We have no idea when someone steps onto a yoga mat what experiences led them up to where they are at that very moment. Most people come to the yoga practice because they want to fix something, even if it’s physical. But, it’s in the subtlety, the way the breath syncs with the shapes that we get to witness these moments of bliss. It has been through yoga - this idea of “union,” that we can begin to create balance and harmony from the inside out.
Like so many women, my sense of self hadn’t been nurtured. I had to learn to nourish myself and try very hard to fill the void that I felt on a daily basis. So, I got my yoga mat and started going to classes every day, if not twice a day, just to reclaim and move expressively without consequence of where it would take me. The shapes and poses, along with this idea of being able to connect your breath to body, mind, and spirit is something I needed. I could be anonymous on my yoga mat and stay protected and safe within the confines of the 2 x 6 perimeter - to just be without expectations. My body could be mine and mine alone. Along the way, my self-confidence started to rebuild. Teaching seemed like a natural next step, to be able to share and give gravitas to the practice, the life journey of what helped to rebuild my internal architecture.
As much as we yearn to only stay in the light, resonate with feelings that incur positivity, be it joy, peace, serenity, or even content, this realistically is only half of the human landscape. We have a whole other part of ourselves, our darkness that equate to anger, isolation, fear, anxiety, and sadness. In recognizing what it means to be “mentally healthy” means inviting both the light and the dark in. Both are equally valid and need their own space to dwell. What the yoga practice does encourage is embracing the present; not how you were yesterday or how you will feel tomorrow, but how you are right here, right now.
There’s a saying from Yoga Sutras of Ptanjali, which essentially is an outline breaking down the 8-limbs of yoga, that says atha yoga anushasanam meaning “now the practice begins”. What's so beautiful and impactful about this is that the idea of yoga or "union" can always restart. Hitting the reset button becomes obtainable because a moment is never too late, or gone in the day where you can't reconnect and begin anew. It's easy to get swept up in the regrets from the past or anxiety in the future, which serves no one. We are constantly growing and evolving, progressing and regressing, and it's what make our humanity, well, human, in that there isn't always a “right” or a “perfect”. Life is full of moments; good, bad, ugly, beautiful, joyful, angry, sorrowful, etc. that makes us who we are. To forgo all of that would be a denial of our wonderful humanness. It's when we connect our mind, to our body, to our breath, that the real yoga begins.
When we are guided to repeat the same shapes, poses, and essentially the ritual of mindful movement, things begin to shift from the mat into our daily lives. The physical practice of yoga, or asana, encourages us to challenge our physical limitations or find our edge and breathe through the discomfort, awkwardness, or even fear (such as inversions or arm balances). It’s a humbling practice as we are asked to try movements or breathing techniques, even meditating which can be jarring. So much of our existence is about distraction be it work, family obligations, binge watching tv shows, or even romantic relationships. While all of these are intrinsic to our modern existences, what yoga does is ask us to shift our priorities. Is this friendship serving me? Is my chosen career path fulfilling me? Questions that usually we might dismiss come up, and it’s through this quest, this curiosity of examining our deeper truths versus our perceived reality, that we begin to make choices from a grounded and heartfelt place.
Some teachers believe that the poses that are most challenging, be it physically or mentally, are the ones we should be doing on a more regular basis. From an esoteric view point, if someone has resistance doing backbends like bridge or wheel, then there could be unresolved issues from the past (literally going backwards) or fear of vulnerability as your heart is exposed. The same could be said on forward folds or hip openers, that there is anxiety about the future as your head is moving away from your heart. This kind of analysis can benefit not only our interpersonal relationships, but the relationship with ourselves in creating a more connected and authentic dialogue.
It is when yoga is taken out of the studio and into the world that the greatest shift in consciousness occurs because we have the opportunity to realize and see through first-hand experience that we are, in fact, all one. I was determined to make a platform in which yoga could be used for social activism, taking the physical, personal practice out of the studio and across the globe to communities and to women who needed the lifeline of education to open up the possibilities of choice, freewill, and, hopefully, one day, equality. It was at this point where the non-profit Souljourn Yoga Foundation was born, which organizations yoga retreats/workshops in developing countries in an effort to raise awareness and funds for girls education.
Winning the lottery of life by not having to second guess where our next meal will come from, or where we will be sleeping, makes it our global responsibility to use our voice and make sure that these girls are heard. While starting Souljourn Yoga Foundation allowed my soul purpose to manifest into something concrete, I oftentimes have to remember that it was in the moments of feeling utterly alone that allowed me to develop compassion and empathy. Souljourn Yoga Foundation provides the opportunity to make an impact, not only through money and time, but also through priceless personal connections. Participants are involved in something greater than just perfecting their “downward dog,” but also aid in putting a spotlight on real, and important issues around the world. With more than 66 million girls out of school globally, Souljourn Yoga Foundation is constantly working to help change that statistic. With over 12 retreats under our belt and raising over $33,000 for our sister organizations around the world, this is only the beginning of using yoga for social activism. There will always be women in big cities who feel isolated, or girls in small villages that feel powerless and anxiety-ridden, but it’s when we are able to find human connection that the stars in our own constellations burn the brightest.
While embracing New York City’s fast-paced and driven yoga culture, Jordan Ashley recognized a need for service-based yoga; a need for experiences which give perspective to the self through selflessness. Feeling extremely blessed to not only be given the opportunity for education, but to have a voice in society, she felt it was imperative to raise both awareness and funds for girls all over the planet who are denied such essential human rights.