FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — On a dirt field in Sierra Leone, a group of community members bend into a bridge position and raise their hips to the sky practicing yoga. Around the world, yoga brings people together and provides personal relief. It is a community practice with a focus on the individual. Yoga Strength, Sierra Leone’s first registered community yoga organization, aims to provide relief, health and community for people across the nation.
The community yoga practice in Sierra Leone was founded in 2010 when University of San Diego graduate Veronica Geretz began teaching people about yoga in Freetown, Sierra Leone, providing the basic skills to teach yoga to others in their community. Geretz was interested in looking at the impact of yoga on war recovery.
While Sierra Leone has been at peace in recent years, many citizens are still affected by the trauma of past conflict. An estimated 715,000 people suffer from mental disorders, according to the World Health Organization. With such high numbers, it is difficult for the country to substantially improve mental health. There is just one psychiatrist among poorly funded mental facilities in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone’s Civil War lasted over an 11-year period, from approximately 1991-2002, when the Revolutionary United Front, a rebellion group, launched a war with a Liberian group to overthrow the government. The conflict took over the country and left many without work and deeply affected by the horrors of the war. Approximately 50,000 people were killed.
“Our nation was at war and a lot of people are full of stress, tension. People are full of trauma,” said Yoga Strength leader Tamba Fayia in a promotional video. “We believe, with yoga practice, we could be able to relieve this trauma and people could begin to transform.”
Fayia received a scholarship for yoga training with the Africa Yoga Project in Kenya, and learned further under Baron Baptiste in Mombasa. Fayia was once a child-soldier in the Civil War, and is now Sierra Leone’s first certified yoga instructor. He says that yoga has changed his life.
“I do yoga to give me a good mindset, to give me good balance, good meditation, and all the time it makes me feel good,” Fayia said.
Yoga Strength’s mission is to help the people of Sierra Leone improve their lives with yoga as a regularly-practiced, well-known tool for doing so. More than anything, it hopes to empower people and help individuals believe they can change their lives for the better. While the organization works with citizens of all ages, the organization hopes to use yoga especially to reduce the stress and trauma of war victims and to empower children.
Fayia teaches classes in different parts of Sierra Leone, traveling across the provinces. He works with people in schools, on the streets, in slums, on a rural, jungle island and at medical hospitals.
Yoga Strength offers classes several times per week at the national football stadium. Until this year, the organization lacked funding and basic facilities. This year, however, it raised $3,406 through an online campaign to build, paint, renovate and provide equipment for its own studio.
In the few years since its inception, the organization has made a significant impact on communities by providing trauma relief and bringing people together through yoga. Yoga Strength’s classes are drawing increasing numbers and a variety of people, many of which are children. Doctors say they have noticed a significant improvement in the psychological state of the patients who have taken classes with Fayia.
In bringing yoga to Sierra Leone, Fayia hopes to create a place where people can find peace within themselves and carry Yoga Strength’s mission into the future.
– Julia Thomas