Yoga Revolutionaries: How Yoga Is Making an Impact in China

India and China may be next-door neighbours, but in many ways they couldn’t be more different. India is timeless, enigmatic, chaotic and spiritual to the core. China is an officially atheist nation that prides itself on unity, order and progress. Barely more than twenty years ago, as Bollywood was taking off and the world was turning on to yoga, most of the Chinese population was marching towards the ‘glorious future’ wearing drab army fatigues, terrified to speak to foreigners. Since then, of course, the situation has changed dramatically. Today’s China is modern, cosmopolitan, eagerly open to the rest of the rest of the world, and thirsty for a new kind of spirituality. “I think the fact that Westerners and a lot of Hollywood celebrities are doing yoga is definitely one reason why it’s becoming so popular in China,” says Rachel Zhang, editor-in-chief of Fitness magazine’s recently launched Chinese edition. “But more important is the high pressure and fast pace of modern times. Yoga teaches you balance – how to breathe and how to calm down.”

It may have taken the recent celebrity interest, plus a few die-hard yogi expats, to work their magic, but after around 5,000 years of existence just across the border, yoga is finally finding its place in China. For the new, affluent generation of Chinese, whose lifestyles are increasingly Western, and stressful, yoga is now very much en vogue. A practitioner herself, Zhang says that a recent survey listed yoga among her readership’s top interests. “Many people said they had tried yoga, but had bad experiences with teachers who didn’t know what they were doing. I think that’s the biggest problem facing yoga in China now, plus the fact that men see it as being ‘only for girls.'”

Yoga pioneers Robyn Wexler and Mimi Kuo are acutely aware of those issues. Both women arrived in Beijing at a time when yoga was, practically speaking, non-existent in China. Until recently, the only options for yoga practitioners were fitness centres in expensive hotels catering to a foreign clientèle, and small group practices, advertised only by word of mouth, which were all but impossible to find. So Wexler and Kuo took it upon themselves to start a yoga centre themselves, the first in mainland China.

It is named ‘Yoga Yard’ after the space in which it was originally located, a stunning Qing Dynasty courtyard built by the family of the Empress Dowager. The studio has since relocated to more humble surroundings, but it’s still leading a shanti revolution that’s expanding well beyond Beijing.

Though both women are fluent in Chinese, the classes at Yoga Yard are taught in English, with occasional translations for non-English speaking students. Currently, Wexler says most of the students are foreign expats living in Beijing, but notes that the trend is starting to change. In the year and a half since Yoga Yard opened, almost a dozen studios have arrived in Beijing, offering everything from hatha to Bikram classes. Lately, there’s been a wave of yoga press in women’s fashion magazines and newspapers like Beijing Youth Daily, the city’s largest daily Chinese-language newspaper. Still, information about yoga is scarce, and misunderstandings rife. “There are a lot of myths about yoga in China,” admits Wexler. “When I tell people I teach yoga, they usually ask two questions: ‘Are you able to levitate?’ and ‘Can you be buried underground for a week?'”

One of Yoga Yard’s biggest new competitors is Shan Zhou (Zen Place). As the elevator doors open to the third floor, I wander into a large piano store, thinking I must be in the wrong place. But behind a long row of rehearsal rooms, in a studio shared by seven year-old ballerinas, I find Zhu Ling Yan leading a packed hatha yoga class. Originally from China’s silk capital, Hangzhou, she’s considered one of Beijing’s best hatha teachers, and has just returned from studying in India – but she admits her yoga knowledge is limited. “In America, maybe you have a teacher who has studied for 20 years, so he has a deep understanding of yoga. We haven’t developed ourselves to that level, so we can’t teach beyond our own practice,” Zhu says. Recently, though, she has brought in yoga instructors from India like Dhuruv Dev Singh, translating his teachings to Chinese.

Unlike at Yoga Yard, all of the students here are locals. Most are girls in their twenties who don’t speak English. Guo Hong is one of them, having just finished her third yoga class. The 24 year-old real estate broker says she’s “addicted to yoga”. When I ask her why she chose yoga rather than the more common and less expensive route of tai chi, she sheds a light on perhaps the biggest reason why young women in China practice yoga: “I often see people in the park practising tai chi,” she says. “But they don’t have such nice bodies like the people I see in magazines who practice yoga.”

Like many others, Guo says she first heard of yoga through Zhang Hui Lan, otherwise known as Wai Lana. Zhang is a yoga celebrity in China, thanks to her series on CCTV (Chinese state television) that aired in the 1980s. With flowers around her ankles, and Hawaiian outfits that would make Tom Selleck blush, Zhang guided legions of Chinese housewives through hatha yoga, as waves crashed rhythmically in the background.

Though the show was suspended indefinitely as part of the government’s reaction against Falun Gong – a time that also saw the closure of many of China’s qigong magazines – it played an important role in sending the message of yoga out to the greater population of China, rather than just to the urban elite who can afford to spend what many Chinese earn in one month for a single yoga class. Even without the show, some of Zhang’s followers still continue to reach out to the masses. Feng Li is one of them, travelling to remote parts of China to bring yoga to the common people.

“I travel to many towns and villages across China, visiting with the different yoga practitioners,” says Feng, “usually spending two to four days in one place, like a short yoga intensive or retreat.”

Feng doesn’t make any money from his teaching, and Zhang says she’s appalled by much of the profiteering happening in the yoga world today. Yet the profit potential of a yoga market five times the size of America hasn’t escaped the attention of those who realise that in this revolution, unlike the last.

Yoga Magazine

2 Responses to “Yoga Revolutionaries: How Yoga Is Making an Impact in China”

  1. 1 sfauthor June 18, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Very interesting. Do you know about these yoga books?

  2. 2 rachael August 30, 2010 at 5:34 am

    Hello, I am a yoga teacher from canada teaching in beijing….i like this article, but you didnt write where the second studio is or what it is called? I googled the teachers names, but no luck in finding them?

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