the thousand-year practice had migrated to North America, and was now slowly making its way back to India, changed and adapted along the way. It gets even more complex here. Today’s practice is hosted by a local women’s non-profit, a five minute walk from Musanze’s mosque. During the third down dog, I could hear the afternoon’s call to prayer echoing throughout the neighborhood, followed by the crack of thunder and the hammering of the three-thirty downpour.
I’m not the most consistent practitioner of yoga. It isn’t a necessarily a spiritual practice for me, but a contemplative exercise. The challenge of holding postures, whether in a cool, burnished-orange painted studio in midtown Sacramento or on a sweat-soaked Bikram-studio mat, focuses me like no other exercise can. I move into position, hold it, hold it, hold, it, fight back the urge to drop it, fight, fight, release. The group pressure of classes keep me from abandoning part way through, and I’ve gone through periods of relying on the practice for what seems like survival: manic practice of Hatha yoga after a particularly soul-crushing relationship, and, earlier this year, an almost daily obsession with Bikram yoga.
At the end of 2013, I made an important decision. I had to leave my job. It was slowly destroying me, driving me further into bitterness and misery, and away from the goals that I had always wanted to achieve. I made the decision to leave, and started on a course to find my alternative, all while waiting in almost painful anticipation about the fellowship. Bikram, practiced every other day for five months, gave me a break from this constant strategizing, beating my body into submission with buckets of sweat the evidence of the effort.
And now, here I am, almost ten months later. I left a job that could have become permanent with health benefits, a title, and office; I rented out my chic little house; I parked my car at my grandparents and packed two fifty pound bags and sat on airplanes and in airports for 36 hours to reach this place. All of this ripped through my mind as I sat down on the mat at Ubushobozi, soon erased as my muscles tightened and whined at me for putting through practice once again after a long time away.
The practice is of yoga is extremely universal. It can be done by old and young since it asks you to start where you are and move forward- and both young and old gathered at Ubushobozi, named for the Kinyarwanda word that translates to “power.” The organization is a local non-profit collective, where at-risk teenage girls from surrounding villages, often with their very young children, are taught to sew, use computers, and speak English. They sell their beautiful wares to support the building and participants: kitenge bags and purses, woven baskets, screen-printed tee shirts. And, yoga classes on Thursdays at 3pm. The girls are all trained in yoga teaching, a practice that can be used as a form of post-traumatic therapy, as the organization reports. This is what I appreciate about this country: the versatility and flexibility of organizations, willing to try new things and seek new opportunities.
A couple of the kids & their spectacular down dogs
Today, Rwandans join my American friend, Erin, and I on the mat. One is a teacher for the program, others probable participants. They know the poses, they understand the point. We all bleet and strain and laugh at our incompetence together. I am reminded that this is a Rwandan take on a very old practice: the young children cry and play and practice their own poses in the corner of the room, rain spatters in through the open window, a cell phone rings for thirty seconds during the final pose, the “corpse pose” or shavasana, when you are meant to lie completely still, allowing your blood flow to calm and your body to relax. I can see the Lululemon yogis of midtown cringing at the noise breaking this silence, but all I can do is laugh.
This is pretty perfect. An old, new practice for a new, new life.