In his day job, Schalk Viljoen is a digital strategist at SAP. In his free time, the Earthchild Project ambassador engages with children from disadvantaged communities in Cape Town through yoga.
Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, and now living in Germany, Schalk uses his passion as a yoga teacher to give back to his hometown community by supporting the Earthchild Project, a non-profit organization operating in eight schools throughout Cape Town.
Children participating in the program come from disadvantaged communities, where they face violence, substance abuse, and poverty. For many of them, the yoga classes are a much needed safe and nurturing space where they can connect with themselves, others, and the environment. Working with children and teachers, Earthchild’s educational programs focus on the environment, health, and life skills. They teach practical skills, such as yoga, mindfulness, and organic gardening, to more than 3,500 children and 300 teachers.
After visiting one school and talking to the headmaster Schalk says, “I found out that the kids visiting the yoga lessons perform better in class, are more focused, and parents appreciate the values and new habits their kids bring back home into their anything-but-untroubled lives.”
As an Earthchild Project ambassador, Schalk organizes donation classes for the Earthchild Project at the various studios in Germany and Switzerland where he teaches. Sixteen Euro, or around 250 South African Rand, pay the yoga lessons for one child for a full year. Since 2015 more than 900 children have been sponsored to practice yoga for a year by attendees of his classes.
Onsite with Earthchild Project
Earlier this year, Schalk visited Earthchild and one of their schools in South Africa and participated in a class with about 30 kids. “It was an amazing atmosphere,” he says. “Thirty kids and one teacher practicing a very playful yoga with poses named after animals underpinned with the respective animal sound.”
At the end of the class the children sat by themselves for a three-minute meditation. “I could feel the energy in the room drop when all kids were sitting motionless and silent with themselves,” he says. “I was moved to tears.”
“‘Children are our future’ is such a cliché, but at the same time very true,” says Schalk. “If we want to have an impact on the future of our communities and the planet, we have to educate our children on how to live happy and fulfilled lives. That journey starts by understanding and loving yourself, those around you, and the earth that sustains us. “
Becoming a Yoga Teacher
Schalk began practicing yoga in 2000, but it wasn’t until a few years later that he realized there was a disconnect between his work life and his mindset around his yoga practice.
“During a yoga workshop I had an epiphany: The yoga teacher bluntly stated that we as yogis are part of both worlds, the real world as well as the spiritual world, and that we should not keep the two separate. One should always be present and 100 percent engaged, whether you are at work, at home, or on your mat.”
Once Schalk fully embraced this idea, he began to change his approach at work, finding new ways to resolve difficult situations in projects and discovering new ways of working with others. As a result, good things started to happen. Longstanding work relationship issues were resolved, and a new career path opened. This had a dramatic effect on his personal happiness and satisfaction at work.
“I wanted to give something back to my community, so the next logical step was becoming a yoga teacher and facilitating others on this journey,” he says.
Schalk admits that initially it was a tough personal experience for him. “I had to develop a completely new skill when I was in my mid-forties. Being student again reset my ego and made me more emphatic to people who are starting fresh on new topics.”
Focusing on a Clear Purpose
Today he never teaches a class without asking the students to have a clear purpose, and he has adopted the same practices at work. “I don’t call for meetings without making it clear ahead of time what we want to achieve,” he says. “In the past, I might have put up with a few meetings that lacked a clear focus. These days I’m aware that time is too precious, and I take the – initially harder – way to push for a clear goal.”