Interview: yoga teacher Kayla Nielsen

Kayla Nielsen is a yoga instructor and a handstand addict. She teaches all over the globe and is the founder of Go Light Our World (GLOW), a non-profit that diminishes poverty with solar solutions.

You in 10 descriptive words?
Passionate, motivated, determined, opinionated, loving, compassionate, loyal.

What is that "special touch" that makes your work unique?
I think the most unique thing about what I do is that I am able to combine all of my passions into multiple different kinds of jobs, businesses, nonprofits. However I am able to combine everything I love into not only my work but then it also becomes my lifestyle. So for instance starting Go Light Our World GLOW, my non profit that expresses my love for philanthropy, my love for humanity and the emphasis in my life of giving back to others who may not have been born into the same fortunate circumstance such as myself. I am able to combine that with my other job teaching yoga by doing all the fundraising through yoga retreats around the world, sorry not all of the fundraising but about ninety percent of the fundraising comes in from the yoga retreats we’re hosting around the world, again this is expressing my passion and my love for yoga of course which also ties another element which is super important to me which is travel, so it’s really bringing together philanthropy, travel and yoga into one lifestyle which is what I live and also happens to be what I do for work. What is certainly unique is that all of these elements are quite different all of themselves but they are really effortless, seamless sort of way. And I guess it also makes it unique about what I do for work comes just about hundred percent from the heart of course there is some logic and mind behind everything that goes on in the background but I am really able to be the life, create a job, create a workspace that is really inspired by my passion and from the heartbeat alone.

Who or what inspired you to do what you’re doing now?
It’s pretty a hard question to answer because I've had so many people touch and inspire my life along the way, and it continues to happen even so now. As I mentioned before with the yoga retreats, I'm not teaching those only by myself, I always have one, sometimes two other teachers who come with me, and everyone who is joining in on these yoga retreats, are volunteering their time and their efforts. Everyone who has helped with any events to do with GLOW has completely volunteered their time and efforts. So, every single person who has donated their energy and their time to the organization has inspired me immensely.
However, that is, you know, those people–the ones I met after the organization was already started, as far as people or influences, that had inspired me prior to the beginning; I guess that would be, again accumulation of experiences and people probably started eight years ago; the first time I went to Africa, and I say Africa broadly because since then I’ve been back about to ten times and I’ve been to seven different countries.
The first time when I went to Africa was in West Africa; I went to Ghana for three months. And at the time I had just finished school; I’d just finished University, and graduated with a degree in teaching, and emphasis in language. So, I was taking a year off in between that year of graduation, and getting my credentials, and starting my student teaching in a High School in California, to travel and explore. During this time, I went abroad and taught first semester in Ghana in a very rural area. And that experience was definitely a major Catalyst that kind of brought about this huge ripple effect of change in my life.
Africa as a whole, every person I’ve met there, has impacted me hugely, but that trip and that experience specifically, just made me do a 180.
Pretty much my entire life, since I was six years old, I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I always loved working with kids, I always loved teaching myself, and I always thought I wanted to be a teacher, so that lasted all the way through college; pretty much my entire childhood and young adult life. And then the experience that I had in Africa just put all of that out of the window. Everything that I thought that I wanted, everything that I’ve been working towards slipped. And I knew that actually what I wanted to do was help people; I wanted to continue traveling, I wanted to continue to give back to–at the time, started specifically to Africa as a whole, but now has expanded globally as well. But I would say that initial experience; teaching abroad, and I was volunteering my time, it wasn’t an actual paid job, but that was also my first solo trip out of the country.
I traveled before with my family, and I come from a family of travelers, so we’ve always done family trips. But this is my first time leaving the country by myself, backpacking on my own, as well as fulfilling this volunteer position for three months, and then spending another month on my own just backpacking.
So, doing that in a place like Ghana, you know, it’s pretty off the grid; especially eight years ago, we hadn’t this kind of connection that we have today with social media, with getting SIM cards easily. There was one Wi-Fi–not even Wi-Fi–there was one internet cafe in town that had dial-up internet, didn’t have Wi–Fi. So, you cannot connect your phone; I maybe was able to check in once a month because the power was out so frequently there.
So, just having that whole experience of like really being off the map and fully immersed into the culture shifted my entire perspective of what am I doing with my life, what do I want to do, and how can I continue to bring this element of philanthropy and travel back in?

