SOULJOURN YOGA’S QUEST TO TAKE WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT GLOBAL
By C.S. Burke
Jordan Ashley does not have a return ticket. It’s July, and the Souljourn Yoga founder is in Rwanda for the second time in a little over a year. Between trips, she’s spent time in Peru, Morocco and Cambodia. “Wi-Fi is spotty here and all that movie stuff,” she warns me as we begin our video chat.
Behind her, a mosquito net hangs from the ceiling of a pretty, well-kept wooden bungalow. Golden light shines from an unseen source onto the log-cabin-style beams. “We had no reception out in the national park the last two nights,” she adds. “And there are hippos outside.” Ashley’s nomadic existence in 2019 as well as the time she plans to spend in Rwanda—both are owed to her pioneering work with Souljourn Yoga. The non-profit organization, launched in 2016, hosts retreats in developing regions of the world with the mission of promoting female empowerment and educational opportunities for girls.
Working through community organizations on the ground, Ashley connects participants with girls in her retreat destinations. They practice yoga together and engage in art projects. A portion of the retreat “tuition” is designated to supporting partner non-profits. In three years Souljourn has hosted 14 retreats. Some of the locations, such as Peru, have been repeats, and Ashley partners with the same local people for the sake of continuity and to build strong, life-long relationships. In Rwanda, her partner organizations support schools, provide scholarships and offer classes, all aimed at women and girls.
“I always try to highlight what the country has to offer,” she says. “I want a good balance—it should be educational, informative and about seva, which means service—but also fun and relaxing and adventurous for the people who come with us. So, for instance, we went to Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial, but we also spent those two nights on safari in Akagera National Park. We did classes and teacher training with local women, to pass on the skill set for teaching yoga, so they can do it at home with their friends and family.”
Ashley’s journey began in Los Angeles, where yoga was integrated into her upbringing from an early age. “After my parents divorced,” she says, “it was something that my mom and I did a lot together.”
At 18, she moved to New York to study journalism at the New School, and she continued to do yoga often in order to stay grounded and feel connected to her past. But she says she never really resonated with what, by then, had become the world of contemporary, mainstream yoga as we now know it, with all its glamour, sexuality and social media tie-ins, where fitness and modeling sometimes appear to be almost the same thing.
At one of the studios, however, she noticed a postcard about a retreat to India and decided to spend her winter break there. It was a life-changing trip. “Not to sound trite or cliché, but it really opened me up,” she says.
“There is culture shock, especially growing up in the West, in the U.S.” The stark contrast, the blunt reminder of the resources so many take for granted proved pivotal.
“Not even in terms of it being spiritual,” she is quick to add. “I’m skeptical of that guru mentality. It made me grateful to have been born under the circumstances I was . . . it’s this term, ‘lottery of life.’” Trip after trip followed that first one, beginning with Cambodia for the first time, then Tibet. Immersion in the culture and history of the non-Western world became paramount for her, especially with regard to women’s disempowerment.
Ashley is quick to thank her teachers. They were instrumental in helping her forge the relationships and local partnerships that today form her contacts for all of Souljourn Yoga’s retreats. There are always, as she puts it, people “on the ground” who run organizations that share her vision, wherever Souljourn goes.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, she graduated from New School with a degree in journalism, completed the 200 hours of training required to become a yoga teacher and then escaped an abusive relationship that made her fear for her safety in New York. To get away, she spent time in Cambodia, Nepal and Thailand, working for local newspapers and learning about NGOs.
It was a challenging—and often lonely—experience. “I was really just shut down,” she continues, “and uncomfortable in my own skin.” Eventually, in 2012, she returned to New York and yoga. She completed additional training, began to teach and continued to do so all the way up through 2019 until moving to London. It was during this time of growth and discipline that Souljourn Yoga was born.
“I had this moment—really an amalgamation of moments— of coming back to New York from being abroad and realizing that what has been so mind-opening and heart-opening for me is travel. People in New York didn’t seem to care what was happening outside themselves. They said that they did, but there wasn’t any action behind it.”
Ashely says she began to attend yoga retreats herself and found the disconnect she perceived to be troubling: the trips seemed more about social media and had a protected, almost resort-like vibe. Despite taking place in less-developed countries, there was little of the cultural or social immersion she had experienced on her own, something she felt would benefit participants, host organizations and local communities.
She doesn’t even like the word “retreat” anymore. It reminds her of hiding “We haven’t quite come up with a better word for what we do,” she admits. “But I decided I wanted to have a charity—a 501(c)(3), as opposed to a company, to set the mood for what we do. We visit, and we learn.”
Students traveling with Souljourn, Ashley says, are going to have their own experiences and all will be challenged in different ways. But for her, the travel touches a deep place of peace—which explains why she doesn’t currently have a return ticket from Rwanda.
“My mother says I’m at my best when I travel,” she notes. “When I’m not focused on . . . what I think I should be worried about. It’s hard to come back to life in a city. That’s when I really have to be focused on self-care, which can be a bit of a woo-woo word. But the juxtaposition of cosmopolitan life and living in a village . . . you have to acclimate to the different rhythms. But in order to keep going and expanding the reach of Souljourn, I have to give myself a break, permission to be sad and moody for a few days.”
Souljourn’s teachers are volunteers. Participants pay fees starting around $1,850, depending on the location of the retreat, which includes accommodation (usually for 8 nights/9 days), meals, classes, and activities—from volunteering with local women and organizations, to food tours, to visits to cultural landmarks, world heritage sites and national parks— as well as a tax-deductible donation. Students are responsible for their own airfare. Trips planned for 2020 include Sri Lanka, Cambodia, South Africa, Tibet and more.
There is a phrase on the Souljourn website about the “need for experiences that give perspective to the self through selflessness.” When I ask Ashley if that means seeing oneself more clearly, in both a personal and global context, she is quick to explain her vision of it.
“It’s amazing how much of a façade we all wear in our dayto-day lives, the labels we put on ourselves,” she says. “When you spend time with the young women in these countries, like Rwanda, none of that matters, not even how you got to the moment you share with them. You’re completely disarmed. You take off your shoes and jump rope, and it’s not even some big action, it’s not a monumental thing. It’s about how we spend time with one another.”