By Kim Boucher Morin
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
Empowerment and community building are not generally the first associations people make with the word yoga, yet they are undeniable outcomes of the activity.
Isabelle Skaburskis established Nataraj Yoga Studio in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2004. This studio grew into an NGO called Krama Yoga, which supports personal transformation and empowerment through yoga. The organization has four core programs: (1) The Kids Yoga Program, which uses games to teach healthy living, empathy and self-respect; (2) The Bodysmart Lifeskills Program, which gives young adults from under-privileged backgrounds the skills to become yoga teachers; (3) The Yoga Therapy Program, which offers trauma-sensitive classes to young women who are human trafficking survivors; and (4) the Nataraj Studio, which enables graduates of the Bodysmart program to put their skills into practice.
Not only has this organisation succeeded in fostering individual strength and agency, but it is now home to a united community of staff, teachers, students and partners all with a common vision: to build a peaceful society through positive relationships and mindful living.
When asked why she decided to found a yoga NGO in Cambodia, Isabelle emphasized two elements: “need and opportunity”. Having suffered through a horrific genocide in the 1970s, the country still faces significant intergenerational trauma. According to a 2004 study by the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization of Cambodia, 81% of Cambodians have experienced violence, while 28.4% suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and 40% from anxiety disorders. Isabelle recalled witnessing notable distrust among Cambodians, leaving them isolated from one another. But having experienced the healing power of yoga in her personal life, Isabelle was convinced that it could help others overcome the burdens of the past.
Isabelle began the Bodysmart Program with 7 individuals, each with “horrifying life stories,” with the hope that a supportive environment could help alleviate their suffering. To Isabelle, “Yoga practice and philosophy provides both a vocational skill and a set of resources for young people to manage physical and emotional wounds.” In her article, A Question of Compassion, she recounts how the compassion she worked tirelessly to express ultimately became a source of trauma of her own. She became “helplessly fixated on suffering” and “furious at the world”. But through teaching her students, Isabelle came to view the act of being compassionate not as an attempt to heal others, or take on their pain; but rather as having a willingness and ability to see others on their own terms.
As a result of the journey Isabelle undertook with her 7 students, Cambodia now has its very first generation of Cambodian yoga teachers. When I asked her what was the most gratifying part of her experience, she responded without hesitation: “Seeing who these students are now, and what they are doing with their lives.” They are strong leaders in their communities who now believe they have something valuable to contribute.
Isabelle’s philosophy here also applies to the organization’s management. She believes the best way to foster community within a business is not to impose a “cookie-cutter” approach, but rather to allow employees to be full human beings and accept their limitations. “You can’t see your employees as the means to an end, you have to see the organization as the means to an end,” she said.
The success of Isabelle’s methods is undeniable: the organization is flourishing and run now by the first generation of Cambodian students who completed the program.
If you would like to support Krama Yoga, I encourage you to visit: http://www.yogacambodia.com/get-involved/donate.