“If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” We got struck by these words when we entered the compound of Azahar Foundation in Phnom Penh. These words were written in slender letters just before the entrance of the yoga studio, but the words’ impact was huge.
Yoga has been time and again proven to improve not just the physical wellbeing of a person but also one’s mental and spiritual health. It has been practiced by millions of people around the world – and everyone can attest to the positive effects of the discipline.
At Azahar Foundation – an international not-for-profit organisation that promotes peace building and cross-cultural communication – yoga is being used as the main tool towards youth empowerment, non-violent communication, leadership and personal development.
It was in 2006 when the foundation’s founder, Yogeswari, visited Cambodia and held her first yoga classes at Kieng Kleing Orphanage. Since then, Yogeswari continued teaching yoga to orphans. In 2015, the foundation launched the Peace Programme for disadvantaged young people. After completing a one full year of classes and trainings, the students then go for a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training which will eventually enable them to teach and share yoga techniques to other people.
The Peace Programme involves yoga, arts, leadership, psychology, theater and communication classes every weekend. Students are supported by facilitators and colleagues to assimilate new visions about life while also processing their traumatic experiences in the past. With the help of yoga and meditation, they will be more encouraged to listen to their inner voices and discover who they really are from within.
“With yoga, students will learn how to create balance in their own body and mind. This means that they can improve their awareness on their inner selves and on their environment, and stay healthy and positive in life. Here at the center, we help them build their physical, mental and moral strengths as we believe that they need this in order to communicate better with themselves and with other people,” said Khun Raty, a yoga teacher at the foundation, who was also part of the first batch of the Yoga Teacher Training.
Raty emphasised that Cambodian youths should try doing yoga at least once as it will give them an outlet to release stress, fatigue and other negative emotions they have bottled up inside them.
“We live in a diverse world. It is undeniable that our surroundings can affect us. But if a person practices yoga, he can balance himself and not be influenced by the outside forces. He will know who he is and he will know what he really wants. Because of that, he won’t get affected by what other people say.”
The Peace Programme culminates with an internship at an external organisation where students can further enhance their learning, before becoming illegible to join the training for aspiring yoga teachers.
“After the whole Peace Programme, these young kids will be more confident, more aware and stronger. They also become more balanced emotionally. Aside from the fact that they will also become more physically flexible and strong.”
Vath Soveth, the foundation’s communication manager, said since the Peace Programme is offered to young Cambodians for free, it is their daily “Yoga for All” classes that finance their programme for the youth.
“We take the money from those classes because we want to sustain our programmes. From the funds we get, we provide the peace programme, yoga training in far-flung villages and also as support to our yoga teachers who travel to spread the discipline,” said Soveth.
Azahar Foundation conducts classes from Monday to Sunday, 6:15 am to 7:45 pm. Each class teaches different techniques – vinyasa flow, fly fit, hip hop dance, active meditation, sound and energy healing and ancient Khmer fighting. All the teachers were trained at the foundation.
Aside from the Peace Programme and classes, the foundation also conducts yoga and meditation sessions for factory workers in different parts of Phnom Penh. The classes are especially tailored for workers who take in too much stress and body pains from hours of standing and working.
“During weekdays teachers take turns in doing yoga with factory workers. We collaborate with an organisation that finances such sessions. We bring workers from different factories to join our classes. From the very first time I held such class, I’ve seen the changes in them. They have become healthier and happier. When they leave their yoga mats, I see that they’ve become more positive about their work and their lives,” shared Raty.
Azahar Foundation was established with the primary purpose of giving support to people traumatised by wars, conflicts and violence – the very reason its founder came to Cambodia. But with Cambodian’s resilience after the Khmer Rouge regime, the foundation also shifted its focus on helping people be at peace with their current lives in this present time. Tangible proofs of the brutality during Year Zero have started to fade, but daily stress and troubles among students, workers and people in general are strikingly apparent.
“Through yoga, we can all free ourselves from stress and pain, and become more emotionally stable. We can attest how yoga changed how we perceive life and our own selves. We have become happier people. It has really helped us. Many people think that this is boring and useless. But so far, yoga gave us only positive effects. And it is our objective to share these outcomes to other people,” Soveth and Raty both agreed.
The foundation, which also helps people in Rwanda and Ivory Coast, aims to gather more locals – young and old – to try yoga and be happier and healthier versions of themselves.