Waking the interest of Tanzanians in yoga

Sunday November 19 2017


By Roger Braun

The midday heat settled over the International School in Masaki in Dar es Salaam that Saturday. Cheerful buzz of chatter blended with upbeat background music. It was an all peaceful ambiance in the school courtyard.

“Was that enjoyable?” Christina Gianacopolous, the founder and owner of Zen Spa, asks a young woman who just enjoyed a massage. She nodded dozily, looking relaxed as if she had had a long, deep sleep.

Zen Spa was just one of the more than 20 Tanzanian businesses participating in the inaugural Wellness Expo recently. Ms Gianacopolous had two massage therapists giving out free sessions, as well as other services and products to promote from her growing wellness spa and beauty salon. She was situated across from a table covered in verdant green.

Mother and daughter, Divya and Veenita Bhatt had everything from herbs, to wheatgrass and cactuses sprouting from their table.  Many of the plants were potted in quirky and ornate objects and ornaments. More plant life - in this case that of the vegetable variety - vibrated with colour and energy a few paces away at Lise Wienand’s table.

It was the first time a big chunk of wellness providers came together in Dar es Salaam. “We’ve been too isolated!” Life Coach and Empath, Shaz Alidina exclaimed, while a yoga teacher was nibbling on a banana leaf bowl of humus, saying that it was first and foremost about rubbing shoulders with other wellness businesses.

For Grace Kasinde, a Yoga for Wellness Tanzania team member, the event was not just about creating a networking opportunity for wellness businesses, but about raising awareness among Dar es Salaam residents. “People sometimes don’t even realise what’s right on their doorstep. There are more businesses like these developing all the time. We wanted to bring them together in one place so people could see how much wellness is really being offered,” she said.”


The expo was also an opportunity to join any number of a variety of yoga like the ancient Chinese tradition Tai Chi, a non-competitive martial art known for both its defense techniques and its health benefits. Like Yoga it has evolved over centuries to become a means of alleviating stress and anxiety, a form of “meditation in motion.”


Spreading yoga in Tz

This was facilitated through Mukti yoga studio in Masaki, in an expansive sports arena on the school grounds. There was something for everyone - from the advanced to beginner yogi, from the first-time meditator to the experienced.

The Wellness Expo demonstarted all the different aspects of wellbeing that day. From diabetes to hypertension, there were expert opinions and thoughtful reflections on what constitutes as an integral and holistic approach to wellbeing.

The Wellness expo was mainly organised by Yoga for Wellness Tanzania (YWT), a non-governmental organisation that aims to spread Yoga and alternative care techniques in Tanzania. Ayesha Samji founded the YWT in 2015 after she realised that Yoga could improve the health and well-being of many Tanzanians. Hospitalisation of a close member for nine months brought about the realisation. The Tanzanian of Indian descent felt first-hand to what extent other patients, relatives and caretakers in the hospital were stressed out and at the end of their nerves.

“I realised how fortunate I was to have Yoga and meditation to cope with the stress,” she says. It helped her to go through this difficult period of her life and she vowed to share her knowledge with other people in Tanzania.

It’s well established that Yoga and other relaxation techniques have positive health effects. They help in particular to absorb stress, and they can ease anxiety, depression as well as back pain and headaches. For Samji the potential of Yoga is huge in a country like Tanzania where the technique is hardly known yet.

However, it’s not an easy task to make Yoga popular over here. Most participants of her Yoga classes in Masaki are still expats from countries where Yoga is well-known. Tanzanians in contrast are hesitant, not exactly knowing what this fuss is all about.


Nadia Ahmed is a psychologist in Dar es Salaam learning to be a Yoga teacher at YWT. She says the main reason for the reluctance of local people is cultural.

“It is the psychological and spiritual component of the alternative care techniques that turns many locals off,” she says. As a psychologist, she meets reservations to psychological counselling on a daily basis.

“To many locals talking about psychological issues is still considered a taboo,” she says. That’s why she developed specific strategies to overcome these cultural barriers. Meditation for example tends to meet more resistance than Yoga at the beginning. “Yoga is more welcoming because it is connected to physical activity,” Ms Ahmed says.

People relate Yoga with a way to lose weight or build up muscles. This gives Ms Ahmed the opportunity to motivate locals without overstressing the spiritual and psychological aspects of the technique. These just come as extra benefits cherished only later.

Promoting Yoga in Tanzania requires explaining what it actually is. That’s why the YWT organises events like the wellness expo, expected to be an annual event in the future.

“We want to provide an easy access to the method,” Samji says. They would give short explanations about the concept and short sessions to check out the techniques. YWT wants to give everybody the chance to do Yoga, regardless of their financial ability.

 “I am sure sooner or later this knowledge will diffuse in the general knowledge of the people.” the people,” says  Samji.