What It Takes: Creating AKASHA Yoga Pieces Brand

What It Takes is a three-part series featuring conscious lifestyle brands and their founders. PRAVAYAMA gets the inside story behind the joy, sweat and tears of being an entrepreneur and creating a business full of heart.

Akasha Yoga Pieces was born from its founders’ profound connection to Guatemala. While deepening their yoga practice in the spiritual melting pot of San Marcos, Emily and Luke fell in love with the land, its Mayan people and their ancient textile craft. 

Each yoga piece is a hand-crafted, one-of-kind accessory that celebrates the intricate beauty of ancient weaving techniques.

At the heart of the brand is local philanthropy, sustainability, creativity, and a desire to inspire mindfulness on and off the mat.

Here, Emily shares the story of how she and Luke left behind successful careers to co-create their ultimate dream.

The Guatemala Experience

Just over five years ago my housemate introduced me to yoga while living in Surry Hills. I was a once-a-week-yogi and while I loved my ninety minutes on the mat each week, it wasn’t until I arrived in San Marcos, Guatemala that I really began to deepen my practice and experience the profound benefits of yoga.

San Marcos La Laguna is a spiritual melting pot, filled with unique and inspiring beings from all over the globe. I was able to experiment with all types of yoga and meditation techniques.

Beating The Post-Travel Blues

It’s amazing to consider that I’ve been lucky enough to practice yoga all over the globe, from my base in Sydney, to Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, USA, Bali and hopefully India soon!

The first time we returned home after travelling for two consecutive years, I inevitably caught a bad case of the ‘coming home blues’. I had often disregarded this notion especially as I was so excited to come home to be with friends and family.

But I soon found myself in a black hole, unable to connect and find my place back home. After a month of being unable to shake it, I committed to a thirty-day yoga challenge. By the end of those thirty days I signed up for another thirty days! I felt so strong both mentally and physically.

Yoga pulled me out of my darkness and this is why I’m so eager to encourage people to make yoga part of their lives, because I know first hand the profound benefits a regular practice can have.

The Beginnings Of A New Life

Luke and I both left successful careers in music and fashion over three years ago. For me, it was a difficult choice to leave a job that for the most part I loved, at the height of my career, but I figured I was at an age (30) when I might not get an opportunity to travel the world like this. I think deep down I knew that life had a new purpose for me.

After travelling through Mexico for six months, we needed stillness, and found ourselves on the beautiful shores of San Marcos, Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Our focus was to learn Spanish and as it turned out our Spanish teacher and now good friend, was also a director of a local NGO that provided sixty nutritious meals a day to the town’s most at-risk people, mainly children, elderly and pregnant mothers. A staggering 7 out of 10 children in Guatemala are malnourished and the statistics in remote villages such as San Marcos are worse.

We would visit Konojel every day, getting to know each of the sixty beneficiaries of the program. We of course fell in love with these incredibly resilient and sweet kids. After a month we were given an amazing opportunity to take on the role of Enrichment Program Co-ordinators. Luke dedicated himself to creating an incredible photography program, which included personally raising money to buy a camera, employ a local photographer and pay for the printing of postcards of the kids’ work.

I busied myself with creating fun art and craft projects for the kids – totally in my element. I can say without hesitation that this was the happiest we’ve both ever been. We were living an idyllic life. Rising with the sun and retiring with the moon. We practiced yoga by the Lake and bought fresh produce from local farmers. I spent my mornings preparing for the day’s art activity and then by midday we would make our way to Konojel to play with the kids. In the afternoons we would study Spanish and read and draw and cook and just live. Life was beautifully slow and we felt so grounded and connected.

How AKASHA Emerged

Organically, an urge to help began to grow. Coupled with our deepened yoga practice and our love of the beautiful textiles central to Lake Atitlan, the idea for Akasha emerged.

We began with a few straps that we would sell at our friend’s café in the centre of town. We were selling enough to pay our rent for the week and feed our daily Bliss Ball addiction! So we decided to invest our own dwindling savings and ship some back to Australia. Two years later, here we are, stocked in Australia’s leading yoga studios and boutiques with an amazing international customer base.

