Sound of silence: Pupils at Alexandra High School in Johannesburg go through their yoga paces under the watchful eye of instructor and founder of Yoga4Alex, Dr Marianne Felix. Picture: LESLEY STONES
Sound of silence: Pupils at Alexandra High School in Johannesburg go through their yoga paces under the watchful eye of instructor and founder of Yoga4Alex, Dr Marianne Felix. Picture: LESLEY STONES

The first time Mpho Makgoba tried yoga, he didn’t like it much. It felt a bit silly, sitting on the floor with his schoolmates and trying very hard not to giggle.

"The first time we did yoga I didn’t believe in it because I thought it is for white people, not for us blacks," he says.

"But I started doing it and I started focusing better, especially when I was doing meditation. I got chance to think about the bad things and the good things and how to solve problems, and it helped me focus on my studies," he adds.

Makgoba says his yoga lessons at Alexandra High School in Johannesburg reduced his stress levels and made him more mentally alert and physically stronger.

It has also given him a gap-year job after he passed matric with no career plan.

Yoga4Alex is paying him to run after-school maths and book clubs for younger pupils and to help them with their yoga. "I want to help them succeed in life like it’s helping me succeed in mine," he says.

Sound of silence: Pupils at Alexandra High School in Johannesburg go through their yoga paces. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN
Sound of silence: Pupils at Alexandra High School in Johannesburg go through their yoga paces. Picture: SUZY BERNSTEIN

The organisation teaches Kundalini yoga, which creates a sense of wellbeing and promotes self-confidence and self-reliance "by shaping the subconscious mind", says Dr Marianne Felix, a doctor specialising in occupational medicine.

The poverty, high unemployment and hunger that bedevils Alexandra can be too overwhelming for the youngsters to believe a better life is possible, she says. But the results in the classrooms prove they can succeed through the mental tools yoga gives them, plus the support of the organisation behind it. "In an environment where there is frustration and negativity, yoga brings feelings of hope and optimism," Felix says.

Yoga4Alex has reached thousands of township youngsters since its inception in 2011.

At one stage it ran classes in five schools for 2,200 students, but it’s now down to two schools, Alexandra High and Kwabhekilanga High, because of a lack of resources. Its three current teachers are all former students Yoga4Alex professionally trained at R25,000 each.

Yoga is a tool to learn how to be quiet and be with your own thoughts
Dr Marianne Felix

Felix could hire more teachers but she wants to identify youngsters in the classes to become the next generation of tutors. "It’s so much stronger if we can grow it from within Alex instead of having outsiders coming in and telling Alex how to do it, so we don’t mind going slowly," she says.

During the sessions, the kids do simple yoga moves, holding their postures and learning to breathe correctly. They end with meditation and hopefully leave feeling calmer and more mentally resilient.

"Yoga is a tool to learn how to be quiet and be with your own thoughts," Felix says.

Kundalini yoga works in a profound way by bringing subconscious fears and anxieties to a conscious level and teaching people how to confront those uncomfortable thoughts properly, she says.

"We loosen up your spine to begin with, then hold postures for extended periods. That brings whatever you are dealing with to the fore so you know what’s really bothering you.

"Allowing these thoughts to come up from the subconscious and pass through you allows you to let go of fears and anger. When you confront it, it isn’t as scary and impossible as you feel it is, and you start realising there are ways to solve it. First you think maybe someone else can help you solve it, then as you go more deeply into the yoga you realise that you have the ability and capacity to solve the problems yourself."

Alexandra High School principal Zoleka Lebelo has embraced the programme because of the results she’s seeing. "To be honest, I didn’t understand it until Dr Felix made me do the yoga she was demonstrating in my office." she says. "In the few minutes she was with me I could feel a difference, and when the learners spend time with her you can feel the difference. The teachers love it too — some don’t miss a class."

Felix believes the shocking matric failure and high drop-out rates in township schools could be tackled through yoga if they began working with grade 8 learners on a four-year programme. But a lack of funding is preventing that

The sessions have instilled more discipline and a higher level of commitment to their studies, translating into better academic results, she says. Some students who were cynical joined in after they saw how it benefited their classmates.

"The matriculants were asking for meditation before they went into the exams last year to calm them down," Lebelo says.

Teacher Sylvia Radebe has found that yoga is changing her. "I feel healthier and I’m more excited about things, and I’m teaching the breathing exercises to my own child, who is hyperactive," she says.

Felix believes the shocking matric failure and high drop-out rates in township schools could be tackled through yoga if they began working with grade 8 learners on a four-year programme. But a lack of funding is preventing that.

Yoga4Alex is supported by donors, including artist William Kentridge and Discovery Health, and mostly by Felix herself. She turned her home in Waverley into the 4Living Guesthouse and ploughs all the profits back into Yoga4Alex. She also runs Saturday classes there for the Alexandra children and sometimes takes in the older children if they need a place to stay.

When they first arrive in the suburb they are astonished at the quietness, she says, and realise what aspiring to a better life could mean.

The organisation creates a community and a sense of belonging through seven after-school clubs, including dance, drama, maths and chess. The groups are led by Buddies like Makgoba, who are teenagers whose lives have been improved by yoga. They are paid to run the clubs.

Hundreds of children at these schools have problems that could be alleviated with money, kindness or emotional support, which is why Yoga4Alex has diversified into providing the after-school classes, paying for extra tuition, supplying interest-free loans and offering work opportunities as Buddies or in the guesthouse. It feels like a bottomless pit of need, but Felix says she hasn’t yet felt overwhelmed. In 2017 she won the Live to Give Award from 3HO, the international Kundalini yoga organisation.

"The yoga touches thousands, but my commitment is to get 100 children completely out of poverty with stable careers. So far 75 youngsters are on their way to better lives thanks to the organisation," she says.

"I have now got parents coming to me and saying ‘what is it about you because my child doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke and has structured his life so he’s going places’, and that’s Yoga4Alex."

Nollin Mudau took yoga classes with a friend at a community centre after being unemployed for six years. "We had a lot of fear — how do I take on my life, what career path do I take, and family-wise everything was upside down — and when we were doing yoga we found a place where we could talk and feel and think," she says. "It’s difficult for everyone in Alex with money issues and you don’t know where to go for advice. So when I met Dr Marianne I thought maybe this is where I can start," she says.

Mudau now works with the organisation teaching children yoga at Gordon Primary School.

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