There are ﬁt girls; and then there are extraordinary ﬁt girls – the ones who insist on using their hard-earned physical abilities to give a leg up to the disadvantaged. To mark this year’s International Women’s Day (Mar 8), the team found three such superwomen who have dedicated their time and heart to a meaningful cause. From promoting mental health and raising funds for kidney patients to helping victims of domestic violence in Cambodia, each of these proﬁles will inspire you to look at life diff erently
To celebrate International Women’s Day (Mar 8), we put the spotlight on three extraordinary fitness pros who have dedicated themselves to giving back.
One is a personal trainer who works to empower disadvantaged females in Cambodia. Another is a cyclist (and working mother) who clocks thousands of kilometres per year on her bicycle to raise money for kidney patients. The third, an empathetic yogi who uses yoga to promote mental health and connect with at-risk groups.
What do these individuals have in common? The positive impact they have all made for the causes they champion.
The Shape team caught up with the three women to ﬁnd out their motivations, struggles and triumphs along their journey. And these superwomen turned out to be more inspiring than we had imagined them to be. Turn the page for their stories.
INTO THE LIGHT
depression is something that 31-year-old cheryl Tan knows all too well, having had suicidal impulses as a child. The bleak thoughts accompanied her through to adulthood, until she hit a turning point in 2011.
in a move from Vancouver to Toronto, canada where she studied and worked for several years, cheryl met a yoga teacher who later became her psychotherapist. “He took me under his wing in 2012, and things started shifting within me. i have since grown stronger emotionally and mentally,” she shares.
Today, the dedicated yoga teacher is determined to help her students manage their emotional and mental health through breath and movement. cheryl founded the social enterprise The breathe movement in 2014 to promote emotional and mental wellbeing and educate the community on mental health issues.
In particular, cheryl uses “trauma-informed” yoga techniques – a highly sensitive method of teaching – to help individuals develop emotional resilience and self-love.
The yogi provides two to three classes (some at zero cost) per week to mental health patients, teenage mothers and at-risk youths. “most of these trauma-informed classes are optional [for clients of organisations i partner with], so it’s heartening to see the same faces coming back to class week after week,” she says. Plus, the ambitious lass just organised singapore’s first mental Health film festival in february this year – the four-day festival comprised a curated range of films, mindfulness workshops and panel discussions.
Despite her packed schedule, cheryl found the time to share her heartfelt feelings about the cause.
“I REMEMBER FEELING SUICIDAL FROM A YOUNG AGE.”
At around six years old, i would write “i want to die” onto pieces of paper, and stuff them into a container that was tucked away at the corner of my desk. back then, mental health wasn’t a topic widely spoken about or taught in schools. but those suicidal tendencies were real, and i desperately wanted to put an end to the searing pain that was constantly in my mind and body. in my university years, there were many times when i wanted to climb over the ledge of my balcony of my 10th floor apartment, and disappear into the dark abyss. i’m grateful to have met several kind individuals who have provided the space and support needed for me to get to where i’m at - [a healthier mental and emotional state] - right now.
“IT’S IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT ALL HUMANS HAVE EXPERIENCED TRAUMA IN VARYING DEGREES.”
Because yoga is a mind-body practice, it can bring up a lot of emotions for an individual. for instance, if you’re practicing next to someone who is able to seamlessly flow through the poses with grace and poise, you might experience intimidation, frustration or a whole gamut of emotions.
Trauma-informed yoga is a way of teaching that requires the teacher to have a great sense of awareness of the language used and actions performed, and cater to a wide range of abilities of her students without the need to control them. it’s about respecting boundaries of the self and the students, and to teach with compassion and empathy rather than with judgement and pressure. it is as simple as asking for permission before doing hands-on adjustments, allowing students the choice to decline or accept it because not everyone enjoys being touched physically. at The breathe movement, there is also a huge emphasis on the breath because it helps regulate our mind and body responses, and keeps us calm, grounded and present in our bodies.
“AS A TEACHER, YOU KNOW WHEN YOUR WORDS START TO SEEP INTO
YOUR STUDENTS AND MAKE SENSE FOR THEM.”
It’s always a privilege to witness the spark lighting up their eyes, and that release of tension in their physical bodies.
At that moment, you know that they are fully present in mind and body. sometimes those bits stay with them for a long time, or for a few seconds. but it’s truly these moments that count.
“THROUGH THE SINGAPORE MENTAL HEALTH FESTIVAL, WE HOPE TO
CHALLENGE THE STIGMA OF MENTAL ILLNESS.”
Films enable us to almost step into the shoes of another - the character on screen. This is how we start cultivating empathy. it’s when we can empathise with another that we can start to experience the complexity of the human psyche. That’s the idea of this film festival, to widen the perspectives individuals have towards having a mental illness. We hope to make this an annual event if we receive adequate funding.
