Balancing act

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2007, 12:00am

It's 7pm and the yoga class is overflowing with everyone from young office workers to middle-aged mums. As they move from downward dog to the warrior pose a salesman is outside signing up more people. The 3,000-year-old discipline is now a multibillion-dollar industry and questions are being asked about whether it's losing its soul.

In India, where yoga originated, teaching was traditionally provided free of charge. But nowadays there's no such thing as a free sun salutation or lotus pose, except in the occasional drop-in centre that requests only a nominal donation. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to practice yoga, with drop- in rates of about HK$200.

Much of the debate about whether yoga has become just another money-making venture centres on the large fitness chains buying up smaller studios and turning yoga into big business run by super-yogis with egos to match.

In the US, brands such as Yogaworks have devoured many of the smaller studios and consolidated them into one big chain. There's also Bikram Yoga, patented by controversial US yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, who claims to have invented the style, which involves a series of poses in a heated room. Bikram won't let other studios use the name unless they pay him an annual fee. He's become very rich, very quickly. There was a Bikram studio in Hong Kong until recently, but it suddenly closed with no warning to members or even teachers.

'There's a debate about whether or not anyone has the right to copyright something that has been around for over 3,000 years,' says Hong Kong yoga practitioner Paveena Atipatha. 'There needs to be a balance between making money and promoting business practices that are in line with yoga.'

At the Evolution Asia Yoga Conference held in the city recently, local and foreign yogis debated whether business is compatible with the philosophy of yoga. Most agreed that studios had to at least break even, but that there were limits.

One yoga teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, questioned whether pushing hard-core business and sales tactics is in harmony with the principles of yoga.

'If you have salespeople, what are their sales techniques?' she asked. 'Should you be employing people who offend other people? And is it moral or ethical to use these sales tactics for yoga? Certain studios are known for hard sales tactics. Some of the salespeople come from fitness backgrounds - and that doesn't fit with yoga.'

Fitness First head yoga teacher Anjali Sawai says 'there will always be unscrupulous elements in the fitness industry'. Although most studios offer private classes, 'to make yoga affordable for most people, sometimes classes are filled to maximum capacity.'

Pure Yoga instructor Alex Medin says that, in some cases yoga has become just another gym workout. 'But if it touches people's hearts and makes them want to explore more about yoga, that's great,' he says. Medin says many practitioners believe their practice is 'the only or the right way. There are dangers of becoming too arrogant, self-righteous and rigid. And there are a lot of brand names, quick fixes and a lot of people who are making a name for themselves through yoga. You can [virtually] get a certificate to be a yogi in a weekend.'

Hong Kong's Master Kamal, who left California Fitness to join Planet Yoga, agrees that fitness centres aren't necessarily compatible with the discipline. 'There's no denying they're a good introduction to yoga. But fitness centres have a lot of sound and it's very loud, which can interfere with the concentration required for yoga. People should do their research and those who are looking for true yoga will find it.'

Atipatha says there can be a lot of egos. 'Yoga isn't immune to this, but if one practices more, one becomes more self-aware. Yoga is more than just about getting on a mat and getting into an asana. It's about consciousness, awareness and non-attachment. The physical aspect of yoga is only a small part of what it's really about.'

Dayananda Saraswati, who attended the conference, says that, although the west has succeeded in popularising the discipline, yoga in large classes doesn't give students the attention they need.

Flex Director Heather Thomas Shalabi says the yoga craze in Hong Kong has reached its peak and will now stabilise. 'At the moment you have people who are getting into it because it seems the latest thing to do. Yoga is going through an explosive time and it could be dangerous if it's seen as just another workout. You need to ask yourself, how does your body feel? If the body feels pain, you're not doing yoga.'

But Los Angeles yoga teacher Seane Corn applauds the fact that yoga is changing. 'There's never been a cap on it - it's never been said 'yoga should only be done like this, period, the end'.'