Helping Cambodia's trafficked women find peace

Helping Cambodia's trafficked women find peace

At Phnom Penh's Nataraj Yoga studio, a generation begins to heal through yoga
Nataraj Yoga
“My job, so far as I’m concerned, is to open their eyes to what they can have, what they can do, and what they can create,” says director Isabelle Skaburskis. (We've had to crop the photo to protect the identity of some of the young students)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. All I could remember from a long backpacking trip in 2000 were the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng, and the Khmer Rouge. Devastating to say the least, the people of Cambodia are survivors. And it wasn’t until exactly one year ago that I got the opportunity to go back and see its true beauty.

The studio

I learned from a friend that she had met a woman running a yoga studio in Phnom Penh. Originally from Canada, Isabelle Skaburskis is the founder and director of Nataraj Yoga. She single-handedly opened the studio in 2004 when, at the time, there were only a few people teaching yoga in hotel exercise rooms. With an ongoing curiosity about the practice of yoga, Isabelle built what is today a Phnom Penh institution providing regular yoga classes for the city’s journalists, doctors, NGO workers and foreign diplomats. 

In addition, the studio was providing community classes for Cambodia’s disadvantaged youth, among them, survivors of human trafficking. I had been seeking inspiration in my own job as a yoga teacher in Hong Kong and wanted to reach out to different people. I called her immediately and, just a few months later, found myself in Phnom Penh. This time my trip to Cambodia would be very different. 

Why Cambodia?

Cambodia is a beautiful country recovering from a traumatic period under the Khmer Rouge. Even though it was their parents’ generation that endured the war, the country is still plagued by poverty and the younger generation has learned to cope with its repercussions as their parents did, by “shutting down and internalizing their anger and suffering,” Skaburskis explains. So, in an effort to reach out to this community, she began to teach yoga classes to a group from Transitions Global, a Non-Governmental Organization helping trafficked women 'transition' to a more normal life. On a personal quest to test the power of yoga, Isabelle took a few of the students who were interested and began training them to be yoga teachers. “If yoga is genuinely effective, it should work for people with none of the advantages of an educated Western mind. It should not be limited in its application to those who enjoy a certain degree of material affluence,” she says.

Nataraj YogaIsabelle instructing a trainee.The trainees

My first interaction with the trainees was spent observing one of the classes with the Transitions group. I watched as a room full of mostly teenage girls laughed, played, and socialized. There is nothing different about this class, I thought, until it hit me what they endured in their pasts. Whether they have been sold by a family member or taken from their families, these women have been rescued from brothels. Looking around more carefully, I was instructed to look for certain behavior: moving away as others approached, a reaction to invasion of personal space on their mats, and keeping their heads up in every pose, as if on guard. The trainees practiced amongst this dynamic group, veterans executing poses with ease, and it took all of my strength not to cry.

One doesn’t need to know each personal story to realize that sexual, physical, and emotional abuse leads to a vast disconnect between mind and body. Sometimes when the yoga practice was tough and they were challenged physically, minds drifted and they lost concentration. Physical trauma from the past has taught them to zone out emotionally and escape. Over the next few weeks, I saw the trainees moving fluidly at all times to keep their minds engaged and connected to their bodies. We also worked on assisting each other in difficult poses like the headstand. Learning to touch and be touched in a caring and helpful way has been a challenge that these women have just started to overcome. These practices have given them the skills to help others and a confidence that the other girls now look up to. 

Why yoga?

So why yoga and is it helping? With greater trust in their own bodies and a found confidence within, “they are learning to speak about their own experiences, their physical experiences on the mat and also their life experiences,” Isabelle says. One of the trainees has only been able to be open about her past with the support of the program. Today, now called Krama Yoga, the program encourages the trainees to teach classes on their own at various Phnom Penh NGOs that provide education programs for children of low-income families around the Steung Meanchey dump site. “They are working with people who have had similar experiences, and by learning not to be afraid of their own experiences, they are helping others accept themselves," says Isabelle. 

Yoga is teaching them to listen and respect their own feelings and emotions. “My institution is for people for whom the system doesn’t work, to show them that they have value and capabilities, and that thinking for yourself is always better than thinking what other people want you to think,” Isabelle says. Instead of repeating the cycles of previous generations, they have a chance to imagine and facilitate new lives. “My job is to open their eyes to what they can have, what they can do, and what they can create,” she adds.

Nataraj Yoga, +855 1225 0817. Single class US$9, for Cambodian nationals US$5. For more info, check and Transitions Global at

Erika Fulenwider

About the author:
Originally from Texas, by way of New York, Erika Fulenwider found Asia. Her interests have always been rooted in movement: dance, yoga, run, travel. She is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Hong Kong.

Erika submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s CityPulse section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our CityPulse page.