MEET: Hadja Fatoumata Koulibaly The first Guinean Yoga Instructor

Posted on October 21, 2011

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To our knowledge, Fatoumata Koulibaly is the first Yoga instructor of Guinean origin. In this brief interview, she tells us of her experience as an African practitioner on the Yoga journey.

Q: Fatoumata, can you tell us how you got started on your yoga journey?

FK: Two things directed me towards Yoga. The first was a persistent feeling that I was wasting away my little stock of energy in an attempt to accomplish all my aims and purposes. I had so many of them, I was constantly burning out. The second was struggling to keep my balance, and I was constantly failing at that because I had no awareness that I had a center, because it was simply empty.

Q: How would you describe your beginning Yoga experience?

FK: It was one of those days when nothing seemed to provide me with peace. So I decided to go to my local gym and try something new. At that time, my idea of going to the gym was a 15mns walk on the treadmill, followed by a few strokes in the pool, then steam and jacuzzi. But this time, I was determined to do something different. I looked at the menu of activities and spotted Yoga. Before joining the class, I asked the gym attendant for information and with a huge smile, he said “join the class first, then afterwards you will know what Yoga is. Yoga is something you experience.” I thought ok, what’s with the mystery? So I joined the class and this was truly revealing! Because, physically, I could not perform any of the poses besides the relaxation pose, I could not breathe because of my chain smoking habit!!! I was toxic, unfit and stiff, in my body, in my mind, and in my soul. It was scary, and I keep this memory alive because there is no going back to that state. Ever.

Q: What is Yoga? And what does it mean to you?

FK: It is impossible for me to give a precise answer to this simple question, mainly because Yoga is so incredibly vast and comprehensive. However, from the Sanskrit language, Yoga means “Union” and it consists of discovering a wonderful truth about ourselves. But on a personal level, Yoga is for me a concentration of purpose. It also means that I am establishing union with my center, and from there, I am slowly re-learning to find my way, and maintain my balance in all of the conflicting and confusing avenues which are part of life.

Q: What type of Yoga do you teach?

FK: There are no types of Yoga, but different paths. I practise and teach Hatha Yoga, which is the most commonly practised path of Yoga in the Western world. It aims to achieve union of the mind, body, and spirit through physical actions. The Asanas or postures, which are generally taught in classes, are just one component of this and usually easier to begin with.

Q: Some claim that Yoga began in Africa, then spread to India. What is your view on this?

FK: This will certainly be a huge twist on Yoga history as we know it!!!(laughter). My own view on the one hand, is that the Yogi sages of old (whatever their origins) never claimed to be the originators of anything. Yoga is universal and is big enough to transcend any claim made by man. On the other hand, the technicalities of African Yoga practice were never codified with the exactitude found among the Hindus and Buddhists. African traditions have always been essentially oral, where knowledge is transmitted from “mouth to ear”.

Q: You are a muslim woman. Does this conflict with your Yoga practice?

FK: No, not at all. On the contrary, the practice of Yoga has made me a far better muslim. In fact, Islam is no stranger to Yoga and Sufism is the side of Islam that most incorporate Yogic practices. In addition, I am one of those people who believe that Yoga forms the basis of all religions. Therefore, practising Yoga provide an understanding of most world religions, yet it remains not a religion by itself.

Q: Have you ever faced opposition as a black Yoga instructor?

FK: Most people who come to Yoga classes, do so because consciously or subconsciously they have identified a problem in their lives and they seek to make a change, usually for the better. Then, the healing and transformative power of Yoga begins this whole process where no effort, however small, is ever wasted. As a Yoga instructor I have to understand that others are going through their own processes, just like me, and that it is not easy to let go of years and years of conditioning. But when this happens and you witness people letting go of all those negative baggages, it’s simply beautiful!! It is at those moments that new realizations dawn on you, and you understand that in Yoga, there is simply no room for man made limitations.

Q: Could Yoga benefit the African community, and if so, how can one break through the reluctance in some African communities to embrace Yoga?

FK: Yoga, as a spiritual heritage, has enough spiritual and psychological insights to benefit all communities.Unfortunately, Yoga as it is practised and promoted in the West, is largely seen by the African community, as a white, new age physical discipline for fitness and stress reduction. However, for those who are familiar with African Yoga heritage, they will easily recognise that African communities generally live respectfully close to and in communion with Nature. So, living according to their rhythms become a yogic practice. Also, the dancing and drumming in African cultures, helps one become in tune with the vibrations of the Universe. As such, the repetitions of the rhythms become mantras, and the rhytmic breathing, become pranayama. And as one meditate on the rhytmic sound, the goal is to experience “union” with the universal power of life manifesting within the sound of one’s own heart. These attempts of reintegration of the Individual with the Universal by means of sound, rhythm and dance, is already evident in most African cultures. And Yoga means “union”. Only in Africa, Yoga is a reality without a name or code. Its teachings are also largely transmitted in the Oral tradition. A Yoga instructor in the African community will have to be aware of this perspective.

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