Yoga democratised for the masses, minus its spiritual context

From Vancouver's Stanley Park to a Bali beach and a Hong Kong hotel, yoga is being repackaged as 'flowga', 'broga', and as plain exercise, and winning new adherents

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 August, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 August, 2015, 8:15am

On a vast field in Vancouver's Stanley Park, against the downtown skyline glowing in sunset hues, a few thousand people formed their bodies into a down dog, flowing along to silky tunes spun by a live DJ.

This wasn't your usual yoga class - a rock concert awaited after, to top off a day that began with a 21km race around the city's famed seawall. Run, yoga, party: the annual Lululemon SeaWheeze two Saturdays ago is part of a collective that's democratising yoga.

"Yoga is becoming more accessible to everybody," says Travis McKenzie, global events manager with Lululemon, the yoga and fitness apparel company. "There are more studios, more online practices available. There aren't as many barriers to entry. People are becoming more mindful and aware of slowing themselves down and becoming more present."

The trend is apparent in Hong Kong: more people, especially men, are picking up yoga, notes yoga instructor Victor Chau. "Yoga, to a lot of people, is very deep, super spiritual and you need to be flexible to practise it. This is not necessarily true," he says.

Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago as a philosophical and spiritual discipline to deliver practitioners from suffering or disease. These days, yoga is often treated as exercise or even complementary therapy for cardiovascular and respiratory disease. To many, yoga is not a way of life; it's just a workout.

In the same vein, classes are increasingly being led in English rather than referring to poses by their Sanskrit names; for example tree pose instead of vrikshasana, and shoulder stand instead of sarvangasana.

The setting in which yoga is practised is also changing. Local wellness company Mayya Movement, for example, organises yoga at Kee Club in central with a live DJ. Farther down Wellington Street, you'll find a Broga class - yoga for "bros" - led by a practitioner beamed live from London. It is followed by a mingling session over tea cocktails.

Two months ago, Chau led a "flowga" class - yoga on a junk sailing in Victoria Harbour. He says although the delivery of yoga classes has changed to suit the local and modern audience, the fundamental teachings and philosophies of yoga have not changed much.

"Two hundred years ago you needed to find your guru, who might have resided in a cave or forest, making yoga available to only a select few," says Chau. "But today, you can learn it in a studio, from a book, on YouTube or even on Instagram."

At the W in West Kowloon - and in the hotel chain's properties worldwide - guests are told to "forget about being zen and start being fabulous". The in-house TV service offers yoga videos to cure jet lag, give an energy boost, prep for a big night out or nurse a hangover.

The videos are led by Tara Stiles, an instructor from New York who's been branded a "yoga rebel" by traditionalists for her yoga style called Strala, which focuses on flowing movement rather than poses. Stiles created Strala in 2008, drawing on Eastern movement and healing practices, as well as her background in classical ballet and choreography. Apart from studios in New York, Seattle and Singapore, Stiles also teaches on YouTube.

"I grew up doing yoga but my friends weren't doing it because they felt it was too rigid, or they weren't flexible enough, or weren't having fun in the class. I saw the opportunity to create something more fun and help people connect and feel good," says Stiles, who was in Hong Kong in June to launch her "Fit with Tara Stiles" programme at the W.

"I think it's actually positive to be recognised as something that's rebellious and different because there's still more people not doing yoga than doing it. Yoga can make you feel good, and if you're not doing it then you're not feeling good."

At W Bali in September, Stiles held a yoga retreat that included sunset yoga on Seminyak Beach accompanied by a rock band. It ruffled some feathers, according to Arnaud Champenois, Asia-Pacific senior brand director at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which owns the W brand.

"We received a nasty email from a local yoga association asking why we brought this girl to Bali and destroyed their business model of yoga gurus and retreats," says Champenois.

Michael James Wong, a London-based yoga teacher, thinks what's important is having the right intentions and practising yoga in a way that suits and serves the individual.

"For me, it doesn't matter if you're a traditionalist in the practice or if you're bringing a contemporary spin to it. If it inspires you and inspires others, then why wouldn't it be positive?" says Wong.

Last year, Wong created Boys of Yoga, a project to make the practice more accessible to men and raise awareness of what it can do for them physically, mentally and holistically.

"In five years I hope that yoga is as commonplace as running, cycling and walking in how we perceive its benefits," says Wong. "On a physical level, yoga is one of the best types of functional movement for the body, and on a mental and emotional level, it's an amazing way to help find your own sense of self-confidence, happiness and compassion to yourself and the world around you."