NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Since 2016, the Souljourn Yoga Foundation has raised awareness and resources for women’s education in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) around the world. Executive Director and Founder Jordan Ashley recently spoke with The Borgen Project about how the organization uses yoga to promote women’s poverty reduction globally.
In her interview with The Borgen Project, Ashley indicated that people often forget about yogic philosophy beyond the physical practice. Ashley spoke about how her main goal was to allow yoga “to be a conduit for providing educational funding and support for girls education initiatives” when she first created the organization. Ashley also explained that service and the act of giving back can be just as important as doing the right pose or meditation practice.
The Souljourn Yoga Foundation engages with each of those aspects of the holistic yoga practice. The organization leads week-long retreats in locations where the members work with a partner organization on the ground. The retreats include yoga classes and guided meditations while participants also directly engage with the organizations the members are working with through various exchanges of skills and culture. The fee for attending a Souljourn Yoga retreat includes a $300-$500 tax-deductible donation to the partner organization. The retreat provides “an experience to actually see where your money’s going,” according to Jordan Ashley. In an August 2021 interview, Ashley notified The Borgen Project that the direct engagement with an organization’s work amplifies the connection between the donor and the recipient, and it removes the typical hierarchical structure. Instead, the yoga retreats become a shared experience for attendees and the local women with whom the Souljourn foundation engages.
Souljourn Yoga’s Partner Organizations
Souljourn Yoga partners with organizations that prioritize women and girls’ education. In a 2017 TEDx Talk, Jordan Ashley articulated the value of education. Ashley explains that it “is something that cannot be taken away, undone, or untaught. It is a personal asset that creates choices and opportunities and a better quality of life.” In our interview, Ashley asserted that support for secondary education is vital to ensuring that girls who want to graduate and pursue a career have the opportunity to do so. In terms of women’s poverty reduction, what better method is there than giving girls the opportunity to build a foundation upon which the members can better themselves and their communities?
The retreats offered by Souljourn Yoga provide various opportunities to explore global women’s educational initiatives. For example, on the Education for All Morocco (EFA) retreats, attendees find themselves in the High Atlas Mountains engaging with the brightest young girls from remote Berber communities. EFA works to provide education to girls from communities that lack educational opportunities otherwise. Souljourn Yoga Foundation believes that working with organizations related to the EFA creates a richer retreat experience for everyone involved.
Another Souljurn Yoga foundation partner organization is the Ponheary Ly Foundation in the Siem Reap province of Cambodia. Ashley spoke very highly of Ponheary Ly, who worked to bring education back to the Cambodian people after a particularly dark time in Cambodia’s history. As a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, Ponheary Ly now provides education for 3,000 students in her province. Ly also provides housing and food accommodations for many of the students who could not pursue an education otherwise. On a Souljourn Yoga retreat to Cambodia, attendees would get to spend time with the schoolchildren on site, and the members practice yoga and other mindfulness techniques together.
Benefits Beyond the Donations
One of the things made clear on the retreats is that no matter where Souljourn visits, it is a privilege to be able to practice yoga in any of its forms. By bringing yoga into low- and middle-income parts of the world, Ashley has seen firsthand that “if your safety and your sustenance are in jeopardy, you’re not going to [sit and meditate for five minutes], let alone get into downward facing dog.” Souljourn Yoga creates a balance between the yoga retreat experience and attendees’ contribution to their partner organization.
As their next step toward women’s poverty reduction, Souljourn Yoga started their On the Ground teacher training in Rwanda in 2019 in partnership with the organization Komera. For this teaching program, Souljourn Yoga created its own teaching curriculum, which focuses on four parts of yoga:
- Body — the physical movement
- Mind — growing and healing through meditation
- Breath — pranayama breathing control
- Heart — self-care
Beyond the benefits of the four yogic aspects above, Souljourn Yoga wants their teacher training to be financially empowering. The On the Ground teaching workshops give local women the skills and experience to teach yoga classes in their communities.
When Souljourn Yoga adapted their On the Ground teacher training to fit their Moroccan partner, EFA, it became an opportunity to create cyclic empowerment around the organization. After a two-day workshop, local women within EFA were equipped with the skills to teach an entire yoga class. The newly trained yoga instructors will teach classes that generate an income for themselves and to give back to EFA. This will empower more girls and women.
Ashley shared her excitement about bringing the teacher training to other partner organizations and locations in the future. Souljourn Yoga retreats offer funding and service to women’s educational initiatives. And, now the members are actively creating opportunities for women in LMICs to make a living. Who knew yoga could be a poverty reduction tool for women? Due to COVID-19, this year’s planned retreats have been moved to 2022. The Souljourn Yoga community is excited to get back on the mats and into the world soon.
– Hayley Welch