Kids. What an unending paradox. My son, 6, can never sit still. He constantly wants to challenge time. He wants to leave the room. Now. His legs jerk under tables. He paces around while we wait; standing on tiptoes to look out windows, touching things. He stands when everybody should be seated. He swings his leg under tables while seated, moving faster as time passes. He sighs, asking when we will eventually leave. He never could understand why we must stay in one place for too long. He doesn’t understand the value of waiting.
My daughter, 12, is the opposite. If she was any stiller, birds would build nests on her head. She observes without moving a limb, like a predator in the stillness of the night, never betraying emotion on her face. Her movements are deliberate, perhaps structured hours before. For instance, I suspect she plans how many times she will open the fridge the following day and at what precise times. She is patient. She listens more. Never interrupts. Her voice is low, so low that often you must lean in slightly to hear her say, ‘I’m fine.” But then, is she?
How can two kids be so different?
My son takes after me. When I muster the courage to attend a select few parties, I arrive at the appointed time and leave if people are late. Having three people ahead of me at a parking ticket validation kiosk fills me with anxiety, the thought of waiting my turn churning angst in my belly. I can’t focus on those 3-hour movies, unless it’s Django Unchained or Pulp Fiction because Samuel. L. Jackson is there talking garbage and kicking ass and eating burgers and generally being ungovernable. I hardly ever get late for anything and I hardly ever wait for anything. My legs constantly jerk under tables. If I was 100cms, the average height of a 6-year-old, my legs would be swinging under tables. When a long-winded person is talking, I’m always thinking, OK, get to the point before I keel over. Long phone conversations fill my lungs with water. I drown in them, paddling dangerously trying to catch my breath.
I admire people like my daughter. How still they can remain. I admire drivers who never curse at matatu drivers, how they shrug off their mannerlessness. I once bought that book by Russel Simmons, “Success through Stillness” but I was too impatient to read past the fifth chapter. However, there is something that caught my attention. He wrote:
“After my first experience via yoga, I became incredibly focused on experiencing that sense of stillness again. The stillness that reminded me that I could be a better person, a better friend, a better citizen of the world, as well as a better businessman.”
I’d heard of yoga, but I thought it was for long-bearded, loose-clothed, no-underwear wearing Indians who sat cross-legged atop mountain tops, mumbling under their breath. Yoga was remote to me. An untested theory of life. A hypothesis. A cultural import that wasn’t an attractive option for me because I can’t sit cross-legged. And I like underwear. Mostly.
So, I continued restlessly going through life. I tried to heed the French philosopher – Blaise Pascal’s – mantra, that “all humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Wars have started because of men who won’t sit still in a room alone. Diseases have spread because of the same men, turning the world into a pandemic cesspit of sneezing, coughing and heaving. [Read, Covid19]. Well, to be fair, this was because someone roasted a marinated rat, but let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story.
Contrary to what I had thought, as I grew older, I grew more impatient, more restless. I craved to be that guy who sits in rooms alone and doesn’t start wars. I wanted to be calm and unruffled. Mid conversation, I wanted to stop for a beat and stroke my beard before I replied with something staggeringly profound. But then I wasn’t patient enough to seek that path. Life was happening fast all around me and I was surfing its wave.
Then something weird happened. OK, not weird, but illustrative. I went to Yoga Heart to write a story about these three founders; James Thairu, his brother, Walter Mugwe and Basilio Maina. Yoga Heart is part of Facebook’s latest campaign, #RealPeopleRealStories, to tell stories of ordinary [and amazing] people using creativity and innovation to inspire their communities. These three guys started out as acrobats, standing on their heads, standing on their knuckles, standing on one leg with another wrapped around their necks, eating fire and that kind of thing. They grew up in the slums of Nairobi, in Kangemi, and one day, at Arboretum where they would be performing their shtick to the shrieks of onlookers, a Canadian lady told them, ‘Hey, you know what would really compliment your act? Yoga.” They must have looked at each other and thought, “Did she say, nyoka?”
The lady continued, ‘Yoga will help you guys stretch better and increase your performance as acrobats!” Here, look, she must have said, and did a Vrikshasana, a tree pose. They must have looked at each other again and thought, ‘Oh none of this white people stuff, man.” Then she did a Pungu Mayurasana which is exactly what it sounds like; a wounded peacock pose. Google it. It’s mad. That got their attention. That was back in 2009. The rest is history.
