Transforming Lives in Cambodia
To introduce yoga to Cambodia.
I met Isabelle through a mutual friend. She was introduced to me as a law student who had spent the last ten years in Cambodia, setting up and running a Non-Government Organisation (NGO).
The NGO is Krama Yoga. Isabelle describes it as a school that uses yoga to facilitate a transformation of self-image for young people in Cambodia who have survived destructive social prejudice and extensive abuse. There are two elements to the school, Krama Yoga is the registered legal entity that encapsulates Nataraj Yoga. The latter is a studio that offers 2-6 public classes per day and also hosts international teachers, teacher trainers and alternative therapists. Nataraj brings in funds that support the NGO (along with private donations), provides employment for Cambodian and expat teachers and opportunities for the teachers who have “grown up” under the instruction of Isabelle to learn from master teachers who come for visits.
Unbelievably, Isabelle was 24 years old before she tried her first class of yoga. Originally from Canada, she was in Thailand at the time and her first class was transformative. She began to practice at a local studio several times per week and it soon played an integral role her life. She didn’t begin teaching until a year later when living in Cambodia, which at that time did not have a yoga school.
The following is an extract of a conversation that I had with Isabelle about her experiences from that point on.
I wanted a yoga community so I started teaching classes. The expat population of Cambodia was small in 2004 and the country was still fairly unstable and underdeveloped. The streets were not paved, there were no traffic lights but plenty of guns and a general air of lawlessness prevailed. There were not many tourists in Phnomh Penh, but a steady population of development workers who needed something to do besides drink in their off hours—people who had strong hearts and minds, and needed a nurturing and safe environment they could come to release the pressures of their work life.
It made sense to open a yoga studio. Being all of 24, having no money or business experience I started small. I rented a little villa at $450 USD per month, brought in some yoga mats and painted the walls, and opened Cambodia’s first yoga studio.
I was a kid looking for an adventure. I wanted to be in Cambodia because the country seemed mysterious and adventurous. I wanted to see the layers of Cambodian society and understand its rhythms and logic. I wanted to know more about how Cambodia worked than what I would find as a tourist, and I also wanted to learn about my own capacity to build something out of nothing. So I started a business which evolved into a community.
What were those early days like? How did that business lead into Krama Yoga?
The clientele were almost entirely expats. To access Cambodians I had to bring the classes to them. I started giving volunteer classes at Arts NGOs that employed dancers and acrobats—people who would like the artistry and physicality of yoga. Eventually, as I accumulated more experience and eventually proper yoga therapy certification, I began outreach classes at aftercare NGOs for teenage girls who had been victims of human trafficking and exploitation.
I wanted to see how far yoga would go. I invited five girls from one of the after-care centres, as well as a couple other young people from NGO classes, to join me in a full-time yoga immersion. The program was a combination of yoga training, lifeskills, vocational training, and trauma therapy, as well as professional conduct, self-confidence and ethics. We worked together for eight hours a day six days a week. The goal was to enable a shift in self-image, so they could stop seeing themselves as passive victims of their environment and of their own minds and impulses, and learn to feel themselves as adults in control of their lives.
Through Krama Yoga they became teachers and active participants in the broader yoga community. They are now the major breadwinners of their families, they are supporting their little brothers and sisters to live and go to school, and are beloved by their students and respected by their community. They are powerful people now with clear visions of the positive change they want to see in the lives of Cambodians, and the confidence to know that they can facilitate those changes.
In addition to outreach classes, public classes in our studio and in gyms around town, and a new teacher training program for the second generation of Cambodian yoga teachers, the NGO now offers trauma-sensitive yoga for young women who have survived sex trafficking and are now living in a residential aftercare centre, receiving top quality education, vocational skills training and therapy.
You are currently a candidate for the Juris Doctor at the University of Melbourne in Australia. What are your plans for the future?
I will always return to Cambodia, it is a spiritual home to me. But I want my Law degree to take me to other parts of the world. I am interested to see how other post-conflict countries in Asia, and also in Africa, have rebuilt their social institutions—justice systems, government, if they have a Constitution—and see how I might participate in their projects of political transformation.
It seems like a world away from teaching yoga. Is it your first love?
I love the relationships that I build with my students that are based on deep trust, authenticity and love. I want my students to learn what I learned—that everyone is beautiful and powerful inside, and if you can tap into that strength then you can do everything you want in life.
Kristin Winstanley, Jennifer Parsons, Isabelle Skaburskis