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As yoga continues to be one of the most practiced forms of exercise across the globe, our desire for organic and sustainable yoga wear and accessories is also growing. Inspired by her own yoga journey, Dutch yoga practitioner turned yoga mat creator, Debbie Jongejan, has turned a dream into a successful business. I interviewed her to find out how she has moved from working behind a desk to becoming a yoga mat maker and the founder of a new yoga retreat in Portugal.
‘I was always attracted to the mystical part of life,’ says Debbie. She first stepped onto a yoga mat 15 years ago and although she was drawn to spirituality, she wasn’t yet ready for yoga practice. ‘I was young and judgmental, so I swore I’d never to go back to this weirdness!’ Years later, she was drawn back to yoga. ‘I was experiencing some serious obstacles in my life which made me return to the mat. I had heard so many positive stories about yoga that I had a change of heart and I have been going to yoga class every week since then.’ Debbie’s love of yoga grew, as did her connection with the people that she practiced with. But she felt she needed more. ‘I was taking baby steps into yoga as a spiritual way of life, so I planned a solo trip to an Ashram in India.’ It was at the Ashram that Debbie was able to delve deeper into the philosophy behind yoga and the deeper meaning of the postures (asanas). She promised herself that one day she would study yoga – not to become a teacher, but so that she could understand the philosophy behind this ancient practice which made her feel alive.
The path to transformation
As with most spiritual journeys, Debbie came up against many challenges. A holiday in Bali resulted in a period of extended illness. ‘I lost 15 kilos, along with much of my physical and emotional strength which took months to regain – and years for me to fully recover. But this marked a new chapter in my yoga journey,’ Debbie explains. A year after her illness, she decided to take a sabbatical from her job and signed up for yoga teacher training at the The Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali. ‘It was an intensely transformational month. I gave up smoking and alcohol, ate a vegan diet and did 6 hours yoga per day – from morning flow classes to evening restorative classes. My body and my mind recovered completely. It was the first time I started to deepen my knowledge about the Self too. I was aware of it but it wasn’t until I immersed myself in yoga in Bali that I began to understand it. Every day, I asked myself questions; “Who am I?”, “What am I doing here? ” I was unhappy with my work and basically didn’t know how to change this. What I really wanted was to live and work as a entrepreneur and to travel throughout world, instead of being behind a desk in an office working for an organisation whose managers never seemed satisfied.’
While Debbie was in Bali, she was invited to take part in a traditional Balinese Ceremony with a local High Priest. ‘I really didn’t know what to expect, but was ready for an adventure. It was an intense ceremony that I can’t fully describe in words, but it involved very a powerful energy shift. I was sick for days and had no desire to eat – similar to the kind of physical effects when you do a serious detox.’ After the ceremony, the High Priest told Debbie that she would become a global importer/exporter. ‘I remember saying ‘Seriously’? I thought I would become a yoga teacher! He laughed and told me that yes, in the mornings I would teach, but mainly I would be in import/export ‘ On the way back from Bali, Debbie decided that it was time for her to get back to designing, something that she had done in the past. ‘This was something that I always loved doing. I created handbags, did upholstery and interior design, and all the creativity around it made me very happy and feel fulfilled.’ Her first thought was to design and produce yoga leggings, but it was a suggestion from her friend Margot who had also been at the Balinese ceremony, that really sparked her imagination. ‘Margot suggested that I should start designing yoga mats and use the designs that I had been creating for leggings to create beautiful yoga mats. ‘ The puzzle pieces fell into place and the designs started to flow like an open water tap. In no time at all, I finished my first designs, the Dreamcatcher and the 7 Chakra.’ Debbie wanted to use colours that would help yogis to connect with their own ‘colourful nature’. She found a factory that created organic yoga mats that respected ‘Mother Nature’ and ordered her first samples. When they arrived in Bali at The Yoga Barn, everyone wanted to buy one. ‘ I didn’t even have a business plan but I got stuck in and designed my own website, then set up an online store and started selling globally to the U.S.A, Australia and to my home country – Holland. ‘
A natural ethical choice
What sets Debbie’s OHMats apart from other yoga mats is the fact that they are not only made from 100% natural sustainable raw materials, they are also the most beautiful mats that I have seen. Each design is hand-drawn by Debbie. ‘ I design intuitively and have a vision for a specific design, then start the process. There is no big team working on the mat. I want to connect directly with the people who buy my mats. I consciously choose to work with spiritually-rooted art with respect to the unseen world. I also know that our minds are very receptive to Sattvic colors, and I try to embody this into my work.’ Sattvic colours – white, blue, gold, green and violet – are considered to be the most healing colours in Ayurvedic medicine. ‘When people step onto one of my mats, they benefit from the calming effect of the colours, and can focus on the design on the mat too. Their body is also supported by the natural materials, one of the main reasons that I use sustainable, vegan materials. I really feel a responsibility to use recyclable materials and to encourage yogis and producers to think twice about their choices.’
