This mama of two finds joy in serving society in every way she can.
Despite practising yoga ever since she was a child, Hersha Chellaram had no plans to start teaching it. In her mid-twenties though, she opted to go for a life and career reset. Hersha gave up her career in public relations and started honing her meditation practice and volunteer service. Shortly after that, she became an authorised trainer under the Integral Yoga lineage. Since then, she has gone on to establish Hersha Yoga and the YAMA Foundation in Hong Kong. She is happy to work, serve and spend time with her two children, who are growing up to be kind, considerate and respectful young adults.
Have you always been interested in yoga? When did you start practising it and then training in it?
My family first encountered Sri Swami Satchidananda (I fondly refer to him as Gurudev) in the 1950s and became his followers. He taught my father yoga and though my father never taught publicly, he taught me yoga as a toddler. In a way, Gurudev was my first teacher. My parents, sisters and I would frequently go to Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Virginia (where he had since relocated to) for many summer holidays. As a child, I would be immersed in the teachings and lifestyle of Integral Yoga and I received a lot of personal guidance from Gurudev as I grew up.
His underlying philosophy and teachings have guided all my decisions in life: “To realise unity in the diversity of our entire creation, and live as members of one universal family. This is achieved by cultivating an easeful body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life.”
How, when and why did you start YAMA?
I spent some years working in the US in the PR industry. I then ended up leaving New York and studying yoga further at the Integral Yoga Samaj in Coimbatore (in India) and shortly after, I became an authorised trainer under the Integral Yoga lineage. I started the YAMA Foundation when I returned to Hong Kong. At that time, one of my nieces was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Mitochondrial Disease. The power of yoga, unconditional love, mantra and total acceptance made a huge impact on little Talia’s life. While doctors would predict that she would not likely survive, she thrived, often to their bafflement.
My husband Shaman and I started YAMA Foundation because we saw the impact that not only yoga, but music, art and dance had on her life and we wanted to share this with others. YAMA, which stands for “Yoga, Art & Meditation Accessible,” officially started in 2016. I had been volunteering to teach yoga to children with special needs at various NGOs for some time. The demand had snowballed, but NGOs and beneficiaries could not afford the most basic costs of services. So YAMA was created to fill the gap of providing accessible wellbeing services to Hong Kong’s most vulnerable communities, while matching committed, specialised professionals to their communities without burdening the end-user with the costs of services.
Your family is one of the most well-known Hong Kong-Indian families. What role have they played in your life and career choices?
Most of the media in Hong Kong (and further afield) has told the rags-to-riches story of the patriarchs of my family. While their journeys have been inspirational, I would like to give special credit to the brave women in my family who are always working behind the scenes. My mother, Kamilla Harilela, is a model of selfless service. She taught me about bringing people together and being generous. I remember visiting the Little Sisters of the Poor with her and having birthday parties at the Duchess of Kent Hospital for the resident children with profound disabilities and special needs.
Other women that have influenced me greatly are my father’s sisters: Rani Hiranand — a fierce and glamorous feminist who raced cars, brought Indian art and culture to Hong Kong, and was a fundamental part of setting up Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and the ISKCON Temple in Hong Kong. My other aunt, Sandee Harilela who was one of the first single, working mums I knew. All of these women broke the traditions of what an Indian woman “should” be like and it kindled a fire in my belly not only to be independent but also to contribute to society at the same time.
How and where did you meet your husband?
I’ve known my husband, Shaman, since I was a child. He grew up in Europe but would come to Hong Kong to visit family, and we would spend a lot of time together as kids. His mother, Nalanie Chellaram, is a fantastic yoga teacher and became one of my teachers and mentors after Gurudev’s passing. In 2004, I decided to visit her to study Raja Yoga: The Science of the Mind and ended up spending time with Shaman. We soon realised we were meant to be together as we shared many of the same values and life goals. We were married soon after that.
What role does he play in YAMA?
He has been my rock and sounding board when I first brought the idea of YAMA Foundation to him. We make all of the big decisions together. He sits on the Board of Directors and helps steer our vision, while I often get bogged down by the day-to-day operations.
What about your children? Are they involved in YAMA?
I have two children: Indira, who is 12 and Shahan, who is 10. They do get involved in YAMA from time to time, especially during special events, fundraisers and conferences. My son does a great job getting people to put cash in a donation box, and my daughter has supported YAMA through many of her school projects. They are studying the UN Global Goals at school and often have discussions with me about how YAMA is working towards these goals. My kids are also involved in our social media posts (this generation are whizzes at this!).
How do you find the time to manage your work and family commitments?
Any working mum can tell you that it comes with challenges. Shaman is very involved with our family, which allows me time to offer teacher training on the weekends – when I’m not working at YAMA. When it comes to our children, I have never felt that I have been doing more than him or vice versa. We have different approaches which complement each other.
That said, I have learned that I need to set healthy boundaries, work within my individual capacity, and sometimes say no even if I want to do more.
Who has most influenced your parenting style?
My older sister Sherina has really influenced my parenting style. She’s a fantastic mother with an incredible sense of humour (she is a YouTube sensation — Mama Style). She’s a working mother too, and no matter how hard she works, she makes parenting seem like a joy, always finding things to laugh about.
