IN THE SPOTLIGHT: AZAHAR FOUNDATION
The practise of yoga has never before been more popular, with staggering growth in yoga classes worldwide. As an intervention, yoga (including meditation) is inexpensive to deliver, has been correlated with positive lifestyle habits, improvement of wellbeing, and is accessible to all regardless of age, economic circumstances, fitness level, or physical limitations. Current research and clinical trials highlight the physical and emotional benefits of yoga and meditation.
The result in physical, mental and spiritual well-being accounts for the growing success. In the Spotlight this month, is a fantastic organisation -- the AZAHAR Foundation, whose founder, Jivamukti Yoga luminary, Yogeswari, saw an opportunity for yoga to go beyond the practise and become a powerful tool for peace-building.
AZAHAR Foundation works in post-conflict communities providing free yoga classes and yoga teacher training. Their aim is to break cycles of violence, and focus on the recovery and rehabilitation of individuals, and the communities in which they live.
They do this by identifying young leaders and providing them with a 2-year professional community development, arts and yoga teacher training to empower them to become agents of positive change within their communities.
The organization was founded by Yogeswari (Estelle Eichenberger) in 2008. It is a registered charity in the United States, Switzerland and Cambodia. Approximately 90% of its staff and beneficiaries are women and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yogeswari describes them as the “daughters of genocide survivors whose opportunities are generally limited to working in sweat shops, sex slavery or on impoverished farms”.
AZAHAR Foundation currently runs two Centers for Peace, Yoga & Arts and a vegan café in Cambodia and teaches yoga in five NGOs in Rwanda. The objective is to establish professional schools in said disciplines on each continent. A central Peace Village in Switzerland will facilitate cross-cultural exchange and collaborations.
In Cambodia, vocational development happens in 3 phases:
1) Casting the Net: Free Vegan Food & Yoga for All
These yoga classes are for children, adolescents & young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. Young people are exposed to yoga and meditation, which is inherent in the spiritual tradition of Cambodia. Due to malnutrition and poverty, young people are more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities when a free meal is provided.
2) Professional Training
Currently, the Professional Training comprises an 8-month Peace Curriculum that exposes young people to yoga, meditation, various artistic disciplines, as well as areas of peace work and social development. This is followed by a two-month internship in an NGO or community in need. The second year is a Yoga Teacher Training which, since 2019, has been provided by local teachers. Currently, AZAHAR offers one international scholarship for Yoga Teacher Training and would like to expand that international scholarship program to the Arts.
3) Career Opportunities:
Yoga teachers who have gone through the Foundation’s training are now eligible to make a living through AZAHAR Foundation. They teach public classes at their centers to students who are able to pay class fees. They also teach in businesses, factories, corporations and NGOs.
AZAHAR is looking to develop a similar system for the Performing Arts, both through teaching and performing. The goal is to become a self-sustaining social business.
We meet Yogeswari who tells us more…
HOW DID THE IDEA OF AZAHAR COME ABOUT?
The idea of AZAHAR developed organically and is a sum-total of my life’s journey and main interests: cultural, artistic, spiritual and humanitarian. I grew up between two language groups in Switzerland and was privileged to travel the world from a very young age. This awakened in me a deep love for the beauty of different cultural expressions, as well as a profound awareness of prejudice and injustice.
In 1993, during a vision quest in the Native American tradition, the vision of AZAHAR was revealed: the need to work towards peace with women world-wide, combining arts & spirituality. After two decades as a dancer and choreographer, I completed a Yoga Teacher Training at Jivamukti Yoga, New York in 1999, and have since been teaching the method around the world. The final catalyst was my close experience with the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001 and the subsequent cries for more war and violence. The idea of a Peace Village was inspired by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, who practiced non-violence and compassion during the war in Vietnam and created Plum Village in France with offshoots around the world.
The name AZAHAR (Spanish: orange blossom) came from an experience I had on the Alcazar in Córdoba, Spain, when I was very young. It was Three Kings’ Day and as I was looking over the processions amidst thousands of orange trees, I had the feeling I could see as far as Africa and across the Atlantic to the Americas. A vision of inter-culturalism lodged itself in my mind to a rhythmic pounding of the word AZAHAR; Arabic/ Spanish, beginning/end, point zero, all of life coming full-circle.
