Sweating It Out: Is Yoga Set to Boom in China?

From iron ore to IT, exports from India have a high profile in China these days. But there's one Indian export that a growing number of China's young urban professionals are discovering they really can't live without — yoga. Like basketball and golf, yoga is a recent arrival to China, and could be on its way to becoming a booming business as disposable incomes — and waistlines — expand.

In many ways, China is simply catching up with the global wave of popularity that yoga has been enjoying in more-developed economies. While China might have missed out on Western countries' 1960s and 1970s psychedelic embrace of the ancient Indian practice of uniting mind, body and spirit through asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing) and meditation, the country has been making up for that in recent years.

Yoga started to take off in China in 1985 through a daytime television show on the state network CCTV starring Zhang Hui Lan, also known as Wai Lana, who is called the mother of yoga in China. Zhang, wearing garlands of flowers and Hawaiian outfits, guided Chinese housewives through gentle yoga postures. Though the program went off the air in 1999, Wai Lana's involvement in yoga continues from her base in Hawaii and via an online shop selling her CDs and DVDs and promoting her U.S. TV appearances.

Even so, yoga mostly hovered in obscurity in China in the 1990s. When visiting China for the first time in 1999, Richard Baimbridge, a Texan, recalls how “people had no idea what yoga was. They used to ask me how long I could stay buried underground." Baimbridge is now program director in Shanghai for Karma Life Yoga, one of a number of urban Chinese yoga studios owned by local entrepreneurs and expat yogis. Their hope is to replicate the boom in yoga in Hong Kong that occurred after the opening in 2002 of a popular studio there called Pure Yoga.

Nelly Wang, a former real estate executive from eastern China’s Anhui province, founded Karma Life Yoga in 2004 after getting hooked on the practice a few years earlier when shetried it to relieve a bad back. "Most of the studios in Shanghai at that time were small, maybe just a single room in someone’s home," says Wang. "That’s what made me decide to open a professional yoga studio in Shanghai and bring world-class yoga and teachers here.” Today, 2,000 members — a mix of Chinese and expats — drop in for a range of daily classes at Wang's 1,600-square-meter studio overlooking the skyscrapers in Shanghai’s ultramodern Pudong financial district.

In Shanghai, there are an estimated 200 studios, ranging from one-room outfits to big studios, but locations are multiplying across the country.“It is spreading all over China," notes Baimbridge, who has practiced yoga for 12 years and taught for six, while helping to set up yoga studios across China. "Recently, I was in Guangzhou visiting a yoga studio called Brahma. They have 5,000 members in four studios.”

Physical Reality

The yoga business isn't just thriving in China. Research by the U.S. magazine Yoga Journal in 2008 found that the 16 million Americans practicing yoga — or nearly 7% of the country's adult population — were spending US$5.7 billion a year on yoga classes, clothes and equipment. That figure was an 87% increase from 2004. In Japan, where interest in yoga is picking up after a long slump following the terrorist activities of the quasi-spiritual sect Aum Shinrikyo, about one million people are practicing at studios, according to Yoga Works, a Japanese company that sells yoga mats.

Practicing yoga isn't cheap. In Japan, for example, yogis shell out about 3,000 yen (US$37) for a60-to-90 minute class. In the U.S., a class generally costs about US$10 to US$20.

In China, a class can cost as much as RMB 200 (US$30), putting yoga beyond the reach of many. For those who can afford it, the focus is on the exercise that yoga offers, rather than the spiritual pursuit. One reason why: Years of communist-imposed atheism and strict state control of the country’s official churches have left most Chinese with a feeble grasp of — and often an aversion to — spiritual concepts.

“When I teach yoga in China, I teach foremost from a physical perspective," says Baimbridge. "When I teach outside China, or non-Chinese, I do it from a more spiritual perspective. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with that.” He cites a classic yoga text called Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, which says the majority of people start yoga for "physical, down-to-earth reasons.”