News of the OHMat has travelled far and wide and demand for her beautiful mats continues to grow. Recently, OHMat was featured in Yogi Times, the internationally recognised yoga lifestyle publication. ‘I emailed Yogi Times several years ago but didn’t receive a reply until last year. Now I’m proud to be part of their family. I still cheer inside when I sell a yoga mat, and when OHMat was featured in Yogi Times, I had the biggest smile ever! But it’s important to stay grounded and to be humble. It doesn’t matter who you are or how big your company is, we all share the same fears and feelings. This is what connects us all and how growth is possible on so many levels. I have achieved my dream of having a global import/export company, but it’s even better than I could ever have imagined. This work brings me so much joy.’
From OHMat to Yoga Retreat
Having experienced life in India and Bali, Debbie and her partner, Liladhar have decided to set up home in the Algarve region of Portugal. ‘After experiencing life in Bali, I knew that Holland was no longer the right place to live.. The world became my oyster. I met Liladhar 3 years ago in Kuala Lumpur. He is like-minded and is open to living anywhere. And now that we had a one year old, Jeya, we decided that city life in Amsterdam wasn’t a good fit.’ They were drawn to the warm climate of Portugal where Liladhar found a piece of land on the internet. ‘One Saturday, we drove down to the Algarve and I remember asking Liladhar why were we going there! It was a hot day and Jeya was only 6 months old. He went to see the land while I waited in the car with Jeya. I was waiting for ages, then finally I saw him literally dancing down the hills! I knew then that it was meant to be. Finally, after 16 years of working in an government office, I was able to resign, which gave me so much pleasure! We bought a van and headed for our dream destination in the Algarve and to our land that is situated in Monte das Almas which translates as ‘Hills of the Soul’. Can you believe it? We had no idea when we bought it!’
With the help of Crowdfunding, the couple plan to create a sanctuary where people can come and stay and take part in Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation and Bhakti retreats. ‘We will open ‘the doors’ in 2020 so this year is a full-on journey of manifesting. We’re going to build small wooden cabins and there’ll also be white ‘bohemian’ canvas tents around the lake. We want it to be a place where the mind can be peaceful in a natural and rural environment, but it will also have stylish touches. The mind loves luxury, but the soul needs nature!’ The retreat will also have its own beehives and olive trees to produce honey and olive oil, and a garden supplying freshly-grown, organic fruit and vegetables to feed the guests. ‘Part of the land is an Eco Reserve which means that there are places that can’t be built on, but for us, this is as blessing. There is also no electricity supply to this area, so we are using solar power. There are also natural underground springs to supply us with water. So the land has given us all we need – water, sun and air.’ The pair are raising the money to complete their retreat using crowdfunding. ‘We plan to create a respectful living space where we can serve people in an honest way.’
From the 1st May this year, Debbie, Liladhar and one year old Jeya are going to be camping out on one of the hills on their land. ‘I’m totally out of my comfort zone at the moment. It feels like the biggest yoga practice ever,’ reveals Debbie. ‘ A friend recently told me that she doesn’t know any woman with a one year old baby that is doing what I’m doing as a mother and entrepreneur. And living in a rural environment without proper facilities. I laughed and replied, ‘I wouldn’t advise it either! Being a mother isn’t easier for anyone, especially that first year which is very intense. But I can see the potential of this amazing, sustainable location, so I’m prepared to live like this for a while. ‘ The couple will have fresh water from a lake for showering and there is a nearby village where they can fill bottles with water for drinking and cooking. They also have a generator to keep the lights going when sun is setting. ‘It’s a very simple life and this is one of the pillars of the yoga philosophy. To be detached and to be with nothing else other than devotion.’
To find out more about Moon Life Retreat and the Crowdfunding campaign, go to www.moonife.eu.
I wish Debbie and her beautiful family every success with their new venture and I will keep you updated on their progress!