WHAT MAKES YOUR WORK SPECIAL?
“Aid,” in most contexts I have come in contact with, is understood as providing food, shelter, medicines and basic vocational skills that don’t require much education. Even in countries where young people have access and exposure to many possibilities, becoming an artist or a yoga teacher is often considered “fringe” and is not encouraged.
For young people whose societies and cultural identities have been destroyed, and who are grappling with basic survival issues, there often is no knowledge that artistic vocations exist at all. What AZAHAR provides is exposure, access, professional training and employment in yoga, meditation, a variety of artistic disciplines, as well as different angles on social development and peace activism.
Training in social development and peace activism is to help young leaders gain social and cultural self-awareness, thus bringing deeper meaning to their teaching and artistic expression. Yoga and meditation are not only important healing tools for traumatized citizens, but also restore peace and harmony by means of their foundation in strong ethical precepts and practices that are designed to create peace in the body, mind and nervous system.
Nelson Mandela once said: “You don’t know yourself, if you don’t know your history.” Much of that history is the artistic and spiritual expression of a people. It is that which is destroyed first in times of war and conflict. It is that which most often is neglected. It is that which AZAHAR wishes to restore. AZAHAR’s work is at once interdisciplinary and cross-cultural.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST INSPIRING STORY YOU HAVE SEEN AS A RESULT OF THE WORK YOU ARE DOING?
I can’t really single out one story. There are the stories of the young women I met in an orphanage inside the ruins of a French monastery in Cambodia who did not have proper kitchens or toilets and were bathing and washing their clothes in a polluted river, but now they make a living as yoga teachers in a clean environment.
Then there are the stories of the young women sold as sex workers, or those who worked in terrible conditions in sweatshops, who have developed a relationship of self-love through yoga, and are now able to teach it to others who have had similar experiences. Or the young woman who had to drop out of high school, in order to work night shifts in a sweatshop, and thanks to AZAHAR’s support now runs her own yoga studio in a Cambodia. She pulled every single one of her sisters out of the sweatshops and trained them to be yoga teachers.
And there is the young woman who was a garment worker, then became an activist and a singer, then a yoga teacher, before being selected for an international yoga scholarship. She is now the manager of AZAHAR’s yoga programme in Cambodia.
Or the young woman who was dumped at an orphanage with her brother after her parents divorced, and who has now successfully graduated from the 300-hour international Jivamukti Teacher Training, and is now doing professional Yoga Teacher Training at AZAHAR Cambodia.
And the young woman who is working through transgenerational trauma passed down by parents who lived through US bombings, Khmer Rouge labor camps and many years as refugees. Or the young man who, after living in a refugee camp, was transplanted to a gang-riddled neighborhood in the US, became a poet in jail, was deported back to Cambodia without money, food or shelter, and is now teaching poetry and art therapy at the second largest mass killing site in Cambodia.
Finally, there is the young woman in Rwanda whose entire family was wiped out in the genocide when she was a baby. She was dragged from one orphanage to the next and now finds self-healing -- and creating new family with women who lost their children in the genocide -- through yoga.
Each of our beneficiaries is unique. And it is their uniqueness that inspires me each and every day.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE FOR AZAHAR FOUNDATION?
As the organization is growing, we need to expand our team, starting with a person with strong fundraising experience and a CEO to manage the day-to-day of the different projects. Finding funding to cover the salaries of these positions is AZAHAR’s biggest challenge at the moment.
WHAT COULD £10,000 ENABLE THE FOUNDATION TO ACHIEVE?
It would enable us to
-hire a part-time professional in fundraising
-cover 1 year of operating expenses in Rwanda
-hire a dance teacher for 1 year who could start to implement a professional dance program in Cambodia
-Hold a 4-day Peace Camp Retreat in either Cambodia or Rwanda
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE RECIPE AT YOUR VEGAN CAFÉ IN CAMBODIA?
I have two! Vegan Prohok Ktis and vegan Amok! Click here to see the recipes!
WHAT GETS YOU OUT OF BED IN THE MORNING?
What gets me out of bed in the morning is first and foremost my daily practice of Meditation & Yoga and knowing that I have a responsibility to share what benefits me with people young and old, all over the world.