The past months I have been challenged on all levels, inspired deeply and felt a call for service more than ever.
I have been living in Ghana, teaching yoga at The Right to Dream Academy, which through football, education and character development nurtures talent and gives opportunities for Africans. The name is derived from the idea that young people should exercise their ability and their ability to dream...a concept with a powerful vision. The academy was created and it is run with great love and intention...it is true yoga in action.
As a seasoned traveler who loves to explore and experience different cultures, I felt confident and excited for the opportunity to work so closely with the community at Right to Dream and give back through my teaching. I knew I would have to make sacrifices and was prepared (yes, I carried quinoa and chia seeds with me) but I would soon realize that food would be the least of my worries.
Arriving in Ghana felt unfamiliar and I was flooded with the sensations of being in a new country. Eager to soak it all up, overwhelmed by all that I didn't know, and courageous for taking the journey in the first place. Yet somehow, amidst the unknown, I felt surprisingly comfortable -- maybe it was the tropical heat my skin is so familiar with, the chaos of the capital city my eyes and ears adjusted to, or the tasty plantain chips and fresh fruit for sale along the highway I know so well. The further we drove out of the city, the dustier and more 'slow' life became. Mud and straw homes dispersed between concrete structures -- fires burning, piles of trash, and endless amounts of goats and chickens exploring these intricate heaps. Some children chased one another barefoot, naked or with only underpants. Others helped their mothers with fetching water, cleaning, or carried their younger siblings. Everyone seemed to have a job, yet it all moved in slow motion. No one looked hurried or worried. Faces lit up as we drove past and when they realized a white female was in the car, many waved and shouted 'Obroni!' (white person!) out of pure excitement.
The villages seemed so raw and surreal from first glance, exactly movies have stereotyped, but I knew better than to assume this was the only face of Ghana.
I was immediately welcomed and received with open arms from the 100+ students and staff, and I began to settle in. I organized my teaching schedule and learned where the closest market was to buy fresh vegetables and fruit. I unpacked my essentials: clothing, toiletries and my yoga mat. I found a small flat rock to create an alter to inspire my daily practice and placed it in the corner in the house where I was staying and held this small, sacred space with reverence for 2.5 months.
As the first weeks past, I listened and witnessed. My usual talkative self was much more reserved. I experienced daily life at the academy and tried to remember the names of as many of the shining, beautiful faces that I could. I began to slowly learn more about the Ghanaian culture as I heard stories and experiences from the children and staff. And I experienced fully the many different realities. The paradoxical scene in most poverty stricken areas in the world. Harsh contexts where children are malnourished and many spend their days doing hard labor instead of receiving an education. Contexts where physical abuse is common in both the parent to child relationship, and within male to female relationships. A reality where a girl is often raped once she goes through a traditional ceremony of her tribe or village, at ages sometimes as young as 11. A reality where women are not seen as equals and have become submissive to the male dominant society.
And while all of this darkness swirls behind the scenes, what is just as prevalent, is the opposing sweetness and simplicity to life here.
A reality where happy and smiling children who are free to run throughout the village, shoeless and without many clothes, may never have the pressure to look a certain way. A reality where children learn the value of hard work and dedication through their parents, who set a daily example. A reality where women are the underlying backbone of the village -- they tend to the children, cook, clean and keep the men happy. Then there are the cases of the countless women who are educated and refuse to settle for a life of unjust. They take action in their villages by encouraging women to voice their rights. They start their own businesses and educate their children on how to become entrepreneurs. These women may walk barefoot, wear traditional Kente cloth and live in simple structures, but don't be fooled. They are fierce leaders who prove their character and grace, and ultimately pave the way for equality.
As I tried to process my new surroundings, I began to experience familiar feelings of shame and sadness.
How could I be so blessed that I feel entitled to many things that so many people do not have access to: fresh water, nourishing foods or freedom and basic human rights?
To be honest, I used to have these feelings much more when I first traveled to India, however after traveling throughout the country, I realized that many people were just as happy, if not happier than I was, even with their lack of 'comforts' or ease in life that I knew so well. I also remember becoming immune to these feelings. It's a natural response in order to protect your emotional state after you are asked the 50th time for money by a small child, or see another near dead, struggling animal on the road. I remember burying away the harsh realities to instead see the positives -- and I admit, social media is a great catalyst for this and I too, have fallen into the traps of sharing only beauty through my colored 'zen' lense.
And this journey in Ghana for me has uncovered the buried emotions and re-opened wounds that seem to touch my heart in all the right spots.
But this time I am ready. I feel prepared and strong enough to take action. Once I took the time to fully understand what this journey is asking of me, I have begun to awaken new places within me.
Here I was, floating in for less than 3 months with my yoga mat and chia seeds, feeling anxious knowing my diet would be restricted for the coming months, and with the idea to teach as much yoga as possible to the students -- well, my reality was shifted dramatically. I did teach yoga, and the kids absolutely loved it, however, my role became much bigger than the 60 minute 'recovery' sessions. The rewards were in the simple connections I made off the mat -- sitting in the large outdoor dining hall with the kids at lunchtime and answering there many questions about America, my beliefs in God, why I have tattoos and why I don't eat meat. I became a part of the girls mentorship sessions to help develop their self-confidence and share my insights to healthy relationships. I worked to stay positive and approachable, so that when a student wanted to reach out to me, I was there to support them. I introduced mindful practices to the academic and football staff so they could nourish themselves and transmit this through their work.
While teaching yoga is already a huge responsibility and a wonderful healing practice (which I truly believe will change the world!) I realised I can have a more profound impact...
I am leaving Ghana in a few days with an abundance of clarity and re-defined ethics, and by far, the biggest shift lies within my new vision.
The art of balance in life lies in integrating values of sustainability in every action we do and every outlet we use.
I have been inspired to re-design my business strategies for Raise Your Beat, and for all my events moving forwards. From now on I will look to build long lasting collaborations with individuals and organizations that understand the triple bottom line -- economic success, environmental protection and social responsibility.
Through my workshops and retreats I will include an element of give back, and I will support women and children in communities across the globe.
Ghana taught me to see reality clearly, both the darkness and sweetness. Right to Dream taught me how to implement yoga in action. And the kids taught me that anything is possible that you set your mind and heart to, no matter what your circumstance is.
When we shift our perspectives to move beyond our own emotions and limited thoughts -- the doors of opportunity open wide as we become clear on how to manifest change by taking affirmative action.
May we all rise up to our highest potential by utilizing the incredible opportunities that lie in front and around us.
Challenge yourself to a new experience (near or far to home) of service and let that connection become the true catalyst.
Lets change the world together.
LAUREN LEE E-RYT 500 is passionate about living with purpose, exploring the world, and empowering others to live as their most authentic, radiant Self. Founder of Raise Your Beat, dedicated teacher and forever student on the path of yoga, she leads transformational workshops, retreats and trainings to awaken the individual and collective consciousness. Read more about her here