Workin Womxn

“I have zero tolerance for the sexualization of my yoga practice”

By Hillary Essien | Oct 29, 2021

After a life-changing accident, Ajoke dedicated her life to helping people exist as the best version of themselves. She does this by teaching them yoga and helping them stay present at the moment – the only place where life exists. However, in Nigeria, being a yoga instructor comes with peculiar challenges, and Ajoke is not exempted. In this conversation, she tells me about her journey to building a yoga brand, and how she deals with the many challenges behind the scenes.

Tell us a little about yourself

My name is Ibrahim Mubaraqah or Ajoke as most people call me. I am a Professional Yoga instructor with over 7 years of experience in the Wellness Industry. 

How did you get into yoga?

Well, that’s quite a story. I had an accident and had to be hospitalized. After I got better, I realised I had back pain that hurt so bad, that nothing I did worked to alleviate the pain. I was at my fashion school then, and a friend told me to try Yoga. I had a Nokia C2 then, I googled Yoga and the first thing that popped up was  Kino Mcgregor’s 5 minute Yoga for beginners which took me almost an eternity to download. So, I practised, and even though I was as stiff as a board, the pain left in a matter of weeks. I never stopped practising since then.

I am so sorry to hear about the accident. Can you tell me a little bit more about what happened?
I was travelling to start fashion school in Abuja, our bus hit another and the impact threw me on those iron rods at the back of buses that protect the buses from a collision. It was horrible, I was seeing the body parts of other people. It is an experience I never hope to experience again.

After the accident, I didn’t think much of the fact that I wasn’t physically injured. No one treats you for shock after accidents in Nigeria, especially when there were others there who are bleeding and stuff. Then the back pain started. I couldn’t stand, sit, or lay down without support. I remember feeling my back one time, and it had this sensation like it was breathing. I still have an imbalance in my lower back, and Yoga is making it better. Terrible experience, really.

So, how did you go from simply practising yoga to building your yoga brand?

It was after several moments of deep introspection. I have a keen desire to help people become their best selves, physically and mentally. My Yoga practice brought that part of me to the surface, and over time, I found myself immersed in that space you know. I struggled to get my first student after my first 200HRS training. Months went by and no single student. I was distraught, but then someone signed up, and they kept signing up. With time, I saw how much I was able to help them even though I was a bit unsure of myself at the time. I wanted to replicate that, as much as I could. That was a crucial moment that birthed Spinwellness and Yoga. Not just Yoga now, but a firm that optimizes individual and corporate Physical and Mental Wellness, and so doing, improving the quality of their social, corporate, physical and mental wellbeing. 

A lot goes on under the hood of an Individual, a  Firm, and the world at large. But at the root of it all, is the Individual. The individual is what makes the firm, the government, the project, and the world. And at the core of the individual is a fusion of the mental and physical being. If either suffers, the individual gives less to the company they work for(presenteeism; They are present, but not in a state that optimizes their productivity), to the project they are working on, to their family, and even to themselves. Using Yoga, and other Industry practices, I want to harness and build up the individual, such that everyone I teach is at their best performing, healthy state, physically and mentally. That way, they can give themselves, their workplace, and the world at large the best of them. The desire to help people achieve this state is what led me to start my brand.

How much formal training did you get before becoming an instructor?

Professional training as an instructor is measured in the number of hours you spend learning. There are as low as 50HR trainings, even though there is a minimum number of hours you need to have learnt before you are allowed to teach, which is 200HRS. I have over 1000HRS of professional and formal training to teach. My training cuts across different Yoga practices such as Baptiste, Ashtanga Rocket and so much more. And all my training is Yoga Alliance certified, which means they are accepted anywhere in the world. I also have training in Trauma-Informed Yoga, meditation, breathwork etc. This way, my services are not limited to Asana offerings alone

I also have training in Trauma-Informed Yoga, meditation, breathwork etc. This way, my services are not limited to Asana offerings alone Nigerians are sort of embracing yoga now, but it wasn’t always like this.

