In Hong Kong, the caviar of Yoga
Yoga has taken Hong Kong by storm, in the process, acquiring Hong Kong characteristics: rock-star teachers, five-star facilities and all kinds of charlatans, lavish claims and mega-hype. Still, fans say it's all about feeling good and getting fit.
By Ron Gluckman/Hong Kong
YOGA IS ONE OF THE HOTTEST TRENDS to sweep Hong Kong, quite literally, in fact.
At 37 degrees (98.6 F), the aptly-named Hot Yoga has sent stars around the globe, from Brooke Shields to Madonna, into a passionate frenzy. Now, it has Hong Kong happily working up a citywide sweat.
But it’s not just Hot Yoga that has lit Hong Kong’s fire. Hong Kong is also hot for Warrior Yoga, Power Yoga, even UpsideDown Yoga.
With so many different plans and postures, yoga offers a meditative routine to suit any schedule in what may be the most competitive – and lucrative – yoga market in the world.
Yoga’s local growth is part of “a worldwide story,” notes Eric Levine, CEO of California Wow (claiming “the world’s Number One fitness centers”) as well as Planet Yoga and Bikram Yoga, two of Hong Kong’s top brands. “Yoga is big everywhere.”
Still, the boom has manifested itself uniquely in Hong Kong, with some of the flashiest yoga facilities ever seen.
Bikram has over 800 branches worldwide, but the nearly $2 million studio that Levine opened last March in Tsim Sha Tsui is the biggest.
Even larger and more lavish is the plush 22,000-square-foot yoga palace opened a few blocks away the following month by rival Pure Yoga, in the upper floors of the swank Peninsula Office Tower.
“We’ve got the caviar of yoga in Hong Kong,” concedes Levine. “Hong Kong is used to the best. Our customers are millionaires, movie stars, CEOs. They expect the best. The best locations, the best teachers, the best yoga.”
When Hong Kong’s first big studio, Pure Yoga, opened in early 2002, “everyone though we were crazy,” recalls CEO Colin Grant. “We expected to have 120 people a day. Within two months, we had 450. It was rocking!”
That first facility was 9,000 square feet. Before the year ended, Grant added another nearly twice as big, in Causeway Bay. Just the day before we meet, he signed a deal for yet another Pure Yoga in Mongkok – a massive 35,000-square-foot studio.
“This hasn’t peaked yet,” he says. “Yoga is going like crazy and it’s a good thing. It makes you feel good. Who doesn’t want that?”
Still, some find it all incongruous. After all, even Hong Kong residents proudly boast that the local sport is shopping. As for spirituality and the search for inner serenity, that never seemed as important as speculation, of the property kind.
All these factors help explain why, through the 1990s, yoga lingered in a sort of pre-historic stage in Hong Kong.
Studios were either four flights up some dingy flat in Wanchi, or taught free-form on Lamma Island, famous for its alternative-lifestyle population.
“In the last three and a half years, yoga really boomed,” says Frances Gairnes, editor with the Hong Kong Yoga Society.
The catalyst, according to both legions of admirers and ample critics, was Kamal. A native of India, this compact, muscular and charismatic yogi came to Hong Kong at the end of the 1990s, and quickly became a superstar.
“Kamal was so famous. He wasn’t just a teacher, he was like a rock star,” gushes 32-year-old Wendy Lee. She saw posters for Kamal and rushed, like her friends, to sign up.
“His classes were packed. After class, you had to wait to use the shower, but nobody cared. Everybody wanted to study with Kamal.”
The same thing happened before in Singapore, where Levine heard about this popular teacher who had energized yoga study.
“Before, yoga in Singapore was a small room with pads on the floor. Kamal had 120 people packed in,” Levine says. “He was this magnet, like a rock star, the Mick Jagger of yoga.”
Installed in one of Levine’s fitness studios, Kamal repeated the process in Hong Kong. The stir prompted Levine to launch Planet Yoga, centered around Kamal and his energetic teaching.
“He created the coolest, most popular yoga around. In my opinion, he single-handedly created the yoga boom in Asia.”
Therein lies ample irony. After all, yoga is an eastern teaching, drawing upon thousands of years of posturing, practice and philosophy. That it only arrived in modern Asia after a spin - and added polish - in the West strikes some as crass. Likewise, the commercialization and huge billboards of a smiling Kamal.
Kamal acknowledges that yoga has a quick-fix appeal to Hong Kongers. About 90 percent of students citywide are women, most of them say they turn to yoga to lose weight.
“Women are conscious about their health and beauty, and this is a good way to keep fit,” he says.
Yet, the yoga star who just launched a TV show and DVD, adds that it hardly matters what draws students to yoga. “Whatever brings them here, I guarantee they will leave feeling better.”
Hong Kong’s huge expansion of yoga facilities has led to a price war, with enormous billboards advertising cut-rate introductory packages.
At the same time, yoga has moved upscale, as one can see from the first steps into Pure Yoga’s luxurious Peninsula Tower studio. Women wear designer yoga gear (Louie Vitton offers a full line), applying makeup BEFORE classes.
Hong Kong’s finest hotels now stock yoga mats in rooms. When Mandarin Oriental opened its new Landmark Hotel, staff included Alex Medin, the city’s first resident yoga master.
One of world-leading Ashtanga Yoga practitioners, Medin (at left) sees both positive and negatives in the Hong Kong yoga trend.
On the one hand, he’s dismayed at the claims of “one-hour power yoga. That’s not yoga. There are no quick fixes.”
He adds: “In Hong Kong, there is more hype, but I believe it shows that people are hungry for yoga. It shows the real need.” What draws people to yoga, he notes, isn’t as important as the result.
That, in business terms, is the bottom line, and it’s fattening across Asia. Levine, also a fitness tycoon, points out that the cost of equipping yoga centers requires less investment in mats than exercise machines. Lower start-up costs means more cash to splash out on premium locations.
Both Levine and Grant of Pure Yoga describe ambitious expansion plans for all Asia, from Korea to Thailand. Then, there is the huge, largely untested market of China.
Bikram Yoga breached the mainland this year. Taiwan native Huiping Mo has been teaching hot yoga for many months in Beijing, but won’t use the Bikram brand until a suitable studio opens. Initially students are 50 percent foreign expatriates, but she expects the mix to grow to be 80 percent mainlanders.
“Many Chinese perceive yoga as a religion,” she says, but adds that this quickly changes with proper exposure. “My experience is that many Chinese do not fully comprehend the power that yoga has to physically change and heal the body.”
Chinese will likely catch on fast, as they have in Hong Kong. Levine translates the trend into local terms. “Hong Kong is a funny place. People run as fast as they can to exercise,” he says.
“Yoga gives them a chance to de-stress. It gives them more energy to do the job. That makes it a good investment.”
And, for Hong Kong’s happy yoga barons, a bit of wealth from health.
Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who spent nine years in Hong Kong, from 1990-99, and continues to return regularly, reporting for magazines like Silk Road, which ran this story in January 2006.
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All Pictures by GERHARD JOREN
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