With a dream catcher dancing from her right ear, Jordan Ashley, 27, appears too young to have founded Souljourn Yoga, a nonprofit dedicated to helping educate young women in developing countries.
Having trained at ISHTA, Yogamaya, and Laughing Lotus, Ashley fantasizes about owning a studio connecting yogis to selfless service. Her sensitivity to the needs of others developed from her world travels. Yet it was her trips to Cambodia that opened her eyes to what is really going on between the haves and have-nots; and she’s designed an upcoming yoga retreat to bring people more in touch with those of the area they're visiting – not just sun and surf and asana classes.
Ashley sat in a Williamsburg cafe telling YogaCity NYC’s Ann Votaw all about her pitta tendencies, her chijuajua-daschund mutt, and co-leading her first yoga retreat.
Ann Votaw: How is your retreat in May unique?
Jordan Ashley: A lot of people go on retreats -- and it really is a retreat -- to get away from your normal mundane day-to-day life. But if you go to these developing countries and put blinders on, that’s frustrating. You have been lucky enough to take a week off, get on a plane and shut everything off to do yoga, but that’s the antithesis of yoga. Yoga is about action.
In my travels, I’ve been brutally aware of high-end luxury hotels next to slums. One night in one of these hotels would be more than a family could afford in a year. To not even be aware of that is a tragedy. On this trip, we will be meeting girls at Sacred Valley Project, a nonprofit that improves access to education by bringing them closer to their school.
In the Andes, travel is difficult. At Sacred Valley, the girls live in dormitories and receive secondary education. On this retreat, the tax-deductible tuition goes to the building of a new dormitory for them.
AV: Why Peru?
JA: My mom once gave me a copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. It’s a very yogic story about five people who die when a rope bridge collapses in Peru. It’s a magical book in terms of serendipity.
AV: Will you have fun too?
JA: We will be eating lots of avocado deliciousness! My partner Alison Riazi and I will be teaching classes. We will be zip-lining, biking, and hiking. We will see Machu Picchu. We will witness pain and suffering, but if you just see that, it’s not balanced. We have to have some sweetness.
AV: Tell me a little about your yoga beginnings.
JA: Allen Finger is my mother’s cousin and my mom would demo for Mani during his classes in Johannesburg. Back then she could walk across a football field on her hands. I started going to kirtans with her when I was 8 or 9.
AV: She sounds like quite a character.
JA: My mom is Linzi Glass. She has written three young adult novels and also co-founded The Forgotten Dog Foundation. When I was little, she would also be bring home creatures like a litter of kittens and an injured hawk..My interests have always been about women’s rights and education.
My parents separated when I was six. They’re both really cultured and stayed friends. My mom burned incense and candles 24/7. She had an amazing collection of books. She is also South African and had many African statues and Buddhas around the apartment. My dad was really into art and music. He took me to a David Bowie concert when I was 14. He traveled for work and would bring me a doll from whatever country he was in.
AV: You’ve grown up in a time that embraces females like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. How did that affect you?
JA: I was really into Susan B. Anthony when I was little. In high school, I did a paper about Phoolan Devi, an Indian suffragette.
AV: Are you a feminist?
JA: Absolutely. I still had Barbies. I love fashion. I have a boyfriend. A lot of women have an adverse reaction about feminism, but it means equal rights, not man hating. The fact that we can even discuss this openly just makes it even more important that we do something to even the playing field, not just as women, but yogis. Women’s rights are human rights.
AV: What opened your eyes?
JA: I graduated from The New School in 2010 with a journalism degree. My sophomore year, I studied abroad in Cambodia during winter break. That’s what lifted the veil in terms of haves and have-nots. I had been to India before, then another study abroad in India after that, but Cambodia had the greatest impact.
AV: How so?
JA: We stayed with Ponheary Ly, who has her own foundation. She survived the Khmer Rogue, which was anti-education. She lost her father, who was an educator, and many family members.
AV: Did it get to you?
JA: In the orphanages, I would play with a beautiful baby girl. Someone would tell me she had HIV. I had just turned 20. I thought, “That’s not right.” I went back to volunteer to teach English and women’s empowerment through an organization called Bamboo Shoots. I also reported for The Phnom Penh Post, focusing on non-governmental organizations.
AV : You’ve really had your third-world training. You're retreat sounds great.
If you are interested in attending Seva Peru May 27 through June 5, contact email@example.com.