How similar or different are your children? Whom do they take after – you or your husband?
They are completely different people in disposition, temperament and ideology — like Shaman and me. One is more introverted, the other more extroverted, both of them are intelligent, but in different ways. They share the same sense of humour (well, most of the time). I’ve tried very consciously to celebrate their individuality without comparing one to the other.
Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual? How are you imparting your values to your children?
I have great respect for spirituality, but it has evolved from the religion I grew up with. My family is very devout. We have a temple in our family home, and I would not be allowed to have breakfast before school until I visited the temple.
When I left the nest, I questioned a lot of the dogma and rituals that surrounded my religion. I rebelled against many of them and looked at other ways of being and living. Again, my mid-twenties crisis brought me fully into the study and practice of yoga — particularly Raja Yoga — which provided me with an undiluted pathway to health, peace, balance and happiness.
“I no longer believe in one religion only, but that there are many different paths to find the same peace and happiness that everyone is looking for.”
My values can only be imparted to my children through my example. My children have meditated on my lap as babies, and have crawled over me as I practice asanas (yoga postures). I impart the teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to them and share in our religious customs which are great fun, but never impose restrictions.
How do you raise the funds for YAMA?
YAMA Foundation is a registered charity in Hong Kong. We rely on generous donations and the money we raise goes directly to providing accessible wellbeing services to:
- People with disabilities and special needs (PWD/SEN)
- People living in poverty
- People with poor mental health
Aside from YAMA Foundation, I run Hersha Yoga — School of Teacher Training. This is a for-profit business where I offer courses and training programmes to people who want to deepen their study and practice of yoga. In the early years, Hersha Yoga fully funded YAMA Foundation. Hersha Yoga still offers a significant portion of profits to YAMA Foundation every year.
Many graduates of Hersha Yoga’s training programmes go on to offer their services at YAMA Foundation. The right kind of trained professionals is critical to YAMA’s success. While it is not part of our fundraising, it’s important that all wellbeing professionals develop their skills to be more adaptive, inclusive and body positive.
COVID has affected all businesses and impacted families in many ways. Has it affected yours?
Of course! My main guiding light was the teaching from Sivananda, “Adapt. Adjust. Accommodate!” That, and a sense of humour, I tried my absolute best to look after the children as they shifted to online learning.
The work at YAMA grew, as we had to pivot our programming to online services. We had to suspend other programmes that took place in care homes, residential Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools and even prisons, and then speak to all the funders about reallocating the funds towards programmes that could still run. We even managed to launch Hong Kong’s first Accessible Wellbeing Community Event Series after rescheduling and reformatting the event several times. It was exhausting!
I did very little at Hersha Yoga — I simply didn’t have the capacity! Instead, I participated as a guest teacher for other online training and conferences. I have used this time as an opportunity to refocus and reconnect with the core vision of Hersha Yoga and am happy to be offering training again this year.
Which achievements are you most proud of?
My greatest personal achievement is seeing how my children interact with so much kindness and respect towards people with disabilities and special needs — and how they educate their friends and peers to do the same.
I am really proud of how far YAMA Foundation and Hersha Yoga has impacted peoples’ lives, especially when I hear from students about how they have repaired difficult relationships or stopped taking antidepressants (with supervision from their doctors).
“When a YAMA parent calls and tells us that their child is sleeping through the night for the first time in their life, or that their daughter tried some of our breathing techniques to recover from a seizure, all the hard work makes sense.”
No trophy, plaque, or certificate can even bring that sense of joy and accomplishment.
Who were your childhood heroes?
Other than the strong women in my family, it has been the spiritual leaders who have crossed my life’s path, including Mother Teresa.
What do you most enjoy about living in Hong Kong and bringing up your kids here?
I love Hong Kong. It’s my home. The people are smart, efficient and kind. It’s a great city that is family-friendly too. I love raising my children here because of all the opportunities to try different experiences. The only thing I do miss are wide open spaces in nature to relax.
What do you enjoy most about being a mum?
I love chatting to my kids and hearing their stories about their day, their friends, and their own realisations about life. I also love how they know me so well, and make fun of me at times too.
What is most challenging about being a mum?
Scheduling — deadlines, activities, playdates! And also managing grant writing, teaching, strategic thinking, board meetings, mentoring….I wish I had a magic genie to manage all of this for me.
After a long day, what’s your favourite way to unwind?
Dinner with family, sitcoms on the couch, or reading a book. The occasional sister’s night in does wonders for my stress levels.
What are your top three tips for those who’d like to set up a charitable organisation in Hong Kong?
Starting your own charity is quite a challenging journey, but worth every bead of sweat! I would advise the following:
- Work with similar charities first to understand their operations, the gaps in services and the actual needs of the community before going out to do your own thing. Figure out a long-term game plan that will make some real and lasting change in society.
- Have a back-up income stream because you will not be making money from your charity at all.
- Find the right people who, not only believe in you but can guide you. A good Board of Directors is key. You will learn as you go along — as I did — and if you keep your eyes on the prize, it’s all possible.