Understanding the yoga boom

June 11, 2018 12:28
Yoga classes are enjoying huge demand in Hong Kong, mainland China and several other places in Asia, promoting multiple firms to dive into the business. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong is known for its open-mindedness, embracing new trends from fashion to technology. In recent years, the city has attracted another global favorite.

From big yoga chains to small studios, the city has yoga classes to suit all ages and backgrounds. All styles of yoga – including Hatha, Aerial, Rope, Hot, Ashtanga and Yinyasa – are practiced by thousands of Hongkongers every day. There are no official figures on the number of yoga students; but packed classes in major studios show the number is high.

For the last four days, Hong Kong has been the Yoga capital of Asia -- hosting the 11th Asia Yoga Conference (AYC), with 3,200 participants, 50 global presenters and 180 workshops.

The event at the Convention Centre in Wanchai attracted practitioners and teachers from Hong Kong, mainland China, Taiwan, Japan and other countries in Asia. It owes its appeal to the presence of world-famous names in the Yoga world and by providing Mandarin translations for many sessions -- half of the participants were from the mainland.

Among the big names was Ana Forrest, an American, who has been teaching for nearly 40 years since obtaining her diploma at the age of 18. She created Forrest Yoga, which has thousands of licensed practitioners worldwide.

"I came to the first Yoga Conference in Hong Kong and love coming here,” she said, before the start of a two-hour session entitled ‘Luminous Core’. "I flew here from Texas and will then go to Scotland. That is how I live, with no fixed school. I do not want to stay in one place. I serve people all over the planet.” Nearly 200 people attended her session.

She invited participants to attend a seven-day retreat she is hosting in La Huasteca Mountains in northern Mexico in September. Entry fee is between US$1,300 and US$1,600, including lessons, accommodation and vegan meals. Teachers like her are like rock stars; they have their own managers and fly around the world for most of the year. A session of private classes with these teachers can cost thousands of US dollars.

The AYC was both an opportunity for participants to study with famous teachers and an excellent advertising platform for the teachers and dozens of companies selling yoga products and services.

Two floors of the Convention Centre had booths selling yoga clothes, mats, props, jewelry, musical instruments, books, tapes and magazines. In 2015, in the US alone, the yoga industry generated US$9.09 billion in revenue.

Tiffany Bisley, an Australian living in Hong Kong, was selling Arvia Active Yoga ware, ranging in price from a bikini bottom for HK$300 to trousers for HK800. "We use as raw material plastic bottles from Italy which are processed by small factories in Bali," she said. "You can buy items mass produced in the mainland for half the price. But these are all designed by me; the colors will stay. Since I set up my own business, I have less time for my own Yoga practice."

Another company was Iyengar, based in Guangzhou. It is named after BKS Iyengar, an Indian and one of the most famous teachers in the world; he died in August 2014, at the age of 95. It was selling wooden props, the most expensive being a bridge costing 1,680 renminbi. Its products have received the approval of Master Iyengar, staff at the booth said.

The yoga market in the mainland is growing rapidly. “At the end of 2017, there were 20 million practitioners in the mainland, according to government figures,” said Liu Li, at the stall of yujia.com, a mainland website that offers information, teachers and tapes. “Of these, 60-80 per cent are women and most are between 28 and 45 years old, middle class. The State General Administration of Sports estimates the number of Yoga practitioners at over 100 million by 2023 and the size of the yoga market in future at more than one trillion yuan.”

Seeing this commercial opportunity, many companies have dived into the market, including International Yoga Alliance Network (國際瑜伽聯盟學院, IYAN), based in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province, close to Beijing.

According to its company brochure, it has 15 years of teaching yoga and 42 instructors; it invites teachers from more than 30 different yoga schools to teach at its member schools. It has a total of 5,000 square meters of teaching space and members include schools in Anhui, Heilongjiang, Handan, Jinan, Qianyi in Zhejiang, Sanmo in Shaanxi, Hailan in Hebei and Meizhou in Guangdong.

"Yoga in China is a form of physical recreation, to improve our physique," said Liang Lilin, a lady working at the IYNA stall. “It has no spiritual or philosophical content.”

Yoga is also booming in Hong Kong. One of the biggest firms is Pure Yoga, founded in 2002 by Colin Grant, a former tennis pro and entrepreneur. It now has 12 studios in Hong Kong, as well as in Shanghai, Singapore, Taipei and New York. The firm has more than 200 teachers offering 1,600 classes a week.

One of its clients is Mary Leung, who was among those spotted taking lessons at the AYC. "I try to do three hours of yoga a week. I need relief from the pace of life. People in Hong Kong work too much. They are stressed, tired and prone to illness. Yoga gives me quiet and a way to improve my physical condition.”

But Hong Kong may not host the 12th event next year. The organizers are talking to potential partners in Beijing and Shanghai; nothing is confirmed yet. The organizers want more outside venues and a festival rather than an event more geared to yoga teachers.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.