Shannon Fitzpatrick knows first hand the physical and mindful power of yoga. After breaking her back while in high school, yoga was the only form of physical exercise she could do and it quickly transformed into more than just a way to stay in shape, it became her escape — healing both her body and mind. Throughout her college experience, yoga remained an integral part of Fitzpatrick’s life, but it was not until she spent the summer of 2018 in Uganda that it became clear to her that yoga could quite literally change lives.
Volunteering as a teacher’s assistant for The Giving Circle, a nonprofit based out of New York, Fitzpatrick lived with a host family in the Ugandan town of Jinja for the summer of 2018. While in Uganda, Fitzpatrick continued her daily yoga practice, and kids from the neighboring houses would oftentimes join her in the backyard, mimicking her poses and playing along with her meditations.
Working in the classroom, Fitzpatrick grew to know the students on a deeper level, “…what their personalities were like, what they struggle with at home… a lot [of students] are walking long distances to class, and some only eat the food given to them by the school,” Fitzpatrick said, “School oftentimes is their escape, and they really have so much potential.”
Despite the challenges of long commutes and strenuous home life, many of the kids still looked forward to school more than anything else. “…towards the end of my time in Jinja, I started to brainstorm how I could bring in more values of creativity and positivity and activity,” Fitzpatrick said, “All of these things are things that I think are really important for development, but [I] was not really seeing in their community.”
Fitzpatrick began to integrate short meditations into the beginning of classes, “…at first they were all laughing and giggling and they would peek their eyes open. But, it was unbelievable, within two weeks they were totally getting into it,” Fitzpatrick said.
Encouraged by the positive feedback from the meditations, Fitzpatrick worked with the school principal and a local yoga instructor named Stella to build Rafiki Yoga. Creating a curriculum catered towards the younger students, Stella emphasizes the practices of non-violence, peace, and kindness, in addition to the standard physical practice of yoga.
“Growing up we had sports, plays and music,” said Fitzpatrick, “…but they [schools in Uganda] didn’t have very much of that…we wanted to bridge that gap.”
Working closely with the African Yoga Project, a similar but larger organization based out of Kenya, Fitzpatrick and Stella have started a yoga movement in Uganda.
Two years later, Rafiki Yoga has two, soon to be three, certified instructors teaching yoga in the Jinja area and Fitzpatrick is working to incorporate Rafiki at another school in Uganda.
After graduating from George Washington University in three years in 2019, Fitzpatrick traveled to India to receive her 200 hour yoga certification, before returning to Jinja to work more closely with Rafiki Yoga.
Although working with Rafiki remotely from the United States has its challenges, in many ways it reaffirms Fitzpatrick’s underlying goal of creating a platform that is self-sustainable, where she does not need to be there constantly in person. A big concern for Fitzpatrick was strengthening the community through their own work, rather than acting as a crutch, “…say you take out the organization, what happens to the community? The problem a lot of times is that if the organization leaves the community, the community tends to be worse off,” Fitzpatrick said, “My goal was to create a more sustainable change within a community.”
To Fitzpatrick, yoga is a very powerful way to create positive change within a community, “…we are implementing yoga on a primary school level so that the kids can grow up with values of nonviolence and peace and kindness,” Fitzpatrick said.
With Rafiki already relatively self-sustainable in Jinja, Fitzpatrick hopes to one day expand the program into other communities and schools across the world.
Despite the recent success of Rafiki, beginning the program came with many challenges, “…I was really trying to not 1) overstep my boundaries and 2) not be dogmatic in pushing yoga onto the community,” Fitzpatrick explained, “…that’s where the local teachers, like Stella, have been so incredible.”
Working side by side with Stella to create Rafiki, Fitzpatrick was able to build the program in a way that was adaptable to the needs of the local community.
“At the end of the day humans are humans, it’s not a matter of them being Ugandan and me being American, its that we are all human, and we all have something we are working towards” Fitzpatrick said.