A Conversation with Souljourn Yoga Founder, Jordan Ashley
Photography by: Aliza Heiligman
Shakti: Tell us about the road to establishing a yoga foundation! What steps led up to your involvement in non-profit work?
Souljourn Yoga: The seeds were planted in January of 2009 when I was 20 years old and did a study-abroad program in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I found it extremely empowering and rewarding to teach English and spend time bonding with female students who, being that they were born with an XX chromosome, are given very few choices in the path of life. I returned post-college and worked as a reporter for The Phnom Penh Post where I focused on NGO (non-governmental organization) coverage and saw firsthand how corrupt and poorly run many organizations are.
After finishing my 500-hour RYTT (registered yoga teacher training,) I became disenchanted with the cosmopolitan yoga scene being that it is extremely “selfie” oriented instead of “selfless.” Not to mention, these so-called luxury yoga retreats in developing countries that do nothing to support the local economy or encourage any interaction with the people accommodating them was reminiscent of Siddhartha beyond the palace walls.
The combination of conscious travel, a focus on female empowerment, and blending a physical yoga practice with taking action off the mat inspired me to create a nonprofit. We received our 501(c) 3 non-profit status in August 2015 and then officially launched in January of 2016, and it has been flying ever since!
Shakti: What are Souljourn’s Yoga retreats like? How do they tie into Seva?
Souljourn Yoga: Seva, the Sanskrit word for ‘giving back’, is the theme of every retreat no matter what corner of the globe we are exploring. The idea is to give back to yourself by going on a yoga retreat and experiencing a rich, cultural immersion, but also by helping local girls who so desperately need to access education to improve their quality of life. We have partnered up with “sister organizations” on the ground. And our retreats and the events leading up to our departure date are dedicated to raising funds and awareness for them.
Included in the tuition to attend a Seva Retreat is between a $300-500 tax-deductible donation that goes directly to our sister organization, and we as our own organization try to match it through donation yoga classes and wellness events. Plus, we take time to volunteer and spend time with the girls whom we are supporting, which actually ends up being everyone’s favorite part of the retreat.
Shakti: What do you look for when choosing countries for your retreat destinations? Is there a common denominator?
Souljourn Yoga: We choose countries that offer a magical, wanderlust quality of exploration, but that are also safe for travelers/Westerners to go to. Souljourn Yoga strives to make each retreat unique in that we highlight and juxtapose the natural beauty with the gender inequalities and inadequacies. The experience shows the light and shadows of the girls’ organizations that we visit and work with. Our hopes are that the light we bring illuminates these girls so much, the participants return home wanting to share and talk about their “Souljourn”.
Shakti: Are there certain precautions you need to take?
Souljourn Yoga: We are very mindful to be culturally sensitive and respectful when visiting the girls. We leave our bikinis and bling at our hotels and always dress modestly when interacting with these amazing young women. Even more attention is required when visiting religious or holy sites (having shoulders covered in a temple, not extending one’s feet/legs directly towards the Buddha), but these are all things that we mention in our itinerary and packing list so that everyone feels well prepared and comfortable before even setting foot on the plane.
Shakti: Thinking back to the trips SoulJourn Yoga has hosted in the past, can you share a success story or a heart-warming experience you shared as a group?
Souljourn Yoga: In June of 2016, we went to Peru and worked with the Sacred Valley Project, an organization that houses, educates, and supports girls in this remote area who would otherwise would have no access to education. Everyone was so excited to spend time at Sacred Valley. We brought them supplies – from sanitary napkins to pens.
What was so beautiful about the experience was that it brought out the little girl in all of our participants, who were aged 18-53. I couldn’t even recall the last time I had jumped rope or played tag, let alone did a braid train, but age became irrelevant as we spent the afternoon playing, laughing, and just being girls with one another. The money we raised just from hosting the trip contributed to building a new dormitory for the girls.
Shakti: What are the kinds of projects that Souljourn Yoga supports in the world right now? Can you give us one particular example?
Souljourn Yoga: Currently, we work with organizations in developing countries that have a focus on girls’ education or female empowerment. We work in a two-tier system in that we not only lead yoga retreats, but are currently in the process of setting up local projects for the resident women and girls to be a part of, that will hopefully become integrated in their daily lives.
We are launching a reusable sanitary napkin and wellness enterprise in Malawi, as menstruation is the number-one cause of girls not finishing their secondary education. Our hopes are that the sanitary napkin project will create income for the women, more attendance for higher education, fill a void clearly not being met (as banana leaves are not a sufficient form of period protection,) and also teach the girls entering secondary education about health, wellness. By improving their self-esteem, our goal is to inspire more females to become teachers in the area.
Shakti: What are the most important and impactful changes yogis can make in their everyday lives to affect the world at large?
Souljourn Yoga: Gratitude is an imperative part of the yoga practice that often gets left out. As women we must remember how important it is not take the yoga practice for granted. Being able to showing up in spandex with the freedom to move openly without judgment or shame is a blessing if there ever was one, let alone going anywhere alone without needing permission or a chaperone. It’s even more humbling when we realize that so many women around the world lack the opportunity just to operate and have control over their own bodies.
A yogi who has traveled and seen human injustices, be it in a foreign land or in their own neighborhood, realizes what really matters in the grand scheme of life. Trying to do one selfless or good deed a day without needing acknowledgement or recognition is more impressive to me than any inversion, party trick, or number of followers on Instagram.