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LAURA TOYOFUKU-AKI

Self-Employed & Partner of Project Koa Yoga

Success:

One of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color (EWOC) Business Center Certification Training Cohort 2 participants and is working towards beginning her business certification. Laura is looking to use her business to practice and educate others on the Native Hawaiian culture through yoga and meditation. She hopes to also use Project Koa Yoga to help the marginalized areas of Hawai’i by certifying new yoga instructors via hosted trainings.

Laura Toyofuku-Aki, co-owner and co-founder of Project Koa Yoga LLC, was a participant in the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color (EWOC) Business Center Certification Training Cohort 2 from February to April 2021. Laura identifies as a Hawaiian and Japanese woman. She received her Bachelor’s in International Relations (Foreign Policies) from Boston University. During her journey here, Laura grew passionate about working on providing direct access services for communities. She interned with local nonprofit organizations in Boston that allowed her to see the impact that direct service access providers can have. After graduating from college, she found success in corporate sales in large companies allowed her to learn all aspects of their success from behind the scenes.

She began her yoga journey by receiving a 200-hour training in vinyasa yoga, a 300-hour certification in intersection and injustice-focused yoga, and a 200-hour certification in hatha yoga. She has been practicing yoga for over 15 years now and officially teaching for 5 years. In the beginning, Laura found her biggest obstacle was feeling comfortable and welcome in the studio environment that often lacked participant and instructor diversity. Because of her personal experience in studios in New York City (NYC) and working with numerous organizations that worked predominantly minority people, Laura quickly realized that she wanted to see better representation for her Native Hawaiian people and culture, and so she created Project Koa Yoga LLC.

“After all my certification and training in New York, I realized that there were a lot of organizations that worked with predominantly Black and Brown people. I had a realization and thought of who was doing this for Hawaiian or Native people across the U.S. So, I did some work with a reservation in the U.S. when I was in the process of moving home to Hawai`i…” –Laura Toyofuku-Aki, Co-Owner & Co-Founder, Project Koa Yoga LLC


Project Koa Yoga LLC is multifaceted and was created to offer yoga to marginalized communities on O`ahu in 2018. The three goals of Project Koa Yoga LLC are changing the perception of yoga here in Hawai`i, provide economic stability by providing instructor trainings, and create programming and partnerships to provide a free service to the community. Laura’s goal is to practice and educate others on the Native Hawaiian culture through yoga and meditation.

“There are many parts to my goal with Project Koa Yoga, but one of them is to change that perception of yoga here in Hawai`i. With my numerous amounts of research, about 60% of yoga instructors in Hawai`i are white and aren’t the actual representation of Hawai`i. And a lot of the yoga studios are in the higher socioeconomic parts of the island such as Kailua and Honolulu, and we don’t see it in the spaces where people are marginalized, which are the areas where people need the most access to the studios. By changing the representation seen within the instructors, it can provide not only a comfortable environment, but it can also provide a familiar feeling because the instructors of color know their own communities here in Hawai`i. If we were to force the standardized perception of yoga, such as the quietness and white walls within the studio space, it can feel foreign because it’s something out of their comfort zone and culture… Another piece of our mission is to provide a yoga school to train teachers to become instructors. In the trainings, we plan on implementing education on Hawaiian history, practices of the land, and the social injustice issues that directly affect the people of Hawai`i, especially in the marginalized communities here… Our last piece is to create programming and partnerships so our services can be free in most ways. Trainings would be scholarship run and teachers would be paid of course, but all programs will be free for participants. It’s very important that we build income sources that are sustainable for teachers and by doing that, we are teaching people to be small business owners and entrepreneurs. By having more business owners here in Hawai`i, it can create a better economy here …” – Laura Toyofuku-Aki

“Yoga is perceived as a Westernized version only, which is that it’s only for fitness or be a determining factor of who you are as a person. It’s just how it’s marketed on social media especially. We don’t really see the other parts of yoga and the different pillars there are. My goal is to change that message. The first two values of yoga are about non-harming and that also means standing up when harming is being done and advocating for those who need a voice. So, I think activism is a part of yoga, but we’ve taken the parts of it we like [at Project Koa Yoga LLC] and use it to relay the real perception of yoga” Laura says.

These challenges can cause stress in one’s life and Laura firmly believes that the practice of yoga can help people overcome many personal obstacles, and cope with family trauma. Because yoga is so versatile and is about both the body and mind, the Yoga and Wellness/Fitness industry is one of the most important businesses.

“The work we do isn’t just about the body, but life happens in our body. But the other piece to it is our mental health and wellness, so a lot of what we do [incorporates] surround that. Which is why here in Hawai’i we have such a beautiful culture around `ohana and hānai and people as family. Ho’oponopono is the practice of coming together to heal, and that’s exactly what the yoga studio is, we come together to look at the difficult parts of our history, family, and ourselves to try to prepare for it together. Plus providing each other with that support and just being there for someone to talk through all the challenges in life is a big part of yoga. Yoga is being able to be there for one another and understanding a person’s mental health wellness; sometimes that can be sitting down next to someone and just being available when an individual is going through a hard time…”. – Laura Toyofuku-Aki

Every day Laura is faced with the challenge of the perception of yoga. At the beginning of her journey with Project Koa Yoga LLC, she couldn’t find studios that supported the missions of her business because it wasn’t something they valued. Over the years, she found studios willing to partner with them and assist in ensuring that Project Koa Yoga LLC’s missions are being met. Now, she is struggling with getting the word out about both the business and finding people interested in becoming certified yoga instructors.

Despite her challenges, she absolutely loves yoga and does it for the benefits it can have for every individual regardless of their obstacles.

“I love doing yoga and just yoga so much. It’s quite funny because everyone I know gets taken aback when I tell them that despite being pregnant right now, I’ll be back in 30 days and they ask how I do it, and I have no response but it’s because I love yoga so much. The greatest rewarding moments I feel are when I see the same people show up to my different classes around the island. To see how invested these people are in not just my programs and can remember who I am is such a rewarding feeling. To know that I can provide someone that stability in their life is such a great feeling!”—Laura Toyofuku-Aki

Laura heard about the MBDA EWOC Business Center’s Certification Training Cohort 2 from her cousin and was excited to participate. “It was really last minute when I received the link from my cousin, it was actually right before the application deadline. But, when we get trained to become yoga instructors, we don’t learn how to run a business or a lot of people don’t tell you that when you get certified to teach, you basically are running your own business. Over the years, I’ve tried to piece some things together myself, but this was something I knew was one-of-a-kind. It was an opportunity not only for me to learn about and how to get Project Koa Yoga LLC certified, but how to run my business better…”.

When Laura found out she was selected to become a participant, she grew excited and a bit anxious because of her packed schedule.

“I was so excited because I got selected to be a part of a group of women and minority business owners specifically because I didn’t have that network prior. I found myself wanting to learn so much about their businesses and their journeys because in the yoga world we don’t have that transparency with one another, but I’m not sure why. I really wanted to learn about everything and just gain all the insight I could…”. – Laura Toyofuku-Aki


She is currently in the process of getting Project Koa Yoga LLC officially certified so she can continue to grow her business!

Laura’s piece of advice to aspiring women business owners:

“I think in everything we do in life is about not getting lost or losing yourself, so if that resonates with you, just make sure you stay grounded. Continue to ask yourself “why do you do what you do?” and if you can’t answer that, then it’s a sign to really take a pause and think about it. In Hawai`i, we really see this happening; there’s a time for everything and we don’t need to get lost at any point, but if you feel like you’re getting lost then just stop, breathe, and ask yourself “Why?”.