Head over heels for yoga
HONG KONG, (AFP) - A 5,000-year-old tradition rooted in meditation might not seem the obvious leisure activity for Hong Kong's high-octane big-spending population, but in the past five years yoga has taken the city by storm.
Local company Pure Yoga last year opened what it believes is the world's biggest yoga studio, and the city has just hosted Asia's largest yoga conference, a four-day extravaganza with classes on everything from Thai massage to Sanskrit and a huge array of yoga equipment on sale.
Just a few years ago yoga in Hong Kong was the preserve of a handful of small independent studios owned and run by instructors with little business acumen.
Now it is part of the mainstream, dominated by chains such as Pure Yoga and Yoga Planet, run by the flamboyant Indian yogi Master Kamal whose media appearances have turned him into something of a local celebrity.
For American yoga instructor Desiree Rumbaugh, a guest teacher at the weekend's Evolution Asia conference, it is the fast pace of life in Hong Kong that has made yoga such a hit. "It's amazing, it's like 10 times the stress of New York," she says. "The city has such a buzz to it. And people here are really committed, they are going to classes three or four times a week."
Colin Grant, founder of Pure Yoga and the man behind Evolution Asia, estimates around two percent of Hong Kong's six million people now practise yoga regularly, a renaissance he attributes to the new style of studio. "When we first opened I didn't have a yogi head, I had a business head, so I applied what I thought would be good business sense to a yoga studio," he said.
"We offered complimentary towels, we supplied mats and we had lockers. So someone working in a regular office could rock up and do a class and not have to drag a big bag into work. "We made a million-dollar investment in our first studio and everyone thought we were mad. But it changed the model and within a month we had 450 people a day coming to classes, most of whom had never done a class in their lives."For Hong Kong's image-conscious residents, yoga's new-found popularity also goes hand-in-hand with the availability of fashionable gear.
High-profile devotees such as Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Sting have helped make the practice trendy, and even Louis Vuitton has its own yoga line.
Yoga mats, bags and clothes are big business for major brands such as Adidas and Nike, but even dedicated labels like the Vancouver-based Lululemon are now multi-million dollar concerns.
Lululemon had revenues of nearly 150 million dollars last year, and in May announced plans for a stock market float to fund expansion.
Yoga is now estimated to generate about 18 billion dollars annually worldwide.
The increasing involvement of mainstream brands keen to cash in on yogas popularity, combined with the growing perception of it as a way of keeping fit, has led to concern that the true meaning behind the ancient discipline is being lost.
Conference-goer Elke Shuettler, a Hong Kong resident who began learning yoga in her native Germany, said there was a danger people learning now could miss out on the spiritual and mental benefits. "Yoga is much more than gymnastics," she said. "It is very important that there is more to it than the physical side."Grant conceded there were concerns, particularly over a new breed of classes claiming to combine the discipline with such un-yogic activities as kick-boxing.
But he said commercialisation would not necessarily harm yoga. "Were not going to be offering fusion-combat-yoga, I can tell you that. But if people like it -- no problem," he said. "It's what you make it. If I want to do a power class and have a good workout or do a deep meditation class, neither is more yogic or less yogic."Conference director Paveena Atipatha believes that while yoga's popularity has probably peaked in the United States, Asia offers considerable growth opportunities.
"In the US yoga is now a 3.5-billion-dollar industry. But Asia is where the US was five or even 10 years ago," she said.
Yoga is already popular in Japan and growing rapidly in Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Korea. Studio operators are now looking to China’s growing middle class as the next major opportunity.
"Hong Kong is probably one of the more mature markets," said Grant. "Quite a lot of our students have gone to China and set up studios there. It's at the very early stages in China but we're looking at opportunities there."