Yoga devotees tied up in knots as chains collapse

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am

Yoga used to be something spiritual. Its signature poses and meditation are supposed to calm a person, leading one to a happier life.

But not any more in Hong Kong - not after two big yoga chains closed down suddenly in the last two months leaving outraged clients with nothing but credit card bills.

Opened in 2003 and 2008, Yoga Yoga International and Planet Yoga rode a boom from 2005 but the bubble has burst amid the global financial meltdown.

Veteran operators say many smaller centres have also shut down and the number of yoga students has dropped from a peak of 300,000 to about 100,000.

Intense competition and cut-throat prices offered by the chains have dragged down the industry. They also point to unscrupulous practices by the two chains.

Hong Kong Yoga Association founding chairman Dickson Lau Wan-shun said it was a love-hate relationship when it came to opening yoga chains.

The big operators raised public awareness for yoga but also pushed prices to a dangerously low level, he said.

'When they [Yoga Yoga and Planet Yoga] were here, they sucked up all the customers. Now they no longer exist and their closure has scared off newcomers.'

Tennis instructor and businessman Colin Grant opened the first yoga chain in town, Pure Yoga, in 2002. He also promoted Bikram yoga, which is practised at a temperature of 36 degrees Celsius.

Model and actress Almen Wong Pui-ha became an instructor at the school and raised the popularity of yoga.

A year later, Planet Yoga joined the trade. Led by Indian 'Master Kamal' Sri Srinivas Suresh Kamal, the chain was backed financially by Eric Levine, a former president of California Fitness.

And there was more to come in 2005 and 2006. California Fitness started the mYoga chain and Living Yoga was also launched.

The peak of the boom was in 2007. With increased competition, prices were much lower than a decade earlier. A four-day course once cost HK$500 but prices were slashed with a one-month membership costing under HK$100 just before Planet Yoga closed down.

'It's only sustainable when more members join each month,' Lau said.

'When the financial tsunami hit, a decrease in student numbers meant the chains could no longer balance the budget.'

The yoga chains starting closing one by one. Caesar Yoga shut down last year. Yoga Yoga talked people into joining a Tsuen Wan branch that never opened, then shocked members when the chain closed. Some had prepaid over HK$20,000 for three-year memberships.

And it got worse. Planet Yoga attracted former Yoga Yoga members by offering them a discount package and they were caught again with Planet's closure on Friday.

'If you suffer a loss twice, would you try it a third time?' one member asked. She said the feeling was similar to breaking up with a boyfriend a second time.

A handful of Planet Yoga members marched to the headquarters of the Hong Kong Association of Banks yesterday to demand a repayment of their credit card instalments.

Police stations in Central, Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui - districts where the three Planet Yoga branches were located - received 67 complaints.

Fong Fai, a yoga instructor for more than 30 years, said in a shrinking market, more yoga centres could close. 'The schools can't make much money now... we have to wait for another boom to come,' he said.

Planet Yoga attributed its closure to a lack of cash. Banks had withheld payments of more than HK$5 million since the end of last year, a notice outside a branch stated.

Fong said credit card companies used to pay instalments to the schools shortly after they received sums from customers, but since the global financial meltdown banks had delayed payments.

Some yoga operators remain optimistic.

'We offer courses in packages costing a few hundred dollars ... students do not have to worry about losing a big sum in prepayment,' Dawn Mak of the International Yoga Institute said.

However, fewer newcomers were likely to try yoga during the summer, normally a peak season for the yoga industry, she said.

A mYoga spokesman said when it came to prepayments, customers would be asking themselves whether a club would still be around by the end of a membership term.

'Many of our competitors, big and small, lack structured financial backing, and are just focusing on selling memberships, particularly prepaid memberships, to support cash flow without really understanding the market landscape.'