When Passion Meets Purpose

After living in a third world country and building relationships with locals, you can’t un-feel those feelings and so our drive to help others is really at the heart of what we do.

The brand’s aesthetic is driven by the traditional textiles that we work with. For the indigenous community, weaving remains a symbol of cultural identity, self-expression and a source of belonging. Each design, from colour, symbology and technique are unique to the region. And just like Western fashion there are seasonal trends. When we’re sourcing straps, it’s fascinating to learn the stories and history behind each design.

In terms of the branding, Luke has always been fascinated with triangles and I have whiled-away many hours drawing mandalas, it’s a form of meditation for me.

Our focus on sustainable practices also informs our aesthetic, whether it be recycled packaging, minimal waste or organic, locally sourced fabrications.

Getting AKASHA ‘Out There’

Initially we spent a long time talking to the artisans testing the function with local yogis, visiting villages and local markets so we could learn more about the designs we were drawn to.

We then sought out seamstresses and played around with different design functions. The straps were originally designed with pockets to carry your phone and keys etc, but because we had been living in a bubble we didn’t realise that the new IPhone was way bigger than the old models we were carrying. So when we got home and tested out the very snug pockets we realised our mistake and had to remove all of the pockets!

Anyway, once we had finalised the design of the strap, organised an amazing photo-shoot with one of our favourite people in the world, Nydiah, a fellow traveller who we met during a yoga class in town. We then shipped the straps home, built the website and got our first stockist, Nimble in Bondi.

At the core of our brand is a desire to inspire people to incorporate the philosophies of yoga into their everyday life, not just simply those 90 minutes on the mat.

The Key To Successful Co-Creation

I believe gratitude, patience and compromise are the keys to working together, but that’s not to say that we don’t want to kill each other sometimes! For the most part, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work along side my best friend and watch something that we built together grow.

To begin with, we were pretty haphazard in our processes, but now that we’ve grown we have delegated roles based on what we enjoy doing and what our skill sets are. Luke’s Spanish is far better than mine, so he liaises with our suppliers in Guatemala. He’s also an incredible photographer and is so passionate about it, so he is responsible for all of our amazing photography. With my background in design I oversee the creative sides like the website, social media and marketing material.

Applying The Yamas To Business

At the core of our brand is a desire to inspire people to incorporate the philosophies of yoga into their everyday life, not just simply those ninety-minutes on the mat. So whether this is connecting and caring for the environment or practicing mindfulness in your purchasing habits, considering the true cost of your consumerism.

We like to use the first limb of yoga, the Yamas as a guide for our business practices. For example, we practice Aparigraha (non-attachment), by donating 5% of proceeds from online sales to Konojel Community Centre in Guatemala; Asteya (non-stealing) we ensure that our businesses practices are fair, developing meaningful relationships with our artisans and providing them with valuable employment; and Satya (truthfulness)  by being transparent in our manufacturing process, honoring the incredible artisans that make our pieces.

From Challenges To Heart-Warming Stories

Our first attempt at shipping to Australia from Guatemala was pretty disastrous!

You see, we failed to realise that we had accumulated 90kgs of textiles that had to be carried from our home, down to the dock, loaded onto a boat, transported forty minutes across the Lake and then taken to the Guatemalan post office via tuk-tuk.

We also failed to realise that the post office closes at 1pm on Saturdays. And to top it off, we had also foolishly booked our shuttle out of San Marcos that afternoon!

We arrived sweaty and frazzled to the local post office only to be told that they don’t provide boxes and that we’ll have to package everything ourselves. Luke runs madly all over town collecting ragged boxes, only to discover an actual international courier service.

We then haul everything up the road to this no-name shipping centre. The lady who runs it is a beacon of sweet relief. Just as everything is looking up, we’re given the bill, which far exceeds our combined monthly budget and told that credit cards aren’t accepted. Given no other alternative (oh and by now we’ve missed our shuttle out of town!) we direct-transfer the amount into this ladies personal account, yes personal account (!) which we’re assured is standard practice, praying to the Mayan Gods that we haven’t just been swindled.

We then leave the office with our precious cargo spilling over the office floor, hoping against hope that it arrives safely in Australia – which of course it did.