“WHAT KEEPS ME GOING IS MY PASSION AND THE KNOWING THAT
THERE IS ALWAYS A POSSIBILITY TO IGNITE CHANGE.”
The breathe movement and the film festival started with a one-woman team (myself) with only a few thousands in the bank account. i pitched the festival to two good friends who willingly came on board to join me. so perhaps another thing that drives me is pure gratitude.
I also do this work because it has been fundamental to my healing journey. it has enabled me see life beyond my own limited perspectives, to be a more loving, empathetic and compassionate person. i’m still learning to be kinder to myself and everyone around me.
“I HOPE TO CREATE A MOVEMENT
I hope that we can all see the importance of the breath, and its ability to heal, transform and transcend us as individuals. Through that, we can learn to be fully present in ourselves and go about our lives as free, peaceful people.
"I HOPE TO CREATE A MOVEMENT OF BREATHING."
"CYCLING IS NO LONGER JUST ABOUT CYCLING ANYMORE."
MORE THAN A JOY RIDE
A breezy community night cycling event with her husband in 2014 was what kindled lee Pei sze’s love for the sport. “compared to being in a bus or car, being on a bicycle gives me a totally different and wonderful perspective when it comes to exploring my surroundings, ” she says. it also reignited her active life that she had put on hold since starting a family.
Little did she know that her leisure rides from Punggol to changi would, one year later, evolve into a 1,000km-long journey spanning five days from Penang to singapore – all in the name of raising funds for lower income kidney dialysis patients.
Till date, Pei sze has participated in five consecutive years of the kidney dialysis foundation (kdf) millenium ride, an annual charity cycling organised by the Epic cyclists, a local non-profit cycling group, which she joined after being spurred on by her cycling friends. The founder, clifford lee, organised this challenging ride to draw others like him, who share a passion for both cycling and charity work. “it was heartening to see that everyone, cyclist or supporting crew, was united by the same objective,” she says.
The tan lines on the 45-year-old’s wrist and thighs – a stark contrast from her otherwise fair skin – are telling of the many hours spent under the sun. Training for the 1,000km ride starts as early as a year before, mostly over weekends in malaysia to condition themselves to the harsh weather conditions and rough terrain they would encounter on the actual route there.
For the full-time working mother of two, her cycling commitment meant precious time away from family, and having her once elaborate beauty and skincare routine stripped down to the bare minimum. “gone are my perfectly manicured nails and coiffed hair,” she shares.
A week after Pei sze crossed the finish- line of the kdf millennium ride 2019, she chats with shape about the humps and bumps of her journey, and why she finds immense joy amid her sacrifices.
“I ONLY INTENDED TO PARTICIPATE ONCE, BUT SEEING HOW MY
CYCLING EFFORTS HELP THOSE IN NEED KEPT ME GOING BACK YEAR AFTER YEAR.”
The first attempt was the toughest, especially since i was relatively new to cycling. covering a distance of 200 to 300km in a day meant being on the bike from dawn till dusk, suffering abrasions and saddle sores. your hands go numb from the vibrations on the handlebar as you rattle over potholes and uneven roads, and your mental stamina is put to the test at the halfway mark – usually around noon where the sun is at its highest and hottest. initially, i told myself that i was done after one year. but when clifford called for the next year’s participation, i signed up immediately. i’d forgotten about the aches and pain it comes with. What remains is the thought of being able to raise funds to ease the financial burden of the dialysis patients, coupled with the strong bonds forged with fellow cyclists.
“FOR ME, CYCLING IS NO LONGER
JUST ABOUT CYCLING ANYMORE.”
I used to cycle for the beautiful scenery. but with events like the kdf millennium ride, it has become a more valuable experience now, as i am able to use my passion for a good cause.
“I WOULDN’T HAVE THE COURAGE TO PURSUE SUCH A CHALLENGING RIDE WITHOUT MY FAMILY’S SUPPORT.”
Our family is very close-knit and gatherings are often held at my house as we live with my mother-in-law. despite my frequent absence at home due to trainings, none of them have made a single complaint. my kids, who are 12 and 15 years old, are more independent now and hardly need any supervision. When i’m away on weekends, my husband ensures that he is always around for them. He also takes the initiative to donate and spread awareness about the ride. last year, i discovered how proud my daughter was of me and what i was doing. she presented my participation in the millenium ride event to her classmates for a project. Though quiet and reserved by nature, she was eager to share about the meaningful purpose behind this cycling event with her peers.
“I HOPE FOR MORE WOMEN IN THE
There is a lack of females in the cycling industry and the six of us on the team of 60 are a clear testament to that. as a woman myself, i understand the potential obstacles that stop others from hopping on. it could be the challenge of juggling cycling with work and family commitments, or the fear of harmful uV rays and skin damage that come with long hours under the sun. besides cycling, i’ve befriended many women, who like me, have full- time jobs and we often share how we got into riding, and how we cope with our busy schedules – it’s a community. To those who already share our love for cycling, i would like to give them a nudge to rise up and ride for a purposeful cause like we do.
