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Yoga in Africa?

Inspired by Gandhi - trip to Rishikesh - yoga not a religion - teaching yoga to diplomats, pregnant women ... and soldiers! - new yoga center under construction - bronze sculptures of yoga postures - Pan African Yoga Symposium in 2001


By Consul B. John Zavrel


'I spend my days at the finance ministry, but all my mornings are devoted to yoga. Every day of the week, even on Sundays,' says with a smile the young man from Burkina Faso. His countenance reminds one at once of the great African statesman-poet Leopold Sedar Senghor. The eyes, bright and filled with quiet confidence, look around the large lecture hall filled with nearly a hundred yoga and meditation teachers from USA and 9 other countries. They have come to study for two weeks with Swami Veda Bharati, a disciple of Swami Rama of the Himalayas. He has lectured around the world non-stop for 53 years and is a much esteemed meditation master and spiritual guide.

'I would like to say a special welcome to Idriss Ouedraogo, who came all the way from West Africa to this seminar. You see, even the middle-class people in these countries have to save hard for more than a year to be able to make the trip to the United States. For them, it is a great expense. And I feel blessed that Idriss has become part of the lineage of the Himalayan Masters,' says Swami Veda.

'Where on earth is Burkina Faso? And is there really yoga being practiced in Africa,' I ask the young man with bright, intelligent eyes. 'It used to be called Upper Volta, formerly a French colony in West Africa Our neighbors are Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Niger and Mali. The capital is the city of Ouagadougou.Our population is about 10 million and the official language is still French, but we have three native languages also: Moore, Dioula and Fulfulde.'

'I discovered yoga some 13 years ago, when I came across Gandhi's biography My Experiments with Truth. And I though to myself, from where did this man get the spiritual strength to face the mighty British Empire? So I read more on India and its philosophy, on yoga and meditation. I found a book on yoga in French, and started learning the basic yoga postures and relaxation. And then I met my hatha yoga teacher, Avaduta Chinmayananda from India, who was at the time teaching in the neighboring country of Niger. I studied with him for about two years, and then started to teach yoga myself.'

'With my friends, we established a yoga club in the capital of Burkina Faso, where I work. During the day, I work at the office. But before going to work, I give yoga, relaxation and meditation classes every day. The American ambassador to our country, also a yoga practitioner, supported us from the beginning and we started giving classes at the school for diplomats' children at the US Embassy. Soon diplomats from other countries started to come to our classes, and our club grew. As time went on, more and more people in the capital heard of our club, and became also interested.'

'One day, I saw this older woman, who could have been my mother, carrying a small child on her back. In the morning, she had to walk ten miles to get to work in the capital. After work, she had to wait till the sun's heat became less intense, and then walk again ten miles, with the child on her back, home to her village. And I thought to myself, what can I do to help these people?'

Idriss continues: 'So we got the idea to teach yoga to mentally handicapped children. That was a good program and we did not charge any fees for them. Then, we started yoga classes for pregnant women. You see, in our country, one in ten pregnant women dies during delivery. And in yoga, there are certain exercises which are helpful in pregnancy, and that's what we taught them.

In our yoga clubs, teachers wear the traditional white yoga dress; white, to symbolize peace and purity of the students, like a lotus flower. Also the students are encouraged to wear this yoga dress. When students come through the door to attend a class, they observe silence. All our teaching of the asanas is done in silence, almost like a ritual. We end the sessions with the 'yoga mudra' and the Indian greeting 'namaste.' And after the class is over, then they can ask questions and we have a discussion.'

Let me tell you a story. The wife of one of my friends was expecting, and the doctor thought they would have to delivery through a Caesarian section, which in our hospitals is not so common as in our country. So, she came also to our classes for pregnant ladies, and her baby was eventually delivered naturally, easily. Afterwards, my friend, who is the head of the army, told me 'Oh, Idriss, that was wonderful. Thanks for your help.'

Later on, some other friends of Idriss in the army wanted him to start teaching yoga to them. They managed to get the authorities to approve a demonstration. Many officers came to watch it, with military bands and large attendance. Many of the soldiers liked what they saw, and when the headquarters saw that this 'yoga stuff' is not a religion, they approved the plan and yoga will be taught to the soldiers in the future.

'At this time, we have six clubs with some 200 members,' says the young man. 'And we continue to grow and teach also in some of the neighboring countries.' Idriss and his friends are building a small yoga meditation center in the capital: downstairs, it will have a yoga room, bookstore and office. On the second floor, three bedrooms, two living rooms and kitchen, and on the third floor a large meditation room. They acquired a nice piece of land, about 330 yards in circumference, and the building is already about 2/3 completed. For their country, it costs a lot of money to build. Total costs will reach approximately $ 40,000.

'We are financing the project by fees from classes, from donation from friends, and from a sale of these sculptures,' continues Idriss. He shows me a series of small, bronze and shining brass sculptures of people in various yoga postures: triangle, tree, cobra, camel, bow, etc. 'You see, there are only a few families in our country who can work with fire and bronze. I made the forms of the various sculptures in clay, and they then make bronze sculptures. Originally, I made this project to give these sculptures to my students. After being stationed in our capital for 3 - 4 years, these diplomats return home or are assigned to other countries. So I wanted to present them with a gift that would remind them of yoga, and also inspire them to continue their practice in the future. People really liked these little sculptures, and now we also sell them in order to finance the construction of our new center.'

'We still need about $ 20,000 in order to be able to complete the center next year. Maybe people in America will also like some of these sculptures and buy them for themselves and their friends. That would help us to be able to open the center next year. Swami Veda Bharati has promised to come all the way from Rishikesh, India to inaugurate the center when it is completed.

Then, in December 2001 we plan to host the "Pan African Symposium on Yoga" in the capital of Burkina Faso, with 200 - 300 yoga teachers from all over Africa participating.




Information on the bronze and brass sculptures can be obtained from:

Museum of European Art, 10545 Main Street, Clarence, New York 14031 (USA). Tel. (716) 759 - 7078, fax (716) 759 - 7925. E-mail: zavrel@meaus.com



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