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When He Says Yoga Saved His Life, He's Not Exaggerating

Yes, it's a cliche: "Yoga saved my life."

Google the phrase, and you'll get 12 million matches!

But when Walter Mugwe says it, he really means it. It's not an exaggeration. It's the truth.

When Mugwe was 7, growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, his father, John, died in a car accident. John Mugwe was an electrician, and his salary supported the family of five children. Walter's mother, Catherine, didn't work. Suddenly, the family was in crisis. The two older siblings had a tough time. At a very young age, Walter Mugwe felt he had to make sure his younger siblings had enough to eat.

To earn money, he began transporting drugs for dealers. By the time he was 10, he was selling drugs and picking pockets as well.

But he lived a kind of double life — he excelled in what he calls "acrobatics" and took classes to improve his skills. That training had real-life benefits. When you're a pickpocket, he says, you do a lot of running and jumping to get away from victims and from the cops.

Did his mother know what was going on? "She didn't want to know," he says.

By the time he was in his early teens, two of his friends had been "killed by a mob," he says. "I knew I was going to be the next person to die."

And then, yes, yoga saved his life.

In 2007, Paige Elenson came to town. A businesswoman and yoga teacher, she co-founded the and began offering free classes in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi to ease tensions after election-related violence and give people a way to "positively transform lives."

There was a class at the school where Mugwe practiced soccer, so he signed up. He went through the poses for the first time. He was in downward dog. He lifted one leg to the sky and brought it down in front of his body, parallel to the front of his mat. He folded himself flat over his leg. He was in half-pigeon pose. (That's the sequence in the animated GIF above.)

"I felt so free and safe at that moment," he says. He was always on the run in his criminal life. And now, his worries were gone. "I felt light, like something was weighing me down and all of a sudden I felt free. It was a brand new experience for me."

Walter Mugwe kept taking yoga classes.

Some family members and friends thought he was getting into a crazy cult. That didn't bother him because he loved yoga. Eventually he gave up his criminal activities. He looked at who he was and who he wanted to become. "It was tough to face the truth," he says.

AYP offered him a scholarship for teacher training. Today at age 26, Mugwe is one of 100 teachers who lead free classes for kids and teenagers as well as adults in the slums of Nairobi, reaching thousands each week.

Walter Mugwe, a teacher with the Africa Yoga Project, demonstrates side plank in the Bethesda, Md., studio of Down Dog Yoga.
Mahafreen H. Mistry / NPR
Walter Mugwe, a teacher with the Africa Yoga Project, demonstrates side plank in the Bethesda, Md., studio of Down Dog Yoga.

Mugbe visited Washington, D.C., this summer to spread the word about AYP and teach classes at the local studios of Down Dog Yoga, an AYP sponsor. The Down Dog studios are heated to the mid-90s, which is not the case at home:
"It's hot in Kenya."

With a twinkle in his eyes and a sweet grin, he tells his American students to really root down deep in a pose. And he makes them hold it for what seems like eternity plus five minutes. "The worst that can happen is you get stronger, you get flexible," he teases. There's another benefit, he says: "When you are firmly rooted to your purpose, you are unmessable with."

Here in D.C. the majority of his students are women — that's pretty much the norm in the West. In Kenya, he says, yoga is a guy thing. Men like the physical nature of it. But the Africa Yoga Project is training female teachers and persuading girls to take classes.

While some Western practitioners don't want to be touched by their teacher to adjust a pose, that's not a problem in Nairobi: "People love to be touched in Africa," Mugwe says.

His family is doing well now. His older brother is a safari guide. His younger sister just graduated from high school. His younger brother is, like Walter, a yoga teacher.

In classes he talks about "the magic moment" a pose can bring. Even now, secure in his career as a yoga teacher, happy that his family is flourishing, he finds comfort in his favorite pose, half-pigeon. It still makes him feel "free — and flexible."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.