IT'S NOT THAT long ago that yoga in the west was a fringe activity for those into alternative lifestyles. But according to a survey by Yoga Journal, in 2005 about 16.5 million American adults - or 7.5 per cent of the population - practised some form of yoga - an increase of 5.6 per cent on 2003 and 43 per cent on 2002. And they spent US$2.95 billion on yoga classes, products and retreats in 2004.
In Hong Kong, the number of studios has risen from fewer than six in 2002 to more than 50 last year.
'It wasn't the thing for your average western male,' says Robert Taylor, a 37-year-old business owner who took it up four years ago on the advice of his physiotherapist. 'I was struggling with stiffness from old sporting injuries. It was just an option at my gym at first. The ratio of men to women was about one to 10.'
It's different now, Taylor says. 'There's plenty of choice. People hear about what you're doing and are very curious. We all want to feel better, younger and more energetic, so just about anyone is keen to give it a go.'
Asia Yoga Conference director Paveena Atipatha says the four-day event in Hong Kong will benefit the growing number of practitioners in the region. 'Although yoga's popularity has boomed dramatically in the west in the past decade, its growth is still in its early stages here,' Aipatha says. 'It's a forum for the world's best teachers to come together in Asia to help shape the growth of yoga here.'
What is it that lures so many people to yoga? Five experts attending the conference explain what does it for them:
N Yogananth Andiappan
Will run a session called Explore New Limits
'I started learning yoga at two from my father and Asana Andiappan, who is a well-known guru in India. Being so young enabled me to learn without hesitation or question, and I took to it immediately. As children, we always challenged each other with different poses to see who could outdo the other. My guru enabled me to understand that yoga isn't about comparing with others but about understanding one's deeper self. In India, one does not decide to become a teacher. Usually, it's your guru who lets you know whether you're ready and mature enough to teach. I assisted my guru until the age of 15, and started teaching classes independently from then on.
'As my practice deepened, I started teaching for corporations, the police force and school students. At 18, I conducted lectures at various universities as well as workshops around India. My passion for yoga and its benefits for people led me to make a career choice of it, and not just because I was born into a yogic family. I live a yogic lifestyle, from breathing to diet and practise - the continual learning and discovery and the perception of life itself. It has enabled me to understand myself better, and helped me to understand my mind by not letting it fluctuate with emotions.
'There's nothing about yoga I don't like except the disappointment when it is misunderstood. My daily practice is an hour to an hour and a half, which includes asanas [postures] and pranayama [breathing techniques] followed by relaxation, but it depends on my schedule.'
N Almen Wong
Will run a session called Hot-Flow Yoga
'I first went to a yoga class in a gym when I was pregnant as my doctor advised me to take some moderate exercise. I liked it right away because of the challenge I faced in that first class. I realised how inflexible, out of balance and weak I was, even after years spent in the gym and doing sports.
'I really need yoga to help improve my flexibility, balance and strength. I became a qualified yoga teacher in 2002. Before this, I was a fashion model for eight years and then an actress. But I was a single mother and wanted to change my career to something with normal working hours.
'I was also really hooked on yoga by then. Yoga helps improve my flexibility, balance and strength. The most important thing in practice is the breath. It's supposed to initiate our movements. That theory teaches me to really listen to my body and not to go beyond my limits.
'Yoga also teaches you to turn your focus inward to seek answers - from your body, breath and intuition. From yoga, I've learnt how to live a well-balanced life. I practise five to six times a week now and always look for programmes to enhance my own practice and teaching skills.'
N David Swenson
Will run an all-day intensive course for yoga teachers
'I began yoga in 1969, when I was 13. It gave me a deep sense of wellbeing and energy I hadn't known. Rather than deciding to become a teacher, it seemed to unfold without me trying.
'When I first learned yoga, there weren't many people practising it in the US, so it was a bit strange when they saw it. Over time, yoga became a little more popular and I would be asked to show them what I was doing. It wasn't possible to make a living teaching yoga then, so I did many different jobs. More than 30 years later, the popularity of yoga has grown and more people are feeling its benefits.
'I feel so lucky to teach yoga. It has been an integral part of my life for most of my existence. When I began yoga, I also started surfing. These two activities touched me deeply and changed my life dramatically. Yoga is the greatest tool. The benefits may be felt on many levels from physical wellbeing to mental and emotional balancing. The greatest challenge is to remember that when I find it difficult to practise, I always feel better afterwards, even if it's only for a few minutes. Yoga is the best balm for soothing the stresses from our modern lives.'
N Patrick Creelman
Will run a session called Wild Beginners
'My first yoga experience was at a university class in 1996. I was very stressed, and the class made me so relaxed, I felt asleep. I liked it, but had no idea why.
'After experimenting with a variety of yoga methods, I found a teacher who helped me connect to something strong inside myself. From day one, she encouraged me to become a teacher, and, sure enough six months later, I was.
'Before that, I was a professional student and part time DJ. It was a pretty fun life. But yoga has become the lens I see life through, a practice of looking for the good in all things that has lead me to feel more connected to people and to the world in general. Yoga has also helped me heal past injuries, increasing my overall health, flexibility, and strength.
'As long as the teachers and practitioners in the west maintain the spiritual integrity of this beautiful practice, it may well save the western world all by itself. By that, I mean that yoga is free from religion, free from any nation, or any ownership and is aimed at increasing the peace and happiness in everyone who practises and even those who don't. At the root of the practice is the pursuit of happiness. I do yoga daily and I look forward to it every time.'
N Sri Pattabhi Jois
Conference's 92-year-old guest of honour
'In 1927, I saw Krishnamacharya do a yoga demonstration. The same day, I prostrated to him and asked him to take me as his student. I began practising with him and continued studying with him for 25 years.
'I didn't enjoy it at all immediately. It was so hard. I was ready to give up many times. But something made me persist because the practice made me feel real and awakened in my heart. I did not decide to become a teacher, but Krishnamacharya ordered me to start teaching at the Sanskrit College in Mysore in 1937.
'Yoga has helped me to see life more clearly. When yoga is real, it is the most beautiful thing there is, but the problem is that there are so many crazy interpretations of it that do more harm than good to the subject, and that I find a little sad.
'I do yoga as often as I can, but rarely do I practise asanas these days. I do Pranayama every day and that is enough to keep me young.'
Evolution, Jun 1-4, Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, comprises more than 160 classes, lectures, special events and a bazaar of yoga, health and holistic products. Inquiries: www.asiayogaconference.com