As someone who has been doing yoga for a long time, are there any stereotypes of practising yoga that you have dealt with? 

Oh yes, Nigerians; the gift that keeps giving. There are stereotypes, yes, quite a lot. Sexualization I would say ranks top amongst those. I get a lot of sexually motivated comments on some of my poses, and even my fellow Yogis have complained of the same. I have a zero-tolerance policy for the sexualization of my practice. I handle this by just educating, sometimes sternly, other times by blocking people and moving on. Secondly, there is the issue of Nigerians attributing Yoga to a religion, worshipping some demon, or deity. I get that a lot too. The spiritual aspect of Yoga is vast, complex as well as simple.

These practices are not religious by any means, if anything they even help draw the religious closer to their god. You don’t pray to anyone, you don’t worship anyone, but try telling that to someone especially when they hear you chanting the Ashtanga opening sequence. Someone once said Savasana(a pose where all you do is rest, literally) is a death pose. I handle this mainly by avoiding introducing students to the spiritual aspect of Yoga, except they explicitly want me to. I also don’t do chantings, except when the student requests it. Some students just want the physical and meditative aspects of Yoga and that’s perfectly okay, but for those who want more, I do give it. So yeah, education is how I handle this.

Also, there is the assumption that Yoga is for those who are flexible, have a certain kind of body, or for women alone. That is absurd. I know Yogis I look up to that are men, plus size, and not naturally predisposed to flexibility too. Even me, when I started, was as stiff as a board. I look at some of my early photos and just laugh at myself. But I did the work, and here I am. I make people understand that Yoga is for everyone. Even pregnant women do Yoga. Anyone can do Yoga, any body type, as long as you have a professional and certified instructor helping you, you are good to go. Patanjali said ‘The only person who cannot practice Yoga is the lazy person. Even quadriplegics practice Yoga.

Lastly, there is this thing Nigerians do where they assume Yogis are sex workers, maybe because of the poses, or I don’t even know. I have seen and even had to refute it myself. People message me asking for my rates, to hang out and stuff, and worse is they expect a positive response like it is the norm. I am still handling this because honestly, I do not know how to make it stop, so I just ignore it now.

Would you say that what you do is lucrative?

This is a tricky question. Yoga and Wellness is a relatively new industry in Nigeria. It’s not an overly lucrative venture yet, but it’s getting there really. The market is there, professional expertise much less so, so loads of work is needed before that can be achieved. I love what I do, so on the low days, I still do it anyway. Instructors earn thousands of dollars monthly outside of Nigeria, they make a lot. I know some of these people personally.

The last teacher training I did cost about 3000USD, and students were over 50. That’s just training!!!  Yoga and Wellness is lucrative if you look at it from the global scope. But in Nigeria, a lot of orientation and education needs to be done, especially in the corporate sector, so people can understand why they need it. 

What does the future look like for you as a yoga instructor and a wellness professional?

I want to build Spinwellness and Yoga such that it becomes a Pioneer firm for the Wellness Industry in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. Everything I do and will do will have this as a primary objective. I believe the future is good. I have made collaborations with prominent wellness firms, and startups, and the prospects are really promising.  What is the one thing you wish everyone could know about yoga? Yoga is a journey, not a destination, and that journey is unique to the individual, and like all journeys, you have to begin somewhere, and just keep at it. There will always be something to learn. 

Thank you so much for chatting with me!  For many years now, I have been learning from and living vicariously through Ajoke. In this conversation, I learned even more. Yoga is so much more than the physical poses and apparent flexibility. Ajoke is teaching yoga from a holistic view, guiding her students to be the best version of themselves. There is a lot of work to be done correcting the false stereotypes Nigerians have about yoga, but despite these challenges, Ajoke will continue on her journey and is inviting you and me to come along. 

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