SUMMER STORIES: Laughing Yoga in Tanzania

Summer Stories from Africa is a series of fresh reflections from our students, faculty, and alumni researching and studying on the continent.

Stephanie Laemmert is a graduate student at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy who studied as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last spring. Laemmert recently spent her summer months in Tanzania conducting research on the meaning of “native courts” in British colonial Tanganyika and discursive legal culture.

Cosmopolitan Laughing Yoga in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Laemmert.

I was not aware that “laughing yoga” even existed before I joined Dr. Arvind Pathak’s “SWAS Health Care Center” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When Dr. Pathak announced in my first session to finish the day’s labor with a laughing exercise, I felt terribly self-conscious. The whole enterprise seemed ridiculous to me and I caught myself watching the other students. Would they join in childish laughter, a number of grown-up people who had just made their tiring way through Dar es Salaam’s exhausting after-work traffic to reach the 6 p.m. yoga class in time? That was the day when I heard Janet’s booming laughter for the first time and could not help myself but join in. Ever since, I loved the laughing exercise. In fact, it is everybody’s favorite exercise.

Dr. Pathak is a short, wiry man with gentle brown eyes and a never fading smile. He is dual citizen of Kenya and India, a Hindi native speaker born in Northern India, and educated as a medical doctor and yoga teacher in Gujarat. His studio in Dar es Salaam is a sub-branch of his successful yoga center in Nairobi he founded in 1992. Besides yoga classes, he also offers Ayurveda massages and naturopathy advise. His studio is located in Dar’s buzzing Upanga West district on the third floor of a high-riser overlooking the busy trading neighborhood of Mnazi Mmoja and Kariakoo. The view is indeed breathtaking. In a city where each of my strolls is accompanied by young men or school kids calling out at me, or traders trying to sell their goods to the “rich Mzungu”, in the yoga class nobody finds my appearance even noteworthy. The student body is a colorful mix of languages and religions. Most students are either Tanzanian-born Indians or recent migrants from India. The official language of our yoga class is English, although I can hear several Indian languages including Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil. There are also Lebanese students, and of course Janet, one of the Swahili students, with the booming laughter. Some bring their kids, others their husbands. There is a lot of laughing and some talking going on, and at times Janet and I do not understand a single word until Dr. Pathak switches back from Hindi to English.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Laemmert.

Contrary to my experiences in European or American Yoga studios, the spiritual element is very little pronounced. Dr. Pathak’s students are not in search of answers to the big questions such as the meaning of life or the best relaxation strategies in an increasingly depressing world. Neither is Dr. Pathak offering meditation or lecturing us about Buddha’s life. (A few months earlier in a meditation session at a Madison yoga studio, I had just learned about Buddha, sitting and breathing under a tree.) Dr. Pathak’s Hatha Yoga approach seemed to me, from the beginning, pragmatic – and rather refreshing. We learn a huge variety of utterly functional exercises: some are for people with digestive difficulties, others are supposed to improve eyesight, still others focus on the ubiquitous problem zone of the lower back, of which so many of us are painfully aware due to long hours spent sitting in front of our desks. Fitness is as important as breathing and flexibility, and Dr. Pathak makes us work hard indeed. The rest of the one hour class is devoted to Surya Namaskara, the sun salute, in its many arduous variations.

Everybody has the smile of the laughing exercise still on their face at the end of the session when Dr. Pathak asks us to “pray to our God.” He makes sure to add that each of us address the god of their belief, if any, and then we finish with what Dr. Pathak translates as “universal Vedic prayer.” And he is a real Dar es Salaam Swahili cosmopolitan, too: after 14 exhausting rounds of Surya Namaskara, Dr. Pathak asks us to lie back on our mats and relax with a casual “lala salama” (Swahili for “sleep tight”).