Ashley Raju is a counsellor and yoga therapist who has been on a journey of reclaiming her cultural identity while understanding the deep wisdom of her ancestral spiritual healers. I started following her Instagram a while back and have always wanted to ask her to do an interview. She founded the Maharani Movement, which provides mental health and well being support for brown, black and people of colour, that is embedded in Eastern philosophy while also integrating into Western lifestyles. We are so happy to have Ashley tell us her story of healing, growing and, well, resting like a queen!
I am involved in counselling, reclaiming yoga and advocating for South Asian women survivors of sexual violence and Fiji-Indian youth. I got into counselling work after learning more about the unique experiences of South Asian women survivors, and the types of support many of us need to heal from this trauma.
Following my own experience of the legal process, I realised I needed an evidence base to support what I knew to be true of our community and our needs. This inspired my research on the journey to wellbeing for South Asian women survivors of sexual violence.
The thing I love most about my work is bringing my authentic self into the space through yoga. Having grown up with this lifestyle, I now get to incorporate yoga into my work with tamariki [children], rangatahi [youth] and survivors. The most challenging thing is having to find ways to bring indigenous healing into Western systems that often overlook our collective wisdom.
As a young person I was into all things creative! I grew up as a musician, a dancer, a massive nerd and a performer. Looking back at my childhood now, creativity was always my biggest resilience strategy to get through the ups and downs of life. It was always a way for me to express myself without words.
But I never thought I could build a life out of that because as a child of immigrants, our parents often want us to live a life of financial stability.
I wanted to be a paediatrician when I was younger, but once I started university that changed to psychology and music. I wanted to study something that brought me joy! Throughout this, I’ve always either taught dance or music. Today, I use the creative arts in all of my work, whether it’s counselling or advocating.
My own experience as a survivor and becoming a parent has been the biggest motivator for drawing me to the work I do. As a 22 year old I was faced with the decision to heal my inner child as I started raising a child, and he has made me braver than I ever could have imagined. He inspired me to be who I needed when I was younger, and this is when I started speaking up and using my voice as a survivor. I strongly believe that support for survivors needs to be guided by the experience of survivors. I was also inspired to research in this area because a dear friend in my life, Sripriya, carried out some phenomenal research on the experiences of domestic violence and Indian women in Aotearoa.
Maharani translates to a “great queen” and often in my culture we refer to the many Goddesses as Maharani. So, Maharani Movement was a way for me to honour the divine feminine in my work that is founded on creativity, love, shakti and fiercely speaking up against injustice.
Maharani Movement was also inspired by the choice to heal from the violence that has been imposed on the divine feminine through colonialism and patriarchal values.
Today, it is a way for me to heal my relationship to the divine lunar energy and honour it in my work. I hope that through Maharani Movement we are able to reclaim the indigenous wisdom of yoga, shift towards a balanced lunar & solar energy, while tapping into movement as a powerful vehicle of healing.
Movement is how I facilitate deep conversations while navigating my personal experiences. As a survivor and a sensitive soul, I have to ensure my self-care routine is solid. So that involves clearing what I carry from holding these spaces through music, movement, yoga and dance. But I also keep myself safe by not counselling survivors, so that I can be a sister and provide an additional space for healing while survivors work one on one with a therapist.
I have always been a lover of dance and I’ve always found pole to be so mesmerising. I mostly grew up with structured, choreographed movement, so finding pole was such a liberating experience. It was something I had dabbled in for a little while, but because there was so much judgement around it, especially in my community, I kept it secret for a while. But about three years ago, I really committed to pole dance and have seen how it has supported my wellbeing.
I’ve lived with chronic pain for a long time, and also feared reclaiming my sensuality and femininity, especially as a survivor. So pole gave me a safe space to heal this relationship, embrace my femininity and be supported and celebrated in my choices to choose sensual movement as a way of self-expression.
Being able to focus on moving in ways that feel good to me and giving my body the chance to choose how it wants to move has all come from pole.
It’s also my number one method of managing my chronic pain, as my body is now healthy and strong and allows me to do all the things I want to.
Honestly, this question is too big to answer because the truth is I don’t know. There is so much fear around accessing mental health and wellbeing services by older people in our communities, so my way around this has been to focus on our tamariki by delivering yoga in schools, alongside working with our rangatahi so that these tools and strategies flow out into the family systems. My hope is that parents will have their fear and shame replaced by hope one day, seeing their children live lifestyles they were never allowed to dream of. But the fear of our elders is also representative of the work that needs to be done by these systems because there are too many cultural, language, and financial barriers that prevent people from accessing these services in the first place.
I haven’t felt pressured to be an advocate for South Asian women because this has always been a form of seva (service) for me, especially given that I have been given so many privileges being raised by progressive and open minded parents. With privilege comes a sense of responsibility, because I don’t think privilege is inherently bad, rather it must be shared. So I look at myself in this space as a South Asian woman who has the loving support of her parents, partner and whānau (something that I know not every South Asian woman has), and because I’m in a relatively safe space to use my voice, challenge harmful beliefs and attitudes, and speak up about my experiences as a survivor, I do so. BUT, I am constantly met with the pressure to “know what I am doing” and “what the right things to do”, so I make sure I have the appropriate guidance around me by reaching out to my elders (mostly my nani), my clinical supervisor and other incredible wāhine who are in similar spaces to me.
This is why I am adamant on not being seen as an expert in the field, because I am just human, also learning and unlearning as I move through this world as an advocate.
I know when I need a break because my inner critic becomes really loud and those are the days I try to move slower and with more intention. My go to when I need a break is to take my dog out for a walk somewhere I can reconnect to the elements, earth, water, fire and air.
That only you get to decide what being a Kiwi-Fiji-Indian woman means to you, not society, not your community, no one else. Unfortunately, questioning your identity as a person who has been twice-removed from their motherland is something you will navigate your whole life. So learn what your own values are, what’s important to you and practice voicing them. When you voice what is important to you, you belong to yourself first. When you can rely on yourself to speak up when necessary, you’ll know you can go anywhere and always belong to yourself. And when that feels too hard, know that you are living your ancestors dreams and they would be so proud of you today.
You will always belong with your ancestors and no one can take that away from you. You move with an army of ancestors supporting you.
She would be a full-time performer, singing, dancing and moving on stage!
I’m hugely introverted and a homebody, so showing up on social media and being so visible is still quite scary for me. I still can’t believe I’m doing it.
How do we make mental health and wellbeing services more accessible to South Asian and ethnic communities!!!
Putting on my pole heels at the end of a long day and seeing sparkles at my feet! They are absolute weapons and make me feel like I can take on the world!
Sripriya Somasekhar (pwi21 on instagram) an absolute BADASS MAHARANI who inspired my research journey!