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Researcher plans to bring yoga project home

The African Yoga Project is a model for job creation and community empowerment in Kenya.


Published July 11, 2013

“We want to get a sense of how the Africa Yoga Project has grown and detail the effects so we can do a similar project here in Buffalo.”
Catherine Cook-Cottone, associate professor
Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology

A team of researchers led by a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education will travel for two weeks this month to Nairobi, Kenya, to study the effects of a far-reaching yoga project in hopes of inspiring a similar project closer to home.

Catherine Cook-Cottone, associate professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology, leads the research team that leaves Buffalo on July 15 to study how the Africa Yoga Project (AYP) has improved the lives of those taking classes and teaching.

“We want to research the effects of the African Yoga Project,” says Cook-Cottone. “It has grown so quickly, starting with a few people doing yoga to what is now an organization that employs over 70 teachers from the Nairobi region and surrounding areas, with over 5,000 Kenyans a week practicing yoga.”

Excited about the possibilities of this project, Cook-Cottone has conducted research on eating disorders among teenagers and young women, and on identifying life skills—including yoga—to foster wellness and balanced behavior among teenage girls.

“We want to get a sense of how AYP has grown and detail the effects so we can do a similar project here in Buffalo,” she says.

Cook-Cottone, a certified yoga instructor and licensed psychologist, leads an interdisciplinary group that includes her husband, Jerry Cottone, a psychologist and yogi; Jessalyn Klein, a UB doctoral student who grew up at the Himalayan Institute and is the daughter of two yogis; Carla Giambrone, a UB doctoral student and yoga instructor; Nan Herron, a yogi and psychiatrist who runs an inpatient clinic in Boston, Mass.; Susan Fain, owner of Power Yoga Buffalo; and yoga instructors Steven Procknal and Brooke Easton. 

The African Yoga Project is a nonprofit group that teaches Kenyans to be yoga instructors and offers free classes in community centers, schools, special needs centers, HIV rehabilitation centers and prisons. Yoga is not indigenous to Africa, Cook-Cottone explains, noting that the founder of the Africa Yoga Project brought this tool to the Nairobi region.

“Jobs are being created,” she says. “And it is all healthy and has essentially none of the impact on the earth that you might see in other industries. It is an amazing thing, and we want to figure out what the program means to people and how it is changing lives.

“Yoga is neurologically integrating,” she says. “It gives us tools for regulating our own internal shifts from the fight, flight or freeze response to the repair, rest, restore state. When a person has lived within a community marked with chronic stress associated with poverty—and within which violence is a common experience—there can be a shift from a constant state of vigilance or vacillation into periods of dissociation and disconnection to cope.”

Cook-Cottone calls yoga “a tool that brings you to calm and effective presence in the current moment. The practice on the mat is used in life and people are empowered.”

The research team plans to use social science research techniques to identify how yoga has improved the lives of the African teachers and students in order to bring the physical, emotional and mental benefits of yoga to Buffalo.

Cook-Cottone, a staunch advocate for the healing power of yoga, sees this study as an opportunity to spread the benefits to thousands more people.

She says her team’s ultimate goal is to send instructors from Buffalo’s East Side neighborhoods to Nairobi to learn how to teach yoga, then bring them back to Buffalo and study the effects their training has locally.

“We are a long way from that, but you have to dream,” says Cook-Cottone. “Like Nairobi, there is much trauma in Buffalo. Healing is needed.”

Change in Buffalo is already in the works. In partnership with the Resurrection Church on Doat Street and Power Yoga Buffalo, the team is holding twice-weekly yoga classes this summer for East Side children.