Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Running (with) a Studio

The question I am asked most often is, “so, did you come to Cambodia to start a yoga studio?” And the answer is simple: no. The fact is, this studio was here already like a seed in winter soil (or possibly an airborne bacteria) and just needed a body to make itself grow; it picked me—I’m not entirely sure why: I had only been practicing yoga for one year (although, I confess here and now, I lied about that at the time to gain people’s confidence. Sorry guys, it is not a proud moment in my yoga history), I had no business experience, and had only been in Cambodia for two months and had maybe two friends in town, let alone contacts and resources to help me out. But, fate’s logic is often elusive, and looking back, it seems to have worked out. I have been a good host, learning from my guest as we have gone along.

The whole process of building NataRaj from classes at Le Royal, to our little den on street 21, to our open-aired and verdant haven on street 302, has been an adventure. In my mind’s eye, I see the business striding along in bold steps, motivated by our community’s enthusiasm and support, and I am the short-legged child being pulled along by the hand, running to keep up. I have no idea where we are going, but it must be somewhere important, and we seem to be in a terrible rush! The corners and turn-arounds take me by surprise, but the most exciting thing is all the people we meet on the way.

As of August 11, we will have been running along hand in hand for 4 years, and like a snowball down a mountain, we have been gathering people, support, resources and dimensions as we go. I have been ready to leave Cambodia for about two years now, and have had opportunities to do other things in other parts of the world, and god knows, my parents wouldn’t be sad to have me nearer for a while; but the studio wasn’t finished. My hand is losing circulation, my arm is about to pop out of its socket and my legs are wondering how much farther we still have to go, but I must say, I do enjoy the journey. I also feel, though, that things are about to change: a looming edge is in sight, as wide as the horizon, and we are running at it full tilt, preparing to launch ourselves over. We will discover over the next few months if we have wings or not.

Since its beginning, the studio’s stride has only been growing; starting with baby steps from class to class hoping to have enough students to cover the $400 a month rent; now a single stride takes up 30 classes a week, 3-5 teachers (or more like 10-15 if we include all the ones involved by email with plans or hopes to come), yoga therapy, community outreach and, increasingly, teacher training and professional development for promising young students. Yogis from all over the world come through, some of whom are quite influential teachers and studio directors, and all see something in this place that is true to the practice, but different from what they have in their own. They’ve got the white towels and ant-free practice rooms; and we may have a fish-paste pranayama, but we’ve also got the karma. I’ve seen it again and again: people come, they meet the amazing people that we work with, hearts open and these teachers leave with that splinter of Cambodia stuck firmly in place. And those who have the opportunity to work with our outreach groups leave a splinter of equal measure in the hearts of these young Cambodians, a whisper of the depths of the practice, glimpses at different ways of being in the world, a whole, empowered way of using one’s body and mind; and the conviction that anyone can make life into what they want it to be. There are people who believe in this place as a place of growth and transformation; and people believe that through yoga, we can touch people, and empower people to heal themselves and also heal others. People believe in the possibilities in Cambodia and the value of making them real.

And when you’ve got enough people believing in something, it has a good chance of becoming real. Here is where we take the leap.

Right now, we have lots of classes at the studio, and lots of clients; this is good. Sometimes we have more teachers than at other times, but we make do. But what we have in surplus is possible groups of Cambodians who want to start yoga classes and we’ve got quite a number of organizations that want to bring yoga classes to their own clients; with Vannac on his way back from Australia, we will have a certified Cambodian instructor who can take on groups of serious Khmer practitioners who don’t have enough English to be able to follow regular public classes, and who has enough experience in the business and initiative to take a serious managerial position. We also have 5 more young Cambodians with a serious commitment to their practice, who want to make it their life. All these young women come from disadvantaged backgrounds and will be in a position to share with others first-hand knowledge of what the practice can provide in a therapeutic capacity.

We also have relationships with yoga studios in at least 4 different countries (continents, actually) who want to help us out; and that number can be magnified significantly with a little planning. And we have individuals and teachers all over the globe who have heard about what we’re doing and applaud us. What I find when I go back to New York and meet with the people who have heard about our studio is how much will there is out there from people who believe in the practice of yoga, how many diverse skills and contacts they have and how much they want to share it all but don’t know how. When I sit down to these meetings with people I have never met, it’s like sitting under a waterfall of unformed intention: I walk onto the scene into an overflow of ideas, and after a few hours of dialogue, this amorphous river of intention congeals into specific resources and capacities that, when used in the right way, can have a huge effect on a lot of people. I then get to take these semi-crystallized resources home with me, and tinker and combine and shape and breathe life into them. We have had some great results: yoga classes for victims of trafficking, sponsored by a Taiwanese yoga studio with an interest in cultivating Karma yoga; assisted by a Swiss-American yoga teacher who specializes in kids yoga, especially with adolescent girls; combined with my contacts amongst yoga teacher trainers to get the serious ones amongst them certified so that they can go on to teach other young women with traumatic pasts. For example. Or yoga classes for orphans sponsored by American yogis with an interest in Cambodia, taught by Vannac, our Cambodian trainee who is now making a living off yoga, and working with other yoga teachers in other parts of the world who not only teach yoga but also work with kids, or are also counselors, or ESL teachers, to form our own school program, combining English classes, yoga classes and nutrition and health education, along with healthy and inexpensive recipes that they can take back to the orphanage with them. This is my favourite part of the job—being the sculptor of such wealthy materials.

Here’s the problem: I am now sitting in a house full of semi-crystallized intention with only two little hands, one of which is cramping in the iron grip of the yoga studio. I am desperately trying to pick up bits of wood and string with my other hand to hold it all together, but to have a fighting chance, I would have to let go of NataRaj. But, to drop a living, breathing institution with 300-odd active participants and several outreach projects for a ball of good intentions, is not something a responsible person can do. Especially when that living institution could be such an indispensable asset towards something bigger.

And this is where we come to the edge of the world, at the end of our 4 year romp, and this is where we close our eyes and gather our intentions and sculpt for our lives, and hope we can make a pair of wings from them that will keep us soaring.

Summary: we have people who want to give yoga, but they live far away; we have people who need yoga, and they are right here; we have people who want yoga so that they can give yoga, and they live here and they also need jobs. Let’s create an institution that acts as a hub: that receives from those who want to give and shapes these raw resources into something Cambodian, in a way that they can be passed from one body to a hundred and to a hundred more and a hundred more. I don’t want to think about business anymore; I want to think about a machine that flies, that runs on shared values of good health and empowerment; that sustains itself and perpetuates itself through the symbiosis of giving and receiving.

I am in the process of shaping a proposal to get the funds we need to spread our wings. Krama Yoga Cambodia is the name of our karma yoga project, and as soon as we get the tiny amount we need to cover our bases, I believe this caterpillar called NataRaj will discover a new body: a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing yoga and personal empowerment to Cambodia by providing training for up-and-coming teachers, funding for more outreach projects so that these new teachers can make a living teaching other Cambodians; as well as encompassing a smaller for-profit enterprise called NataRaj that continues to give yoga classes to the public, taught by certified Cambodian teachers and visiting teachers alike. We have the fund raisers, we have so many people who are experts in their field to help design projects and lead trainings, workshops and classes to the general public and our private clients; we have a growing base of motivated, talented and intelligent young Cambodians who will one day be able to run the show. We have all the pieces and all we need is the glue and nails, which I hope to find soon.

I will be leaving Cambodia soon and so the edge is approaching fast. One way or another, though, we’re going to make the leap; and my hand may be cramping and my shoes wearing thin, but I’ll be hanging on until I see us pick up and fly.

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