Interview with KAYLA NIELSEN
My mom has been a yoga teacher for about 20 years so I actually grew up with yoga. I took my first real class when I was 12 and I did it on and off throughout the years but it wasn’t really serious until it came into my own adulthood more around 18 for regular practice and started a dedicated practice when I was about 20 to 23 (I’m going to be 29 this year) and I did my yoga teacher training when I was 25, so leading up to that was when I had not only been practicing yoga for a long time but I had been trying to adopt to the philosophy and lifestyle rather that just doing a physical asana practice.
When I was 22 I had just graduated from University and I was taking a year off before going into full-time teaching English and I wanted to travel first and just see some of the world before settling down. I ended up teaching in Ghana for three months and it’s changed everything. It made me decide that I never wanted to teach in an American classroom and it’s sort of an experience it planted the seed of one day starting a non profit organization and doing something greater for the world than I had originally planned on doing. Since I went to Ghana the first time in 2010 I knew I wanted to start my own non profit organization and have a focus on Africa because I already fell in love with it. When I came back to the States after that experience I was completely broke, I spent all my money traveling over the last 6 months. I’ve been a student before that so I just needed to find a job and settle down and save money but my sole intention was to go back to Africa. I ended up moving back to San Diego and got involved in a relationship there and it lasted for about a year and a half and it was so bad, just very toxic abusive mentally, physically and emotionally. About a year and a half later, on my birthday, the guy that I was seeing and I got into a fight, he was drunk and he was really mad. He ended up getting really violent with me to the point that I was hospitalized and the neighbours saw everything and they called the cops and he was arrested and taken to jail. I guess it was kind of like a rock bottom for me you could say. At that time, I also went back to the old life style that I had in college partying a lot, going out a lot, caughting up with superficial things and relationships not only with him but also a lot of friendships. Everything was spiraling really fast. Even with all that happening I knew I still want to go back to Africa but I don’t know how to get out, I guess, I didn’t have the strength and the confidence in myself. He was arrested and there was a pretty bad court case against him for domestic violence and attempted murder. I was the main witness in the case of course because the whole thing was about me and our relationship. That ended up taking up my last 3 months that I was in the U.S. At this point I had already planned on going back to Africa before this all happened on my birthday, I already had my ticket out, I had already signed up for a volunteer program there. This happened and I was physically recovering and was not able to do any physical activities. My hand was broken and I had a broken rib, I had stitches on my face, severe damage in my eye and my toe was broken. All of these were, not huge injuries and I was in physical therapy 3 days a week. Everything in between was very unhealthy.
That was the point in which I actually ended up going to Kenya. I was again volunteering in a few different schools teaching English and then I ended up working in an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp. These were basically people who were refugees in their own countries so they had been displaced from their homes for whatever reason. I one specific case, it was because of the political violence in the 2008 presidential election there. Anyways I just really fell in love with this community of people, this is also my first time doing more community work outside of a classroom. I also set up my own agriculture projects and I setup a women’s group and taught them making baskets and jewelry and things that they could sell at the markets, teaching them about saving from financial planning, etc. I really love the people and community and stayed for a few months and then I went to Ghana and Asia for a while. I was forced to go back to the US because of the court case and I lost. My parents were with me through out the entire process, it broke their hearts to see their daughter in this state. My dad said “We are all really upset and disappointed, but the reality is the more you continue to let this bring you down, the more you let this person and relationship ruin you. You have the choice to do anything you want. You are young, you are healthy, you are intelligent and creative. You are fully capable. You could literally do anything that you want in the world right now. You have nothing to hold you back. If you want to start your own non profit organization and you want to go to Africa, do that. Nothing is stopping you anymore.” Within 3 weeks, I sold everything in the US and bought a one way ticket to Kenya.
The conversation with my dad and the whole experience led me to start GLOW, something of my own that I’m passionate about. I had been volunteering for different non profit organizations, whether it’s abroad or in the US, which offered me a lot of hands-on experiences of doing projects and meeting other people alike, especially in Africa was working with a lot of different people and hearing a lot of ideas that I really admired and appreciated. At the same time, there were things that I disagreed with, seeing a lot of corruption, dishonesty, greed and those kind of upsetting qualities that people often talk about in the non profit industry. All of these inspired me to start GLOW because I wanted to do something honest and real, something that would impact people in a long lasting sustainable way.