The Rise Of Conscious Consumerism

I think as a business it’s important to recognise our impact in the world and work towards minimising the effects of our practices. We want to encourage people to spend more but buy less. Especially for a yoga brand, we want to promote a Yogic way of living. So while we’re not expecting everyone to turn vegan and to stop consuming all together, we do want to encourage mindfulness towards consumerism. To question where your goods come from, who made them (were they treated well and paid fairly?) and what was the environmental impact?

In regards to brands that I admire, there are so many out there striving to make a difference, which I find so inspiring!

On a global scale I have so much respect for brands such as Stella McCartney, Mara Hoffman and even Patagonia. Each of these brands are paving the way for socially and environmentally sustainable practices and what inspires me most is that they’re honest about not being perfect and owning the fact that sustainable practices are a continuous work in progress.

I respect the movement towards transparency in business; companies such as Alas The Label and Everlane are an inspiration. Everlane go as far as publishing their actual cost prices on their website, while Alas profile the factories they work with.

Staying True To The Vision

It would be so much easier to buy synthetic materials, to disregard our impact on the environment and to have our products manufactured in China, but how boring would that be?!

We started Akasha because we wanted to make a difference to the lives of the indigenous community that touched our hearts in Guatemala. So if we don’t staying true to the Akasha philosophy, despite its challenges, then there’s no point to the brand.

Meet The Akasha Artisans

Tono, our seamstress is a bit of a man about town. He comes from a strong family in the community, with five brothers who all look identical, (making it very difficult to remember who-is-who). He works out of a small sunlit studio with three sewing machines. He always has a new question about Australia or other parts of the world, and drives a hard bargain but always with a cheeky smile.

Our dream team from San Juan includes Adalita, Carmen and Don Pedro. We’ve been working with Adalita from the beginning; we were actually going to name the brand after her daughter Estrelitta (Little Star) until we realised how it sounded with the Australia accent! These guys work together to create our bespoke ikat designs. Don Pedro, like many of the artisans we work with, has been perfecting his craft from childhood. Responsible for creating the designs, he marks them out by tying off areas of the cotton yarn before they are dyed.

Carmen, a single mother, weaves the fajas using the backstrap loom. She is part of a co-op that Adalita has organised to provide work to many single mothers in town.

Flora runs another co-op across the Lake and is an incredibly inspiring woman working with over eighty women from all around the region, providing weaving and natural dying work for them. She is passionate about providing sustainable incomes and preserving the local weaving traditions.

I light up when I think about the amazing people we work with. Over the years we have built such strong relationships with the women who we buy the belts from. When we’re on a sourcing trip, we send them a text to let them know we’ll be coming to the market that week. They then spread word in their village for everyone to bring any 2nd hand belts they want to sell. When we arrive at the market it’s intense! They have these giant bags of fajas (belts) that we go through strap-by-strap. Everyone is tapping us on the shoulder beckoning us over to see their straps. We always have time for everyone, but there is this high energy and excitement!

Akasha’s Direct Positive Impact

We have an amazing woman Juana who washes each and every strap for us. On our last visit in 2016 she told us over tea that the last six months had been difficult for her and her family as a result of her eyesight is failing. Without her sight she can’t weave. And if she can’t weave, she can’t provide for her family. In San Marcos most if not all patriarchs are the income earners for the family. Through the money Juana made washing the straps she was have her eyes tested and buy a pair of optical frames.

And sure, we could have just given her the money to buy glasses, but we want to empower the incredible people that we work with and give them a sense of pride in their work. We’ve learnt the hard way that giving hand-outs doesn’t benefit anyone in the long term.

We’re also very proud of the work we do with Konojel Community Centre. For example, for every strap sold online we donate 5% of proceeds to Konojel, which is the equivalent of one nutritious meal five days a week for one child.

The ‘Slow Down’ Mantra

My current mantra, which seems to be an ongoing one is, “slow down”. Often I get so caught up in the big end goal that I forget to appreciate the journey. I know that right now it’s long hours and a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt, but I’m sure in a few years I’ll look back and miss the excitement of these early days of growth and discovery.