It all began with her hometown Pristina. In 2013, Annea Hapçiu founded a yoga studio in Pristina, the first of its kind, as a way to introduce an alternative healing practice to the people of Kosovo who had not had access to such discipline before. Through N'Yoga, Annea aimed to teach yoga as a complementary activity to the everyday life of Kosovars as well as remove stereotypes related to the discipline. In this quest to redefine yoga, Annea began documenting her travels around Kosovo and Albania in an online blog where she would post stories and yoga poses inspired by the landmarks she visited. Eleven places turned into eleven stories. After eight years of adventures, travel, and diligent work, these stories have finally found a home in a book titled "Yoga in Albanian Lands" - a brilliant depiction of our favorite towns seen through the lens of a yogini.
In a virtual conversation with Annea, she revealed how practicing yoga led her to this fortuitous artistic journey around Kosovo and Albania and culminated in a published book. She credits her friends for insisting she opens N'Yoga, initially as a teaching space for them and a sanctuary to practice yoga herself. Within a short time, more people were intrigued by the discipline and started joining her classes. Her biggest concern at the time – how to introduce yoga in a way that was accepted and understood by everyone?
After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, Annea witnessed how the nation struggled with self-expression and identity, and she thought that yoga would serve 'as a good way to find our own voices.' After all, she believed that it had helped her find her purpose, and she was adamant that it would help many people do the same. When she began taking pictures of yoga poses in front of architectural landmarks, she sought to express the connection of yoga with nature, rituals, art, spirituality and demonstrate the similarities of cultures and human experiences. She admits that at the time, she was not aware of where this pursuit would lead; she was only nurturing her passion for yoga by showcasing it in a unique way. However, in 2015, after she commenced her graduate studies at the American University through KAEF, she signed up for a photography class and learned of 'Conceptual Photography,' a type of photography that involves illustrating an idea or concept before the photo takes place. For the first time, Annea could see how her project could go beyond conceptual photography.
'Yoga in Albanian Lands' is a Travel & Arts book. The book does not recommend restaurants or hotels, nor has it been sponsored by a private company. "This book has been done out of love" - Annea often likes to say, as for her the most important thing was the artistic value that the book brought. The book has three components: the stories of the towns, the photos of yoga poses, and the captions underneath the photos, which connect the stories with the yoga poses. The stories, rich in historical information, capture brilliantly the souls of the cities and what they stand for, attesting to Annea's storytelling powers.
In the beginning, she only wanted to write one story for Pristina, her "heart," as she calls it, but as her audience grew, she expanded her project to the main towns of Kosovo. She chose these places because of the cultural heritage they represented, as she sought to highlight their architectural treasures with yoga poses. She felt that her artistry "brought something new; it brought a positive alternative to the way we see and feel for our cities and towns." Her now-husband Rilind encouraged her to expand her project to Albania and put these stories in a blog so that they would not be lost in the endless void of the internet. However, the project did not come without its challenges.
She explained that one of the reasons why the project took eight years to complete was due to many cultural landmarks such as Artana in Novoberda or the Idromeno Street in Shkodra being under renovation. Because she wanted to keep her work authentic, she chose the cities in a way where each story would have its own voice and differ from the other.
Another challenge she faced was drafting the stories. She points out that the book is 'heavily research- based,' and most of the difficulties arose from the limited data. "I would read as much as I could about the city or the town that we chose to write about, the local authors and the artists, the value that the city brought and whatever it stood for the people and the society there, and then we would go to the place."
She also relied on friends, family, and locals to receive the information needed for the stories. "We wish we had more resources to do more in-depth interviews with people. I wanted these stories to represent the soul of each city," she further adds.
As she vividly brings the stories behind the cities to life, the yoga poses represent the connection between the discipline and the identities of the cities. For her, the process of choosing these yoga poses stems from her feelings. She claims that she always chooses the yoga pose upon reaching the place; it's just how she works! However, oftentimes the places she visits are in such poor conditions that she has to alter her poses. "We tried to keep the poses as varied as possible" - she adds, "but also, in certain places we did, for example, the dancer pose, the tree pose, or a bridge pose many times because that's what the place stands for, and that's the representation that connects and reveals yoga in that place too."Performing the poses has brought a lot of memorable stories. She recalls a minor incident that occurred while shooting on top of a bunker near Gjipe Beach for her Albanian Riviera article. As she bent into a wheel pose on top of a muddy, burning hot bunker, her husband Rilind slips down on the rocky mountain while taking her pictures. "Suddenly, I see Rilind disappear; he was taking the photo, and he just slipped down. I was like, there we are, this positive project might be the end of Rilind. That was one of the scariest things we did during the project; we laugh about it now, and we are glad no one got hurt."
While performing a yoga pose on top of a bunker might not be everyone's bed of roses, Annea feels comfortable being uncomfortable. Her years as an undergraduate at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, coupled with her graduate experience through the KAEF scholarship at the American University in DC, gave her the confidence to raise her voice for many issues and feel comfortable being seen as a foreigner. Although she had a great team on her side, she remembers how difficult it was to begin the project. "Initially, it took some guts to go out, expose yourself, and do yoga poses in the middle of the cities. People did not refrain from catcalling you or just saying anything that came to their minds, just because it was so unusual." KAEF's support for artistic expression and its investment in students also contributed tremendously to expanding the project. The media classes she took during her time at AU and the yoga certification she received with the money saved from her stipend made her understand more about the practice and better integrate the poses.
Although this project is not directly related to Social Entrepreneurship, her field of specialization, she believes it will create similar positive benefits, whether through more yoga studios being opened from her previous clients or tourism promotion from her book. Above all, she hopes that 'Yoga in Albanian Lands' can be a friend to its readers and a fun addition to their collection of books. "We saw this book for the youth of Kosovo and Albania that might be struggling in the way that they see their cities and countries and see that something beautiful can be created from these places. For the diaspora, we thought that it would be a great addition to their coffee table books or just a good souvenir from which they can feel closer to home, or that they can read it to their kids, or that their kids can learn Albanian or sustain their language skills from this book."
As the book is finally out in the bookstores, Annea is looking forward to commencing new projects. She disclosed that there are no imminent book plans; however, with the recent move to the United States, she is looking forward to being a foreigner again and inspired to create something unique and artistic.