Community yoga as a labour of love

“Choosing to start something like this as black women in Durban isn’t child’s play. You don’t come up simply because you’re something new on the block that’s run by black women,” says Nomzamo Mji, co-founder of The Toolbox

The Toolbox yoga studio, which has been running for four years, is located in Musgrave, a suburb on the ridge of Durban. Nomzamo runs and owns the studio with her sister Nosizwe Mji. The former spoke to the Mail & Guardian on behalf of their wellness start-up. 

Five years ago Nomzamo worked as an advocate at The Joburg Bar. During this time, Nosizwe had an established yoga practice in New Hampshire in the United States. The two left their flourishing careers to start a healing practice in the home they had left many years ago. 

Sisters Nomzamo and Nosizwe Mji joined forces to open wellness centre and yoga studio, The Toolbox (Nindya and Nikhil Tricam)

The Toolbox aims to equip various communities within Durban and its surrounding parts with the tools the sisters deem as necessary for holistic health. Health, as used in The Toolbox’s tagline, “Tools to create health”, refers to building a relationship with your body, mind and spirit to understand the cues that they give you. 

“We see health in many things — like intuitive eating, being aware of your agency and having the ability to fulfil your potential,” Nomzamo says. To embody this take on health, The Toolbox teaches patrons how to practise mindfulness, physical movement, breath, creativity, community (connection), rest and relaxation to help to heal the various facets of our being. 

The Toolbox classes offer six styles of yoga: rise, vinyasa, hatha, iyengar, kundalini and prenatal yoga. Both Mji sisters facilitate classes, and they employ additional three teachers. The prices — which range from R100 for a drop-in class to R650 for a month’s worth of unlimited classes — are reasonable in comparison with the cost of yoga classes at most studios across South Africa. 

“There’s an ugly side of wellness, where it’s this expensive, exclusive, complicated thing. We don’t want yoga to be elitist, so it’s not highly profitable for us right now,” says Nomzamo. She adds that the duo are still at a point at which there are months where they aren’t making enough money to pay themselves after paying rent and the teachers’ salaries. 

In the sisters’ opinion, the centre would have been leaps and bounds ahead if it were based in Johannesburg. The decision to open a studio in Durban was informed by the scarcity of safe spaces to practice yoga in the city that they grew up in. 

“We’re in the south of Durban where there is generally less disposable income than the north of Durban, which is your Ballitos and Umhlangas,” says Nomzamo. She then adds another factor: unlike Johannesburg, the south Durban population does not contain that many residents who are willing or can be influenced to try out things they are not familiar with. 

The Breathing Space — one of Durban’s more established yoga institutions — had recently closed its doors when The Toolbox opened theirs at a location six minutes away. So, aside from friends of friends and family, the studio’s initial visitors were people who had been doing yoga and needed a new place to practice. “It’s a given that they were the white, middle-class, middle-aged crowd,” Nomzamo adds. And, although the makeup of their clientele is becoming younger and “more black”, their studio-visiting community remains predominantly white.

Beyond the studio

In addition to the work the sisters do in their studio, The Toolbox has launched community programmes  to ensure that the practice of yoga reaches beyond suburbia. The community-based programs are funded by US nonprofit organisations that The Toolbox has built relationships with: the Hope Seed Foundation and the Village Health Foundation

“Given that we’re located in this Musgrave area, it’s going to afford us a certain demographic,” Nomzamo says. One of the centre’s founding principles is to offer these wellness resources to as many people as possible. So, it was a must that they conduct outreach programmes — even though they don’t make a profit.  “Our location forced us to leave our confines to reach the people who couldn’t reach the studio,” Nomzamo says.

So far, The Toolbox has worked with primary schools such as Christiansburg Public Primary School in Clermont, the house mothers at the Lily of The Valley Children’s Village in Eston, and the wardens at a correctional-services facility.

“I’m not gonna lie — there’s a lot of yoga trauma in the black community. Popular media shows us lean, white people contorting their bodies and it leaves us feeling inadequate. We don’t want to add to that so we had to be careful about how we approached our programming,” Nomzamo says. 

To introduce more people in  black community to yoga as a tool towards holistic wellness, The Toolbox makes use of a compassionate practice that involves “meeting people where they are” and listening to what they are willing to do. “If you’re making people ‘om’ from the get go, without explaining to them what it means, knowing that they’re most likely from a Christian background, then you’ve lost them,” chuckles Nomzamo. The sisters also remove the jargon barrier that comes with practicing yoga by facilitating the programmes in isiZulu.

The Mji sisters are targeting primary school learners to normalise the practice of yoga from a young age. Their method is to introduce the children to yoga concepts through games and playing. For example, one of the ways the children are introduced to the concept of breath work is by making them breathe through a straw. 

The house mothers at the children’s village each care for between six to eight children. So Nomzamo and Nosizwe designed a programme to give them the tools to check in with themselves regularly while working a demanding job. To actualise this, sessions with house mothers entailed simple motions such as neck rolls and shoulder rotations, in addition to breathwork and ending with “extra long” savasanas — a practice of gradually relaxing the body and mind while lying down. 

After being immersed in the yoga community for more than a decade, it was important for the Mji sisters to establish and use their practice to address the ways in which they saw yoga fall short. “We want everyone to feel seen and heard. If you feel invisible in a space that you frequent, it’s not a conducive environment for the vulnerability that you need when you want to get in touch with your body, mind and spirit,” Nomzamo says. That isn’t something that should be reserved for certain people, it should be afforded to everyone.” 

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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