In 2015, I interviewed Walter Mugwe, a young Kenyan who says yoga saved his life. As a teenager in Nairobi, he was into drugs and crime. Then he discovered yoga and turned his life around. He was back in Washington, D.C., in May, and I wanted to see how he was doing.
I was thrilled to see that Walter Mugwe was back in D.C., where I first met him, and teaching at Down Dog Yoga, a local studio that has supported him and the nonprofit group he works with, the Africa Yoga Project. I happily signed up for one of his hot yoga classes, which left me in a joyful puddle of sweat. Mugwe (demonstrating scorpion pose above) is a tough teacher but his buoyant personality keeps you going.
Mugwe has just turned 30; it's been 11 years since he had his yoga breakthrough at a teacher training program.
At the time, he recalls, he had "so much anger and frustration and resentment." His father died when he was 7, his mother was not employed and money was scarce. His oldest brother became depressed and began drinking, he says. His older sister married at age 15 "because my mom could not take care of us."
Mugwe felt the burden of caring for his younger sister and brother and did "whatever I could to survive" — dealing drugs and picking pockets. He was, he recalls, "doing anything to numb out the reality that surrounds you" in the slums.
"I was like, 'Why couldn't I get a normal life like any other kid,' " he says.
Then he applied for a scholarship for a weeklong yoga teacher training workshop — partly because he did gymnastics and had taken a few yoga classes in his neighborhood but mainly because the training, led by the well-known American yogi Baron Baptiste, would take place at a fancy hotel on the Kenyan coast. Mugwe wasn't interested in being a yoga teacher but thought it would be "the best vacation of my life" and a chance to "get away from the craziness of the slums."
Looking back at his 19-year-old self, he says, "That was the best decision I ever made. And the most challenging thing I've ever done."
It wasn't an instant yoga love affair. "I was one of those people who were like f*** this, I'm here for the beach," Mugwe remembers.
After about three days, he had a change of heart. "I broke out of that cocoon of resistance," he says. In the training that dealt with meditation, he was encouraged to reflect on his life. "I didn't want to look at my life in such a real way," he says. "I wanted to avoid confronting my actions."
But then he says, "I began to really question what my life is about and that was very challenging for me." Maybe it's because in yoga, you focus on the physical and that frees up your mind, he says. "I was able to deal with my anger, to forgive myself slowly. I wanted to give that gift back to other kids."
After teacher training, he began to work with the Africa Yoga Project, which brings yoga to people who might otherwise not encounter it — kids in poor communities, people who've experienced trauma and prisoners, for example. About two years ago, UNICEF brought Mugwe to Somalia to instruct counselors to teach yoga to former child soldiers and other individuals suffering because of the unrest. He's also trained teachers in Belize and Uganda.
This year came a milestone — with six associates, including his two younger siblings and two best friends, Mugwe opened what he calls the "high-end" studio Yoga Heart Kenya, offering five classes a day. Mugwe is glad to be creating jobs for yoga teachers in Nairobi and grateful for what yoga has given him: "If it wasn't for the practice I could either be dead or in jail."
I wanted to know if the studio offers hot yoga. Kenya Heart Yoga does not heat its studio, Mugwe says, but it doesn't have to: "Kenya is just hot."
And he continues leading free classes for kids in the slums through the Africa Yoga Project.
He reached out to Down Dog Yoga this year to see if he could come for a month of mentorship with the studio's founder and director of teacher training, Patty Ivey.
Ivey is impressed with her student: "For a young man, he has an old soul," she wrote in an email to NPR. Thinking of his efforts to bring yoga to poor communities and to use it to help people heal, she says, "he has incredible potential as a leader of change, and he is not afraid to do that kind of work but is actually hungry for it. I can't wait to see where he lands as he continues to grow and mature in every way."
One of Mugwe's favorite yoga poses shows exactly where he wants to land. He's working on the demanding pose known as scorpion (which he demonstrates in the GIF at the top of this story). It's an arm balance. Some people do not like balancing on their arms. But "I love scorpion," says Mugwe. It starts with a handstand. Then he brings his legs behind his head. He is quite literally turning himself upside down.
That's why he's drawn to the pose: "For me, yoga turned everything I knew upside down. I only knew about life in the slums. Through the practice, look at where I am, learning new cultures, learning that yoga can be a form of employment, learning that I can cause the change I want for myself and my community. It's completely an upside down time for me since I started practicing yoga."
Scorpion takes a lot of patience, he says. "I'm not a patient person. It's a reason why I practice yoga, to develop that patience muscle."
I asked how long it has taken him to become adept at scorpion. "I've been practicing," Mugwe says. "It's not hard. It's just challenging — and attainable through practice, constant practice."
Spoken like a true yoga teacher.
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