CHALLENGE FOR CHANGE
Self-love and self care – that was what cheryl lin felt the fitness industry needed.
After moving back to singapore from new Zealand, the fitness specialist went on to fill that gap with Eat Train love (ETl). Through her programme, she uses her passion for teaching to motivate clients through sweaty workouts to help crush their fitness goals and teaches them how to develop a healthy and sustainable relationship with food and exercise.
Also, how to give back. and for that, she created ETl for good, a pay-it-forward project that raises funds for two beneficiaries in cambodia: new cambodian artists (nca) and Phum Ou school. The former, a female dance company seeking to spread the message of female empowerment through physical expression, the latter, a school that strives to empower individuals with equal opportunity at education and future employment.
“When i first met the beneficiaries in siem reap i didn’t have the capacity to send them a huge donation, but i had time, and i had my classes as a vehicle for fundraising, and so that’s how it all started,” she shares.
“The whole idea behind ETl for good is challenge for change. That is, for people to use their personal challenges of hitting their training and nutrition goals or completing their first race, engaging in fundraising, and helping to raise awareness for various causes.”
Besides the annual ang kor Wat marathon that cheryl trains a team for every year, she has organised a slew of pay-as-you-wish fitness events, with all proceeds going to beneficiaries. They include run clinics, yoga classes, and large outdoor bootcamps like raise the roof for kom lang satrey, which was held on the roof of People’s Park complex to aid an outreach programme by nca.
The all-rounded personal trainer, yoga and barre instructor opens up about her deep connection to these beneficiaries.
“I RESONATED A LOT WITH NCA BECAUSE THEY DEAL
WITH FEMALE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, SOMETHING I HAVE EXPERIENCED MYSELF".
When i was 19 and had just moved to new Zealand, my then-boyfriend came back drunk, got upset about something, smashed my whole house with a hockey stick and injuring my leg in the process. There was blood everywhere and i had to call the cops on him.
In another relationship later on, my partner had anger issues and though he never hurt me, he would punch holes into walls and doors. i had anxiety attacks and started to see a counsellor then. i realised that even though i wasn’t being physically hurt, It was still a form of domestic violence, and violence in the home which i shouldn’t tolerate
“IT IS TRULY LIFE
CHANGING DOING SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE WHO CAN NEVER REPAY YOU.”
With our contributions in the first year, the new cambodian artists were able to purchase proper dance flooring that they could bring along for outreach programmes and performances. before that, they would dance on concrete surfaces that was hard on Their knees, especially with the intense floorwork involved. We also helped them set up a proper changing room and fixed their roof, which was previously propped up by a ladder and a bucket.
For Phum Ou school, our efforts went into connecting something as basic as electricity to their classrooms – crucial for night classes attended by working adults – to building a community library that is now filled with shelves of books and resources from our kind donors.
This year, the nca girls will be using the funds raised toward online courses for further education, beyond the tourism and business studies offered in cambodia, while Phum Ou school will be channeling it toward operational costs and teacher development.
We may never meet these kids that go to the school, or one of the girls that decides to become a doctor someday. but our little efforts changed their lives in a huge way.
“I AM INCREDIBLY BLESSED WITH THE SUPPORT I
GET ALONG THE WAY.”
Besides having our fundraising events as part of sg giving Week in 2018, we have also had locations for events generously donated by asian civilisations museum, lePark, Just co, and lululemon – which i am an ambassador of. This year, i plan to make an additional trip to siem reap to work with the head teacher of Phum Ou school and company manager of nca on skills like public speaking, as well as vision and goal setting for themselves and the organisation. i’m really grateful that lululemon will be rendering me support in terms of content for that.
“THE FRIENDSHIPS I HAVE BUILT
WITH THEM, AND THEIR PASSION FOR ACHIEVING THEIR DREAMS KEEPS ME GOING.”
When you meet the khmer people, it is just impossible not to leave a piece of your heart there. both nca and Phum Ou school are dedicated to improving the lives of their people, changing how the role of women is perceived, giving every single person an equal opportunity at a future of employment. This really motivates me to keep supporting them.
EFFORTS CHANGED THEIR LIVES IN A HUGE WAY.”
TEXT PEH YI WEN PHOTO ANGEL GUO ART DIRECTION RAY TICSAY
STYLING DOLPHIN YEO HAIR AUNG APICHAI, USING OSIS & CHRISTIVIAN, ARX SALON, USING KEVIN MURPHY MAKEUP CELESTINE SNG, LAURA MERCIER COSMETICS