The Annual Evolution Yoga Conference covers the philosophical and physical elements of yoga

Three yoga enthusiasts attending an annual conference in the city tellRachel Jacqueline how the practice has improved their lives

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 9:56am

Although practised by 30 million people worldwide, yoga still has the power to divide a crowd. Practitioners rave about it, while others roll their eyes and yawn.

But with more than 3,000 local and overseas enthusiasts set to attend the Annual Evolution Asia Yoga Conference in the city this week, it is clear that yoga has taken hold in Hong Kong.

The four-day event, which starts on Thursday, aims to educate and demonstrate the physical and philosophical practices of yoga in five languages across hundreds of sessions.

Free community classes, exhibitions and stalls will be on offer, alongside the best of the world's yoga teachings. Three Hongkongers who will take part in activities this weekend describe how a practice that used to be a bore became a daily benefit and transformed their lives.

Andy Willner, businessman and part-time yoga instructor

For years, Andy Willner thought yoga was "like watching grass grow". Once a competitive martial artist, personal trainer and banker, the self-confessed "Type A" personality was never interested in yoga. But after experiencing a class on holiday, and finding it tough, his curiosity was piqued.

When he relocated to Hong Kong five years ago, Willner progressively incorporated yoga into his life. Last year, he made the commitment to become a yoga teacher; now he teaches six classes per week. It has become his life's focus, even though he also manages an international executive search business.

The experience has been transformational for the 52-year-old Englishman.

"I have a greater sense of well-being with yoga, and I am far better at coping with life's challenges and problems than I would have been five to 10 years ago," Willner says.

"I've taken yoga off the mat and into my life. Initially, my office was in the same building as my yoga studio. I continued with my weight training - I was probably 10kg heavier than I am now, although my body fat is the same. But after a year, I went on a retreat to Bali and something transformed," he says.

"I began practising five days a week and phased out the weights. I can do things today with my body I couldn't do then. I can't bench press what I used to, but unless I happen to get stuck under a car, I've realised that wasn't particularly useful."

Asked what the biggest challenge is for men who do yoga, Willner says: "It's dropping the ego. It doesn't matter what other people are doing, you have to let it go. There are no prizes for injuring yourself. Having body awareness is vital to having an injury-free yoga experience."

For Willner, yoga is about being in the present.

"If you spend that 60 or 90 minutes on the mat completely absorbed in yoga, not thinking about what you're going to have for dinner that night, that, for me, is a successful yoga practice," he says.

He is looking forward to the yoga conference because he sees it as "an opportunity to be a sponge". "I will spend more of my time in the lectures than the asana [postural] practices. I have a thirst for knowledge and I feel I can gain more from the lectures."

Helene Liu, leadership coach and trainer at consultancy The Masterminds Group

Helene Liu felt burned out 10 years ago, after juggling responsibilities as an international businesswoman and mother. So she left the business world and decided to change her life.

"I didn't realise how tired I was until I stopped," she says. "I was a very unhappy person."

In need of healing, she turned to yoga. The choice was an obvious one for French-born Liu, whose earliest memories are of her violinist father practising qigong in their apartment to find new ways to master the energy required to play in the Paris National Orchestra.

Although always drawn to the calming influence of Eastern practices (Liu also studies kung fu), the 46-year-old struggled with an overwhelming drive to achieve for much of her life. Practising yoga has been a means of finding a happy medium.

Today, Liu, who has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years, runs The Masterminds Group, a leadership consultancy helping individuals and businesses develop self-mastery. She will talk about topics like creating wellness, and communication, at this year's conference.

"I started yoga because I was physically exhausted. For one whole year, I took two-hour naps every day, making up for 13 years of lack of sleep. But my practice was still a practice of achieving. Even though I switched the activity from business to yoga, I was still trying to achieve. So I hadn't changed.

Ultimately, people want serenity and yoga is a means to achieve that
Helene Liu

"These days, I practice Mysore yoga, a self-guided ashtanga practice, every day. Yoga for me now is very much about reflection; it's a moving meditation. It's about learning about my own mental patterns, the framework within which my own mind circles. I do it every day but Saturday. Second, it's about physical activity. I just feel better when I practice yoga.

"The third dimension is the meditation and the connection with the breath, and the self-knowledge that comes with that. For me, that is the most important one. Ultimately, people want serenity and yoga is a means to achieve that. Yoga gives you a tool to breathe and make space," she adds.

"In the beginning, everyone came to the conference to practice postural yoga under some of the great teachers. But over the past six years, it has really evolved. Nowadays, people also come just to listen to the speakers.

Visitors to the conference will come away with a rounded view of yoga. "It's where people can discover that yoga is not just a physical discipline," Liu says.

Hannah Malter, investment banker

Four years ago, Hannah Malter was stiff, stressed and seriously inflexible. Suffering from back pain as a result of working long hours, a physiotherapist suggested yoga as a way to loosen her up.

Unfortunately her first yoga class was led by "one of those stereotypical slender, vegan, chanting types", and only compounded her misperceptions of yoga.

Her interest waned. But a decision to join a week-long surfing and yoga retreat in Bali 18 months ago led to the 30-year-old Australian dramatically improving her yoga technique.

She now embraces a regular yoga practice that has brought more balance into her life.

"It has become increasingly important for me. My body starts to crave it if I go too long between sessions. My original perception, that yoga was a lot of 'omming' and not much exercise, has changed considerably," Liu says.

"I find each practice gives me something different, depending on what I want out of it that day. And I have learned yoga can also be a seriously tough workout. It has been a fantastic calming presence. I look forward to the sessions on the mat, where I can tune out of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong," she adds.

Even an hour spent practising yoga makes a big difference. "Physically, it has been great as well, as it sorted out the back problems and hip issues I've had from running. And I can do the splits for the first time since I was a teenager, which is a great party trick," she says with a laugh.

"Yoga is about taking some time out to work on my mind and body, and detach from the day-to-day minutiae that we all get caught up in."