Yoga healing the open wounds of Phnom Penh’s historic White Building

By: Max Steinman
Photography: Johnson Wang

The days may be numbered for the White Building — one of Phnom Penh’s most storied landmarks — but while its residents face an uncertain future, a weekly yoga class tucked into a vacant apartment is giving residents hope for the future.

Built in 1963 as one of the first developments offering affordable housing to low-income residents, the White Building became a thriving, tight-knit community where artists, street vendors, and skilled workers all lived side-by-side. A decade later under Pol Pot’s regime, most residents were swiftly evicted and vanished in Cambodia’s killing fields. When this period of genocide ended in 1979, the few survivors who returned found themselves building their lives back from scratch.

Over fifty years later, the disrepair of the building is stark, with poorly lit, trash-strewn halls and a crumbling facade. And its 2,500 residents face eviction once again, this time from real-estate developers looking to build luxury apartments in its place. Investors claim the structure poses a safety risk, but despite promises of payouts and occupancy in the new building, residents are reluctant. Residents have seen promises like this broken before and the White Building is still their beloved home, evidenced by colorful murals on the underside of stairwells and businesses run by residents at street level.

While two kids chase each other on the White Building’s rooftop, a tuktuk driver navigates through the trash pile on the street below.

Children playing in the hallways of the White Building fill it with a sense of life, but they are its most vulnerable residents. Born a generation after the Khmer Rouge genocide, they can still feel the trauma their parents experienced along with the uncertainty and danger that comes with living in poverty. Once a week some of these children can escape this reality by unfurling yoga mats in a small third-floor flat.

These sessions are led by Krama Yoga, a social enterprise running Cambodia’s first yoga studio. They use proceeds from their public classes to fund their work with children at the White Building and in many other at-risk communities across Phnom Penh. Through its partner organization, Empowering Youth in Cambodia (EYC), Krama teaches yoga to over 400 children each year.

Left: Students enrolled in EYC’s English program. Right: A monk studies mathematics.

Why yoga? Delphine Vann, Krama Yoga’s Director, believes that bringing peace in society starts by finding peace within one’s self. She says, “Yoga is a physical and mental practice that enables self-transformation towards self-realization; and self-realization is the ultimate way to find peace within.”

Delphine Vann, Director of Krama Yoga.

In such developing communities, where an average wage is $2 a day, the concept of “self-realization” is often superseded by the primary need for “survival” first. Children are particularly at risk in these environments and yoga classes have become a safe place amidst otherwise chaotic and unpredictable lives. Yoga offers a pathway to healing on many levels. It builds their self-esteem through the development of a new skill, promotes a more positive relationship with their bodies, supports their physical health and helps them keep calm in the face of challenges.

In stark contrast to the White Building’s fading facade, the children have bright hopes and ambitions. They often share plans to become journalists or doctors, revealing just how transformative this work can be. Krama’s vision extends beyond what some might see as softer, emotional benefits by improving academic skills and providing new economic opportunities. Through its BodySmart Lifeskills program, students receive instruction that complements their formal schooling; and for those that demonstrate a deeper interest in yoga they can even train to become a certified yoga teacher with Krama.

Whether as future yogis or future MDs, wherever these kids are headed they’ve now got a whole new set of moves to help them get there.


Video from Krama & EYC’s current crowdfunding campaign

Take a yoga class: Visit Krama’s Nataraj studio and select from a diverse mix of classes available at all skill levels.

Sponsor more yoga classes: Support Krama’s current crowdfunding campaign to help them offer 800 new yoga classes.

Tour the White Building: Your ticket with KA Tours will help employ their local architecture student guides and further their efforts to preserve and promote Cambodian architecture.

About the authors:

Max is Campaigns Director at Exposure Labs where he develops advocacy campaigns for documentaries addressing pressing social issues. Having traveled extensively as a “digital nomad,” he is passionate about using storytelling to promote a more critical view of the forces shaping cities and inspiring visitors to see their travel as an opportunity for action.
Johnson is Co-Founder at The Responsive Project where he coaches executives and helps transform teams to be agile and responsive. Through his travels and the viewfinder on his camera, he’s encountered and photographed people from all over the world. He’s most inspired by the entrepreneurs and change-makers who are creating positive social and environmental impact in their local communities.