What’s the best advice you ever received?
This one is actually a surprisingly easy question to answer. When I first started GLOW, I was coming from a really, really dark, difficult period of my life. To abbreviate it, I was coming out of an abusive relationship that came to a really volatile end. Actually, on the night of my 24th birthday, it got so bad to the point I left in an ambulance, and my boyfriend at the time was arrested. You know, because he was arrested, and the State of California was pressing charges against him, and there was a trial that was going to ensue as a result of it.
So, after that had happened, you know, the event itself left me physically very damaged. I was in physical therapy for several months; this is actually leading to my second volunteer trip to Africa. My right hand was so damaged, I couldn’t even hold a pen to be able to teach while I was there. So, I was in intense physical therapy, but not only physical, I had a lot of mental and emotional things I needed to heal from that as well.
The process of the trial went on for almost a year; It was about nine months. And during those nine months, I had this three months of physical therapy, and then I left the country for six months on another volunteer trip I had planned prior to this event even happening.
I came back specifically from my travels to be in this court case. I was subpoenaed as the main witness of course. And the actual trial process itself which did go to a full trial had a jury, everything. The trial itself was two weeks long.
So, I came again from this really amazing, uplifting, and inspiring experience abroad, being back in Africa. This time I was in Kenya, and Uganda, and then I also traveled to Asia; Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia. And I came back in to this really dark place, and I guess, you know, with this hope that, okay, at least me doing this, there would be some justice served, and at least I would be speaking my truth, at least I would be speaking from the heart.
And actually, this two weeks ushered this long, long, brutal trial that was again just very difficult for me. This is also the first time I’ve seen this person–seen that boyfriend at the time–ex-boyfriend at the time, face to face, and having to look at him and retell the story over and over in front of an audience of people, was horrible, to say the least. Then again, I was pushing through thinking there was going to be some justice served, and that maybe me choosing to do this could inspire other women to take a stand as well.
And at the end of this entire process, he was found not guilty, and I was absolutely devastated. I felt like I had come back for nothing, I felt that I spoke my truth for nothing, that I had invested all of this time and energy for nothing, and I was really down, in a really dark place.
So, that lasted for a couple of weeks. And one day, my Dad and I–we were walking up in the mountains; it was all snowy, walking our dogs, and my Dad is telling me–he's like, "Look, I know that you’re upset right now; we’re all upset". You know, like "Our hearts are broken for you, our hearts are broken for the situation. We’re all very let down by the outcome. But the reality is that it’s over now. So, I know that you’re upset that you came back here from this great inspiring experience to be a part of this trial, which basically led to nothing. I know you don’t want to be in this state". He's like "What do you want to do?" and I was like “I want to start a non-profit. I want to go back to Africa”. He just looked at me and said “So, then do it. You literally have nothing holding you back anymore”. He's like, “This person has already controlled and manipulated so many years of your life. It’s over now. It might not be over in the way that you wanted it to be over, but it’s done. So instead of letting him continue to manipulate your mood and continue to manipulate your choices, move on. You know, and of course, it’s easier said than done, but it is possible".
And he just looked at me and said, "If you want to start a nonprofit, if you want to go back to Africa, then go. There is nothing stopping you. There is nothing holding you back being here anymore. You have no reason to stay here and fight. It’s done". And he just said, "You’re young, you’re healthy, you’re intelligent, you’re completely capable. If you want to do it, then do it".
And within three weeks, I filed all the paperwork for my non-profit, bought a one-way ticket, moved to Kenya, and that is how GLOW was started.
So, I would say that was probably some of the best advice that I ever had, and it's the advice I continue to share with my friends and my family, and my loved ones when I see and hear them explaining to me in their own similar mental or emotional situations such as that.

Exclusive tip for Yoga Mamondo readers?
This can be very similar to the advice that I was just talking about. I think that the biggest encouragement that I can give anyone would be, I am trying to think of a way to say that doesn’t sound super cliche and overused, you know as far as moving from the heart, not letting fear getting in your way, doing what you want to do, take the leap. All of these sorts of phrases really encompass similar idea, it’s just a simple thing “Just do it”. If you want to do something, then do it. You are more than likely the only person standing in your own way, accomplishing, receiving all of the things that you might be looking for externally. All of that is already happening and growing inside of you right now and I say this because I get quite a few, many actually, DM’s, messages, comments, any sort of feedback from people on my photos because I am always travelling and I am in this gorgeous far out places and I get comments from people that say “Oh, I wish I could do that, I wish this, I wish that”. You know I just want to tell them and I usually tell them that if I can do it, you can do it. If you want to do something, you are a hundred percent capable, so rather than sitting back and watching time go by be a part of that process, be proactive as you not only chase your dreams but actually take a hold of them, make them your own, mold them in what you want them to be and then start to live them. It’s happening right now. Your dreams are in your presence, your dreams are also in your future and if there is one thing that I could say to people that would be “The time is now!”.

Visit Kayla Nielsen's website at You can find Kayla Nielsen on Facebook and Instagram.