As in other countries, China's main yoga enthusiasts are young, white-collar women. "For Chinese women, it is a kind of Western lifestyle trend,” according to Paul French, a Shanghai-based marketing director of Access Asia, a market research company. “Going to yoga is just like going to Starbucks in China." But rather than looking for a caffeine-like high, many turn to yoga as an antidote for stress or a shortcut to losing the extra pounds that has come with increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

There's a good reason for the search for such remedies. According to 2010 government statistics, at least 90 million Chinese were considered obese; by 2015, the number is expected to climb to 200 million. French attributes this in part to China's one-child family policy, which leaves six adults — the parents and grandparents — doting on, and often overfeeding, one child. When those children reach adulthood, taking off the pounds is an ordeal.

The growing popularity of gyms among Chinese women doesn't seem to be helping much on that front. “When they go to a gym, they do not do anything. They go to look for boyfriends," notes French, co-author of a book titled, Fat China: How Waistlines Will Change a Nation. "If you ask what they do [at the gym], they say they walk on a treadmill for a mile twice a week. What is the point?”

French’s research found that while there is a lot of focus in Chinese media on "Lohas" — marketing jargon for "lifestyles of health and sustainability" — most Chinese wanting to lose weight look for quick-fix solutions, like slimming tablets or, increasingly, liposuction. That's exactly what yoga isn't. “To be good at yoga, you have to go all the time and practice," says French. "That is usually where the problem comes in China." And that can spell problems for yoga studio managers — having loyal and active clientele can be the difference between success or failure for a business.

Stretch Goals

But guaranteeing that clients return to their mats might not be the biggest problem for China's yoga entrepreneurs. “The most difficult part of my job is finding talented teachers, training them and keeping them,” notes Wang of Karma Life, which currently has four full-time and nine part-time instructors teaching a range of sessions, including the popular "hot yoga," which is conducted in a room heated to 37 degrees Celsius to relax muscles and increase flexibility. 

Baimbridge agrees about the struggle to maintain high teaching standards, but says the problem is not confined to China. “There are a lot of people coming out of teacher training programs, who are lessqualified than they should be. That is everywhere, all across the board, in India, the U.S., China, all over,” he says. As elsewhere, teacher training is recommended, but not compulsory — and can set aspiring instructors backRMB 30,000 for a 200-hour course. But some programs are as short as one or two weeks, and, for the unscrupulous, training certificates can simply be bought without any training.

“There is big room for improvement in the general quality of teaching and teachers. We often get many teachers from other studios coming to our classes," notes Robyn Wexler, who co-founded Beijing’s first big studio, Yoga Yard, in 2002. "It is shocking to find out that some of those people are teachers.”

“It would be great if we had an organization that could regulate what teachers need to learn," adds Fela Adebiyi, a Briton who has spent the past five years teaching at Y Plus Yoga, which has two popular studios in Shanghai. "Yoga involves too many injuries because the teachers don’t really understand what they are doing in the yoga room.”

The Path to Profits

Hovering in the background of those challenges for many yoga entrepreneurs is juggling yoga's innate spirit of generosity with the need to run a business. “The right balance would be to have an experienced yoga teacher together with a smart yogi who understands or works in business,” says Adebiyi. 

One of the newest arrivals to Shanghai's yoga scene, and one business owner who has tried to address the challenge is Kazuko Koikeda. The Japanese expat opened a small studio in early May near the U.S. Consulate in the fashionable former French Concession and next door to a vegetarian restaurant she has run for two years. While other big yoga studios "are targeting the mass market,” Koikeda notes, “we want to provide quality yoga classes and we are not trying to make money out of yoga. As long as we can sustain our yoga studio, we are all right." So far, the studio, called Darshana, which is a Sanskrit term for "gift from a high power or energy," has only 14 members and seven part-time yoga instructors teaching about 40 classes a week.

But many yoga studios, in fact, closed in 2008 and 2009 as Chinese, like consumers in other parts of the world, cut back on discretionary spending. To make money or not out of yoga is the big question, according to Baimbridge. “This has always been the conflict even since yoga left the ashram world or discipleships of gurus and entered the material world and real world. I have to pay electricity bills, teachers’ salaries and insurance. You cannot avoid reality." Can you be a successful business and still keep your principles of yoga? "I think you can,” he says.

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