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Asia travel

Volunteer holidays: yoga retreats that give back to communities around the world

Non-profit travel company 109 World, named after the 109th, or guru bead, found on a Buddhist mala, offers trips to improve participants’ health and well-being and do some good for others

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 7:49pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 7:48pm

Travelling is an escape but it can also be an opportunity.

That is the thinking that led to a phone call that changed Brazilian entrepreneur Leticia Gonzalez-Reyes’ life, and is now impacting on the lives of individuals, and communities, worldwide.

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It all started back in 2015 when Colorado-based Gonzalez-Reyes and her friends Rachel Brathen (known on social media as Yoga Girl) and Olivia Rothschild were chatting about getting together to organise yoga retreats, with the added option of volunteer work for those interested.

“What we decided to do was to design these trips in a way that has these well-being aspects – you take care of yourself – but you also give back to the community you’re visiting,” says Gonzalez-Reyes. They named the non-profit travel company 109 World, after the 109th, or guru bead, found on a Buddhist mala.

The success of Yoga Girl – Brathen has 2.1 million followers on Instagram – also led them to question the role of social media “influencers”. They realised that many of them rarely ever make a real connection with their followers.

They decided to partner with some of these influencers, bringing them along on their 109 World “global mission trips”. These have included a Yoga Girl retreat to Playa Gigante, Nicaragua, that also worked with the Project SEED organisation to set up a local water distribution system. There have been six trips in total so far, and more are being planned.

The next one is a 109 Women retreat at Koh Samui’s Absolute Sanctuary from April 12-17, which will feature Hong Kong’s Sports Illustrated model Mia Kang, who will run Muay Thai classes, and Hong Kong yogi Chaukei Ngai.

Fifteen per cent of the ticket price is being directed towards Wor. Watthana, a Muay Thai gym that provides training and support for impoverished and orphaned children, and which will be hosting an all-female Muay Thai fight card in the northeastern Thai region of Isan. The idea is to leverage the reach of social media to bring about positive change, and allow individuals to make a lasting impact by becoming ambassadors for the different causes they support.

“For each event we work with influencers,” says Gonzalez-Reyes. “Mia is one, Chaukei is one – but there aren’t any platforms for their online followers to interact with them.

“Online, they look perfect, and not even human sometimes, but we give them a chance to give depth to their persona and to share experiences. For this one we’re bringing so many women together, from completely different backgrounds.”

Exercise is at the heart of the retreats, also, and Gonzalez-Reyes believes that experiencing group sessions like theirs brings rewards you won’t get from working out alone.

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“We feel that movement is a really important tool for allowing people to come into the present moment,” she says. “‘There’s also a beautiful connection when all the group is doing the same thing.”

For more on 109 World and the Koh Samui retreat: