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Ubukho Institute is bringing Yoga to the heart of Khayelitsha.

Author: Themba Kriger
Photos: Rafeeq September

In the bustling township of Khayelitsha, where stress and hardship are daily companions for many residents, Bongeka Menziwa is a beacon of tranquillity and hope. As a yoga teacher dedicated to sharing the benefits of mindfulness and physical wellness, Bongeka’s journey from a Delft student to a Khayelitsha community leader is inspiring and transformative.

Bongeka’s discovered yoga in 2012 while at university. “I started stretching because I was so anxious, and I thought I was going to fall into depression,” she recalls. “I took time to stretch and breathe, and that’s when I started practicing yoga, which I didn’t know was yoga then.” 

Thanks to YouTube, she discovered that her calming stretches and breathing exercises were part of a broader discipline known as yoga.

For Bongeka, yoga was a lifesaver during a time of immense stress and anxiety. It gave her space for self-reflection and mental clarity and helped her navigate the pressures of academic life. 

“Understanding that if I take time for myself, even if it’s a few minutes per day, really affected how I handled everything around me,” she explains. This improved her mental health and her effectiveness in sports and academics.

Going from practicing yoga to teaching it was a natural progression for Bongeka. By 2022, after completing a yoga teacher training program, she felt it was time to introduce yoga to her community in Khayelitsha. “I’ve always wanted to teach, but now that I was exposed to more skills and had professional guidance, I thought it’s time to take it to my community,” she says.

Bongeka’s motivation to teach yoga stems from a deep-seated belief that it can significantly benefit her community, which is often fraught with stress and trauma. “Understanding that Khayelitsha or townships are filled with so much stress, people are traumatized, people are going through a lot—knowing that there is a tool that can help you handle everything is valuable,” she explains.

Teaching yoga in the townships comes with its unique set of challenges. One of Bongeka’s ongoing struggles is language. While she was trained in English, most of her students speak IsiXhosa. Translating yoga’s technical vocabulary and instructions into Xhosa while maintaining the essence of the practice is a continuous challenge. “I mostly use my mother tongue, but some words are difficult to translate. Simplifying poses and directions is a challenge,” she says.

However, ikeja’s support has made a significant difference. With their sponsorship, we received new yoga mats, enhancing the quality of her classes. “Previously, I used old mats that people donated, but now that I have new mats that I managed to buy and the ones that ikeja donated, I feel more confident and professional,” she shares. This resource boost has allowed her to offer a high-quality service to her students.

Additionally, ikeja’s sponsorship of Wi-Fi has been a great help. “As a small business, I always operate on the internet to get clients, push my content, and expand my reach through online visibility,” Bongeka explains. 

Bongeka finds immense satisfaction in her work. Her proudest achievement is simply starting to teach. “I’m proud of starting as much as I would say I’m not where I want to be. But since I had started, I can see so much difference, and I’m proud of the achievements,” she reflects. The increasing interest in yoga within her community, particularly among those who wish to practice mindfulness, is a testament to her impact.

Bongeka’s teaching style adapts to her diverse audience. She adopts a playful approach with children, engaging and visually stimulating the sessions. “I’ve never been trained to teach children, but I approach kids by trying to be more playful and visual,” she says. This is crucial, as children are generally more open to learning and trying new things, even if they find some poses amusing.

On the other hand, teaching adults can be more challenging, especially when they are not initially enthusiastic about yoga. “It’s different because people are not open and unwilling to do this. It’s much better when they come openly to learn,” she notes. However, for those who come willingly, yoga provides a powerful tool for stress management and personal growth.

Bongeka’s vision for the future is ambitious yet grounded in a desire to make yoga accessible to everyone in her community. She dreams of establishing yoga studios in the townships, offering classes to people of all ages and backgrounds. “I know it might seem impossible, but I believe it will be possible. If we can have affordable yoga studios in the townships, it will allow everyone, even the unemployed, to access these resources”.

A simple yet powerful motto guides Bongeka’s journey: “Start with what you know, with what you have. Teach what you know. Don’t try to be something that you are not. Try to give what you have at the moment; you will develop with time,” she shares. This mantra guides her teaching and the positive influence she aims to have on her community.

Bongeka’s journey from a university student struggling with anxiety to a yoga teacher transforming lives in Khayelitsha is a story of resilience, dedication, and hope. Yoga is becoming a tool for mental and physical well-being through her efforts. As she continues teaching and dreams of expanding her impact, Bongeka embodies the profound change that mindfulness and self-care can bring.