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Stretching for success

Youngsters from Kien Khleang orphanage learning yoga at NataRaj studio.

The small room is filled with teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 17, yet the usual cacophony associated with such a grouping is entirely absent. Instead, the whir of the ceiling fans is the loudest noise to be found as these 12 youngsters take the first steps towards mastering yoga. Instructions from the teacher occasionally punctuate the tranquillity but, as one would expect, they are also delivered in measured tones.

This is NataRaj yoga studio and today is one of the many occasions that it is working alongside Krama Yoga to host classes for disadvantaged young people. Krama Yoga is a Cambodian-run NGO established in 2008 with the aim of promoting yoga skills and values to these youths.

Alison Hawkins, Krama Yoga’s principle instructor, says the founder of the organisation, Isabelle Skabruskis, wanted to introduce young people to yoga because they are more open to new concepts and change.

“The idea is that we educate children not just in the physical sides of yoga but also the values. We hope they will then grow up and take these on, before bringing up their own children with the same values,” she explains.

Yan Vannac, director of Krama Yoga, adds that he has seen yoga make a positive impact in young people’s lives. He feels that the values Hawkins espouses can provide a solid base for these children to work from. “Yoga is about loving your friends, loving yourself and loving your family,” he says. “Yoga is about saying good things to your friends and saying good things for yourself.” 

According to Hawkins, Skabruskis views yoga almost as a form of therapy and started the program after talking to Transitions Global, an NGO which helps build new lives for survivors of sex trafficking. Skabruskis saw yoga as a way to empower some of these girls who felt disconnected from their bodies.

“She wants to train some of them to be yoga teachers so that they can communicate in their own language and share with people who have had the same experience,” Hawkins says.

To this end, intensive yoga teacher training begun and ultimately resulted in six young Cambodian yoga teachers after a two-year apprenticeship. These young trailblazers have since been teaching yoga to up to 250 underprivileged youths from organisations such as Transitions Global, the Azahar Foundation, Indochina Starfish Foundation, the Aziza Schoolhouse, the Riverkids Foundation and the Cambodian Kids Foundation.

During a break from class, Lun Piseth, 23, one of the six Cambodian yoga teachers and also Krama Yoga’s project manager, says that he never imagined he would become a yoga teacher when he joined NataRaj as a groundskeeper. Now he is proud to be helping others discover concentration, peace and happiness through yoga.

“Before I came here, as a teenager I did things like skipping school, hanging out with girls, and taking money from my family and spending it on unimportant things. But when I came here I had to work, I had to understand the job. After studying yoga, I understand how important life is and I have to work, save money and do something good.”

En Dara, 22, was living at Kien Khleang orphanage and she first joined NataRaj as a receptionist in 2007. She also threw herself into her studies, attending a local high school, taking extra English and computer classes, as well as learning to teach yoga. She graduated high school in July 2010 and credits yoga with helping her stay unstressed during her studies.

“Since I have been brought here, I’ve benefited from yoga and it helped me a lot,” she says. “It helped make my body stronger and helps me focus very well when I study.” She now hopes the healthy mind which yoga helped her achieve will aid her at university.

With the first batch of yoga teachers fully trained and mentally focused, Yan Vannac is already formulating the next step. Krama Yoga is developing a project which aims to have 10 to 12 children, all of whom are already attending yoga classes, focus even more on the world of yoga and the teaching of it.

“This course will go deeper and include yoga philosophy, yoga anatomy and asana practice,” explains Yan Vannac. “At the end of the two-year program maybe we can choose four or five people who are really interested in yoga and we can keep sponsoring them and help them to become real teachers.”

Hawkins adds that while some students will move onto yoga teacher training, others will not. Yet even the latter will have learnt skills such as time-keeping, budgeting wages and how to present oneself through their yoga classes: all skills which could help them find employment with NGOs or other private companies.

“The underprivileged face a lot of problems,” Hawkins says. “Even if our junior teachers don’t want to continue and become yoga teachers, they will have [more chance of being] employed by somebody else as they’ve learned many important life skills.”



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