When I started GLOW 5 years ago in Kenya, I wanted to do everything. I was doing community rehabilitation projects specializing in IDP camps with main emphases on agriculture and financial plannings providing people initial capital to not only make money but also buy sustainable food for the family. I also built schools and did some other projects with children. Then I got really sick after staying in Kenya for some time and the doctor told me to leave the country or I would died by diseases. I ended up leaving and felt really bad for myself. When I got back to the U.S., I was having a hard time adjusting back to the lifestyle and the cultural shock was pretty severe. That’s when I started my meditation practice and took the yoga teacher training. During my training, yoga philosophy inspired me my initial vision of GLOW – just generally being a good person and give back to others. I couldn’t shut down the feeling anymore that I had unfinished business to do. So I looked at all the things again, the hiccups and the bums in the road that I had before. I was gonna give it my all. Then I revamped everything and shifted the whole idea with a single focus on global energy specifically solar because when I was staying in Kenya, the largest project was going to be solar based. So I’d already done a lot of research on it and had been in contact with a few solar partners in Africa. The industry truly inspired me because first of all, the built-in sustainability factors all renewable energy is really appealing. Second there were a lot of great opportunities for financial plannings and savings that come along with solar as well. Lastly, I wanted to do everything and I wanted to help everyone, not just the kids and adults. The thing that I really like about solar is that it allows people to save so much more. It is within their freedom and their power to have more flexibility and financial freedom which impact their lives and their family’s lives.
So now GLOW is continually maturing and evolving in solar projects. I always partner with local organizations or solar companies. They have either a foundation or a charitable arm in their profitable business. I get all my products from them which greatly supports local economy as well. When you bring in outside sources and hand it to people and then you leave, given that I’m not able to physically stay in Kenya or Africa, and just go back once a year, is clearly not enough for me to oversee and keep the projects sustainable. It’s completely vital to have a partner there on the ground, offering the community hands on support every single day. So that if something happens to the products they have, they are able to get help and services immediately. And GLOW makes a donation of the total cost of the initial product to the local communities and organizations. GLOW has done a whole variety of different products. Some of them are portable lights because that is realistic for the households to be able to pay back. Some of them have more advance systems where they have several panels or television or radio to keep them connected to the outside world. We are also building solar centers in some smaller towns. You will be amazed how someone’s life is truly changed just by a simple portable light. Most people spend about 30-40% of their total income buying batteries or light sources. However, by using solar energy, they can use this amount of money to pay back in 6 months on average and then it’s going to be free which can greatly help them save money.
This is a tough question! One of the most memorable experiences is the time I spent with the community. Seeing how people’s confidence/ life has changed you can tell even just by the look in people’s eyes and they don’t understand why I’m doing this because it doesn’t make sense to them. They are so grateful. It’s really humbling to be part of that. Seeing that they look at you with total gratitude. Seeing the growth, the confidence, the light in their eyes. Some other memorable experiences is teaching yoga to the kids. It’s fun especially the kids in the community are just learning English. Most of the time we communicate through gestures and hand movements with a lot of laughter.
My suggestion would be to consider sustainability and to create a vision/ project that is not perpetuating the cycle of poverty but actually helps people to get out of it – educating people instead of just giving them something and leave. Another one I would say is don’t go in with a concrete mindset, thinking that we are educated so we know everything and we know what’s best. The reality is when you are working with a community, they know more about the area and problems than we do. Just be open minded.
For me it’s not as much about “kindness” as it is “authenticity” in the material-oriented world. Especially on the social media platforms although I have very positive experiences in it. It’s incredible to me that 90% of the funding actually comes from social media. On the other hand, there’s also a side to it that is disappointing as in the yoga world. You have expectations on people and teachers to be living in beautiful postures and quotes they put in the cyber world. But when you meet these people, they are not very kind and generous. I have noticed more in balance with authenticity in the material world. It’s my motto that you do the best you can. Bring the best version of yourself everyday. And when people don’t, that’s on them. I’m trying my best to promote kindness and authenticity hoping that would have some sort of impact. In practicing yoga, we begin to understand ourselves better and the deeper connection that generally elevates the consciousness. You just become less prone to react violently.
I think in the West, people in the studios are drawn to yoga in the beginning for losing weight or stretching to even out other activities that they do. It’s more physically based most of the time. They feel good so they keep coming back. When people are gradually engaged in their practice, they want to know more and dig into the yoga history and philosophy. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that because it still gets people to practice. What’s more important to me is that a teacher is capable of creating a safe sequence and environment for the students, offering proper modifications and making sure that people leave feeling better. The biggest danger in how fast yoga is developing in the modern day is more the integrity of the Teacher Trainings, and how they are becoming a money maker cranking out yoga teachers instead of offering quality trainings, then new teachers who don’t realise their training isn’t up to par just go out and teach. Many people are getting hurt in the class because the teachers weren’t taught the correct way to offer a safe sequence or modifications in the class. My biggest concern is the safety of the actual class. I’ve seen people who weren’t able to walk out of the class because of slipped discs. The teacher training’s quality is going down which is the downfall of the fast paced development in the West.
I love writing. I love reading. I read a lot of historical fictions. I started surfing a year ago so if I’m near the ocean, I would probably be in the water. I enjoy doing tracks and long walks as well.