YOGI & GLOW FOUNDER KAYLA NIELSEN
“I tell people one of the best things you can do to help yourself is to help others.”
YOGA INSTRUCTOR and humanitarian Kayla Nielsen founded Go Light Our World (GLOW) organization dedicated to diminishing poverty with solar solutions. GLOW’s inspiring work brings environmentally friendly solutions such as helping people switch from costly and hazardous kerosene lamps to solar powered lights in remote villages in Africa, Asia, Indonesia, Philippines, and India. These projects are funded through yoga retreats that typically take place in the regions where GLOW is implementing its projects. How Kayla, who has a smile that can light up a room, chose this path of philanthropy and yoga is a tale that includes incredible highs and painful lows.
Nielsen grew up in the town of Placerville in South Lake Tahoe. She was athletic with seemingly boundless energy. Nielsen loved working with children and when a boy she babysat for was diagnosed with leukemia, she also realized she had a desire to help people. She organized a fundraising event to pay for some of his costly treatments.
“I put together a dance and it raised $5,000,” recalls Nielsen. “ When I gave the check to them, the Mom burst into tears. The experience was one of those moments where I knew this is what I should be doing,” she says.
Nielsen pursued a teaching degree at San Diego State University. During college, she fell in with a hard partying crowd. After graduation, she became involved in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship that erupted in a final night of violence on her 24th birthday. She ended up in the hospital and her boyfriend in jail.
“I’m a Taurus. I’m pita. I’m pure fire, like so stubborn, very opinionated. I know what I want and I go do it so people say, that doesn’t match up with the typical profile of a battered woman or a victim. It scared me. How did I ignore my intuition so badly to get to this point?”
Nielsen pursued legal action. While the court case was being prepared, she traveled through Africa healing herself, finding joy and inspiration along the way. Nielsen returned to appear as a witness in the court case and the unthinkable happened. She lost the case. She went back to the Lake Tahoe area to regroup with her family. One day, she went for a walk with her father that would change the course of her life.
“My dad just said look, I know you’re upset about what happened. We’re all disappointed. It isn’t fair. You can continue to let this person dictate your life or you can accept the fact that it’s over and move on. You want to start a nonprofit? You want to go to Africa? Then go. It snapped me back to reality,” says Nielsen.
Within three weeks, Nielsen had filed the papers for GLOW and bought a one-way ticket to Kenya. Nielsen says for as long as she could remember she had felt the pull of Africa. Something about Africa intrigued her and it verged, she says, on an obsession. Shortly after Nielsen graduated from San Diego State, she went to Ghana to teach English for three months and her intuition was confirmed. While it was overwhelming, chaotic and intimidating, she felt like she was in her element. “That trip is what made me realize, I am never going to teach in an American classroom,” says Nielsen. “There is so much need in the world,” she adds.
When Nielsen returned to Africa following the court case, she helped implement projects such as building schools in internally displaced person camps, but she was faced with another obstacle, a severe allergy to insect bites. The worst one happened when she was in Uganda. A bite, most likely from a tick, sent her to the local clinic. The doctors tried to remove the infection in her arm and sent her home. She was still in excruciating pain several hours later and doctors determined she needed to go to a hospital in the capital. Lying in the back of an ambulance, that was more like a hatchback rental car, she was past the point of crying. A painful rash had developed into bleeding sores all over her body. She didn’t know if she would be able to make it through the six hour, bumpy ride to the hospital. Nielsen continued being hospitalized regularly due to her bite allergy. Doctors told her, if she remained in Africa, it could kill her.
“I felt completely defeated. It started with me pouring everything into this court case and that failed and then I put everything into my nonprofit and I felt like that failed.”
She left Africa and GLOW behind. Nielsen traveled for a year and a half in Indonesia and went back to San Diego when she ran out of money. It was yoga, another one of Nielsen’s passions, that ignited the ashes of GLOW and her dream of helping people in Africa once more. Nielsen’s mother has been a yoga instructor for 25 years and she took her first class when she was just 12 years old. Nielsen developed a more deep and meaningful practice while she was undergoing physical therapy following the end up her abusive relationship. Nielsen went through her yoga teacher training in 2014.
“A huge component of yoga is service and what’s the point of any of this if we’re not of service. I just decided I’m going to do this. This isn’t over. I shouldn’t have given up.”
Nielsen sharpened GLOW’s focus on solar power. In the countries where she works, the sun is a limitless resource making it an environmentally friendly and sustainable source of energy. In order to raise funding for a pilot project in Ethiopia, she decided to see if yoga instructors around the world would hold fundraising classes. Nielsen reached out to dozens of instructors she had never met, and the response was overwhelming.
“It floored me. No one was benefiting. They were doing it because they thought what I was doing was cool. I thought, what about a retreat? That would bring in almost the same amount of money,” she recalls.
Nielsen ended up doing a yoga retreat in Mexico with two other established instructors and it was a wild success. It helped her increase her social media following. She realized she had found a sustainable funding source for GLOW.
“It opened up this new window so that I was practicing what I was preaching. I couldn’t be telling people how to financially plan and be sustainable if I wasn’t doing the same thing with GLOW’s funding.”
Nielsen has upcoming retreats in Kenya, India and Bali. The luxury retreats, which might include safaris as well as sunrise yoga and guided meditations, are held in regions where GLOW’s projects are taking place in an effort to further boost local economies. GLOW is currently work in nine countries implementing a wide range of projects with local partners such as a project in a remote part of the Philippines where it provides funding to purchase solar powered lights that locals can pay off over a six-month period.
Throughout her time in the developing world, Nielsen says she noticed a sense of dependency was being created by the donation-based projects that were being put into effect. Any project started by GLOW requires some financial responsibility from the participants. In these villages in Northern Samar, she says it’s typical for locals to spend 25 percent of their modest income on their light source. Once they’ve paid off a solar powered light, which comes with a warranty, they have the ability to save the money they were previously spending. Having a reliable and portable light source might allow a villager to fish or farm at night, another way to increase their income. The moment a local pays off his or her light, it creates an opportunity for someone else to purchase one. Nielsen never expects to see a dime of the money donated by GLOW back.
And most recently she started a new charity called Kindred Connection an organization dedicated to serving mistreated animals around the world. She has created the first Volunteer Outreach Programs to ensure the pilot project in Siargao, Philippines is a success. It will not only offer a free spay/neuter & vaccination clinic for stray street dogs, but it will also provide loving foster homes & rehabilitation areas for the dogs to recover in, as well.
“Every time I go out in the field and I’m implementing these projects, it’s a total rush. Every time I lead a retreat, I get that same deep reassurance. I know I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing.”
BY CASEY HATFIELD