Anyway, when I walked into Yoga Heart in Kenrail Towers in Westlands, I met one of them; James Thairu. He wore loose pants. And dreadlocks. He looked both like an acrobat and a yoga instructor. On a wall of an adjacent room were the words, ‘the meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.” I paused before that wall, taking it in. James said, “You like that?” I said, yeah. I like it. I stroked my beard thoughtfully, but only for show. I wasn’t thinking. I wanted James to think I was deep like him. He looked deep. He had the eyes of a surgeon.
He started telling me about yoga and to be honest I was half concentrating. I was thinking about going up to Blue Door bar for a drink after. [It was closed, don’t bother]. Suddenly he said words that jumped out of him and grabbed me by the neck; stillness and freedom. “Say that again?” I said, sitting up.
“I said that our type of yoga is called Baptiste yoga that has three elements, asana, the physical practice, poses and posture, meditation and inquiry, the process of self – transforma-”
“No, no,” I cut him off because I’m unable to sit still in a room, I start wars remember?
“What did you say about freedom and stillness?”
“Uhm, Baptiste yoga is about attaining stillness which brings freedom?”
“Oh my God I can’t stay still! How do I stay still?” I shrieked not staying still. “Can you help me stay still, I don’t want to start any war.”
“No, nothing. I want to learn to stay still. How do I stay still? I’ve tried, man.”
He said it was about sitting still, alone and quiet. And quiet, he added, could be in a loud market. Or a bus stage. Or a club. It requires practice and focus, of thinking about nothing, emptying your mind but at the same time being aware of what’s happening around you. “When I sit still I’m awake to the present. I can solve problems when I’m still.” He said.
“Show me.” I dared him.
He grabbed a pillow off a seat at the reception and sat on it like, well, a yogi. He’s long-limbed but his legs disappeared, they became rubber. He rested his hands on his knees. Then he closed his eyes. He seemed calm. There were noises coming from the rest of the studio, a janitor speaking on his phone, people talking outside in the corridor.
“Can you hear those sounds?” I asked.
“Yes. I can also feel the wind blowing from the window to my left,” He said. “Being still isn’t about blocking noises, it’s about being aware of them as well but not thinking about them. Thinking about nothing. I’m here talking to you, but I’m still and I’m present in our conversation. You have to be awake to the present. [Pause. Eyes still closed] Yoga helped me deal with a lot of anger and trauma after the post-election period of 2008. [Pause]. During this Covid19 period, we almost had to close the studio, I was aware of that reality, present to it, but I remained still, choosing to take action. I told you I grew up in the slums, a family of five? Yeah, it was tough, we could go for four days without food. [Pause]. You can choose to start your day meditating, set an intention for the day and then end it with the same. Clear the day, don’t carry the things you picked up that day into the next day. Throw them out. Let go of those who angered you during the day. Create steps to move forward. You must take stock of yourself. [Pause] This is not a one-time thing for me because the world is changing. [Long pause]. I’m changing.”
I started to feel like I was changing too. A little. I think that guy was indoctrinating me. I would soon start going about without underwear.
Then he opened his eyes and stared at me. I felt naked. He smiled and said, “You can do it too. You can be still.” He then said, while standing up, “Here, we do yoga for social good. One of the three elements I was telling you about earlier? Inquiry? You have to ask deeper questions; who am I? What do I represent in the world? And is that thing harmful or helpful?” He tossed the pillow away and then spoke about how most of us are trying to be better versions of ourselves, to do more. We suffer from dissatisfaction, of our jobs, our lives, our bodies. But we essentially want to do more and be more. Our problems are essentially the same; we are not living our authentic lives. Or what the founder of Baptiste Yoga, John Baptiste says, “We are asleep to who and what we really are and can be.”
“Who are you?” I asked, really getting into this yoga stuff, man. This deep well of introspection and dissection and folding of long limbs.
“I’m a boy from the slums. That’s who I am.” He said. “I’m passionate about teaching yoga but also about the community where I grew up. We frequently fundraise money here and take it back to the community to support single mothers that I know, widowed women that I know, men who struggle supporting their families. We teach kids in the slums yoga, we visit orphanages and help them out. I grew up around crime, I know boys who were criminals, so I often go back there and talk to them. We show them an alternative option. That’s what yoga is, knowing who you are and supporting who you are because I’m just not me, I’m my community and I stand by them, I want them to be better.”
A client came in, a hippie-looking white dude with a yoga mat pressed under his armpits. He looked like he lived on a tree, but he looked peaceful. He looked like that dude in Netflix’s Messiah. He also looked still. It was 5:31pm, more clients would be streaming in at any moment, it was time for me to leave. I sneaked out, feeling like perhaps it wasn’t too late to be still. To ask existential questions; who am I? What do I represent? How do I add to the world? To my community? But what I knew was that I wasn’t the kind of guy who starts wars.