Kula Karma: Beginning in Guatemala

kula karma, zach towne smith
kula karma, zach towne-smith

As we enter our fourth year working together as Kula Collective, we are more inspired than ever by our vision of “an awakening of spiritual consciousness, supported by a thriving community founded in integrity, with abundance and freedom for all.”

In addition to the transformative experiences we facilitate through our Yoga Teacher Trainings and other retreats, we’ve been generously funding our Karma program. Using this platform, we’ve been actively seeking out ways to improve the quality of life in the communities that host our offerings all over the world.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that refers to the spiritual practice of taking “right” action without expectation of compensation. The Kula Karma Program has two facets: the first is long-term collaboration with local organizations, and the second is Karma Day: during each training our YTT students to collaborate with the community and reciprocate the welcome they receive. We feel that this program is the fullest expression of our vision. Yet its development hasn’t been as simple as it might sound.

María’s deep brown eyes fill with excitement as she shows us around the new Konojel restaurant. María is the Operations Director at Konojel, a nonprofit in San Marcos that we have had a longstanding relationship with. As we tour through this new social enterprise my gaze is continually drawn to the hand embroidered birds that soar against the red and black geometric background of her huipil - the traditional Kaq’ Chikel blouse. I ask her who made it. With a deep sense of pride she responds that it’s her work, and that she learned this art from her mother and grandmother. 

María realized long ago that in spite of her love for this expression of her culture, her family’s survival depends on her learning new skills. Over the years she has participated in numerous programs to improve the quality of life in her town, San Marcos la Laguna: including raising chickens and growing organic vegetables. Although she learned many important lessons through these experiences, the programs had a common thread: they were started by outsiders and fell apart as soon as the funding ended. Though María was able to gain experience that has inspired her to grow into an important community leader, the great majority of women ended up feeling more disenfranchised and less trusting. This experience is all too common when well-intentioned outsiders intervene in a community.

So how can we ensure that our Kula Karma investments are supporting long-term projects that lift up and empower people? This is the first facet of our Karma Program. In our short history we’ve tried a variety of models, all based on collaborative design principles that bring together diverse stakeholders to build consensus around how to move forward.

kula karma, blog, guatemala
kula karma, blog, guatemala 

At first we tried to do this in every center we work with. We relied on the relationships of the retreat center to identify groups we could support, but we soon learned that without a more consistent presence we were potentially doing more harm than good. In one town a rivalry between leaders and their factions led to the group’s plan being opposed by half the community.

onfronting the reality of our transient presence in these places, we shifted to nurturing the deep relationships necessary to support the kind of systemic change we envision. In response to this reality, we doubled down on the town that hosts many of our Kula: San Marcos la Laguna. Our next attempt focused on building a diverse group of stakeholders to identify and prioritize the challenges the town was facing. Due to my existing relationship with the Mayor and other community leaders, I was able to convene a diverse group for a collaborative design session in January of last year. Together, local and international business owners, members of community organizations, political and religious representatives as well as the local judge created a plan to provide education for women and families through holistic health and sexual education. This intersectoral cooperation is quite rare in San Marcos, not to mention in Guatemala and most of the world.

kula karma, blog, guatemala

Unfortunately, because of small town politics, religion, and the Municipal government shifting their focus, the project was postponed. Sometimes as we do what we think is ‘right action’ it doesn’t lead to the expected results. Yet, learning always takes place which can lead us to the next step in our path. We continue to build relationships within and across these sectors and remain optimistic about future possibilities for collaboration. We believe in slow small solutions based on respectful relationships built on trust and curiosity. 

Based on what we’ve learned, we redirected our efforts toward the organization in San Marcos where we had our deepest relationships: Konojel. This community program was started in 2012 to provide nutritious lunches for the most at-risk children, young mothers and elders of this village. My relationship with Konojel began in 2015 when I led a series of creative design processes. Through collaboration with several committed groups of international and local residents they have expanded their vision to encompass other root causes of malnourishment. The resulting clarity around their commitment to improving the quality of life in San Marcos led to a new initiative: to build and support a new women’s cooperative in the village. The more we collaborate, the more deeply we believe that these solutions must be cooperative and long-term.

Last year, Kula chose to donate a large portion of our Karma budget to support specific Konojel projects. We were particularly interested in their new social enterprise program, including Maria’s new restaurant. Konojel needed skilled leadership to keep this new program afloat, and so Kula’s Karma Program donated the first several months of salary for the new Social Enterprise Director, Ingrid. Andrew, Konojel’s General Director, told us that “it’s the best thing Kula could have given us.” Today, the Konojel restaurant is running smoothly and successfully. The restaurant’s income is supporting ten new jobs for local women, providing a sales point for their women’s cooperative, and funding Konojel’s many other nonprofit programs in the community.

Because we hold many YTTs here at the Yoga Forest, we’re able to leverage another resource to support Konojel through the second facet of our Karma Program: our Karma Days. Kula coordinates with Konojel to bring our students to volunteer for a day during their training. To date we have painted, cleaned, built gardens, made structural repairs on the buildings, created signage and read and played games with the children of Konojel’s Education Enrichment Program. Each day includes a full meal at the restaurant, which builds deeper interpersonal relationship and in turn continues funding the whole beautiful cycle. Our students have described this day as one of the most important lessons.

kula karma, blog zachary towne smith
kula karma, guatemala

In the meantime, María is hoping to work herself out of a job. She envisions the day when all people in San Marcos will advance together with tools to live better. She feels supported, and witnesses the impact that the economic empowerment is already having on women and the larger community. At Kula we’re thrilled to be able to support María’s vision. We’ve built trust over years of collaboration. Together we’re constantly improving our projects to improve San Marcos. We learn from our challenges and adapt with new versions of our program. We trust in the path of right action. This is our Karma.

zachary towne smith, bio

About Zach: 

Zachary Towne-Smith is a passionate connector. His innate creativity, flexible perspective, and quick smile make him a natural leader, inspiring participation and thoughtful consensus in the wide array of groups he works with.  He has dedicated his life to the study and development of intercultural relations and the facilitation of innovative solutions for sustainable well-being.  

To learn more about Zachary and see his upcoming yoga teacher trainings and retreats, click here.