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An Africa To New York Cultural Exchange

Early in 2014, a thief stole the camera of Kenyan artist and yoga teacher James Mweu. Without it, he would find it even harder to eke a living in Nairobi, a city plagued with high unemployment rates. Certainly, he couldn't complete an upcoming assignment: photographing Laughing Lotus's service trip through the Africa Yoga Project.

But when the director of Africa Yoga Project bought him a new camera – - in exchange for covering their Seva last February -- Mweu could not only complete his job, he could better sustain himself as an artist.

"James' images of each individual yogi with a Maasai warrior were the most beautiful moments captured," said Dana Flynn, co-founder of Laughing Lotus, who led the trip. "Each yogi will have these photographs forever."

Just a year later, the trip's 15 participants teamed up to raise money and host Mweu in New York, part of the first resident intern/cultural exchange between Laughing Lotus and Africa Yoga Project.

As a result of their scholarship and the fundraising, Mweu will live in the New York area for the entire month of January. During his stay, he will teach at LL, take their teacher trainings, attend classes at other studios like Jivamukti, and visit with mentors and friends from last year. Mweu may also lead rehearsals for the Lotus Temple Dancers.

"I knew Africa would change me," Flynn said. "Not just for going into orphanages and slums and places of hardship, like a woman's prison, but also by being with other bold yogis. Everyone who went raised the money separately to go, and we fell in love with each other and everyone we met. We've stayed very connected. You'd never know that some of these young people we met in Kenya sleep in rooms of 20 people. They don't act like people with hardships. With the Africa Yoga Project, they become leaders." Another trip participant, Brazilian model Adriane Boff, was equally moved. She has raised most of Mweu's spending money by selling hair ties of her own design, called Boffs, and arranged for him to meet and chat with a professional photographer in New York.

In a country where yoga was once thought of as devil worship, the practice has become popular, attracting hundreds of students to the AYP's Shine Center in Nairobi, where Mweu teaches. The hope is that this internship may inspire other yoga schools to develop similar programs, not just in the United States, but worldwide, according to Anne Britt, a New Jersey yoga teacher and Seva participant.

"We chose James as the first resident intern because we love him," Britt said. "James is perfectly situated for this resident internship/cultural exchange as a dedicated and enthusiastic yoga teacher. He does outreach classes in his community and works with AYP teachers across Africa. He has also founded a dance theater for young street boys and people displaced due to political unrest. He is an artist -- a sculptor, photographer, and dancer -- perfectly positioned to take advantage of the rich cultural offerings of New York City."

According to Britt, Mweu speaks excellent English. His current training is in Ashtanga and Power Yoga, based on the teachings of Baron Baptiste, who co-founded AYP.

"He's very quiet," Flynn said. "But when he moves and teaches, it comes out."

Britt and her family will house Mweu in New Jersey for the first part of his internship. Later he will stay in Manhattan and surrounding areas. "The Laughing Lotus community is thrilled to welcome James into our family," Britt said. "While this program is designed to expand James' exposure to a variety of styles, we believe his presence will have an indescribable impact on our community. Our Seva work with AYP taught us that we are all working to the same end. Whether in Manhattan, Nairobi or a Maasai village, yoga is yoga."

Don’t Miss The Opportunity: On January 18, Mweu will co-teach with LL instructors Victor Colletti and Leo Rising for Body & Soul: A Gratitude Mash-UP, assisted by Flynn, at LL. Click here for more details.

Middle photo for this story by James Mweu.

-- Ann Votow

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