Health and wellness

How a yoga pioneer helped introduce it to Hong Kong in the 1980s and his vision for the future

David Swenson stayed in Hong Kong for two years in the mid-1980s teaching Ashtanga yoga when no studios were in business. Today, he is one of the world’s most sought-after teachers in a thriving industry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 8:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 5:00pm

It was the mid-1980s and there was no yoga scene to speak of in Hong Kong. So when David Swenson – one of the few yogis who had learned the entire Ashtanga system under the late Indian guru K. Pattabhi Jois – tried to promote the ancient practice here, no one was interested. Not even after he fronted a local TV segment teaching it.

“I can’t remember the name … it was some weird television show that had a spaceship [set] and I had a show teaching yoga,” recalls the 61-year-old American, who came to this city primarily to help set up a small Hare Krishna centre in Ho Man Tin.

“I also did some yoga demonstrations at Repulse Bay. But back then, no one was doing yoga, no one wanted to do it.”

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Swenson was recently in town for this year’s Asia Yoga Conference (AYC) at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai.

The Texan (who is no longer a Hare Krishna) stayed in the city for two years in the 1980s, during which time he maintained his regular Ashtanga practice. He says he knew of no yoga studio at the time and there were no yoga classes. “[But] the kind of system I do, once you know the sequence, you just practise. It’s like tai chi.”

Swenson returned to Hong Kong in 2007 to attend the first edition of AYC; by then, yoga had already taken off not only in his home country but also in Hong Kong. Today, Hong Kong has a huge number of yoga studios including one of the largest in the world.

“I don’t know if I had anything to do [yoga’s popularity in Hong Kong]. Maybe I planted some seeds here 30 years ago,” Swenson says.

To get a sense of how yoga – a combination of asana practice (doing physical poses), meditation, breathing exercises and the study of philosophy – has grown in popularity over the past four decades, one needs to look no further than Swenson’s career.

He started learning hatha yoga from his older brother and from books when still a teenager in the late 1960s. He later had the opportunity to study Ashtanga directly with Jois after the yoga guru made his first trip to the US in 1975. Swenson then travelled to Mysore, India, in 1977 and learned the entire system in its original form from the master.

In the early days, Swenson says, only hippies practised yoga in the US. “We couldn’t make money doing yoga or teaching yoga. You teach yoga because you enjoy it, but you couldn’t make a living.”

He had done other jobs – from waiting on tables to landscaping to selling cars – but eventually returned to yoga in 1990. “I was struggling, I couldn’t pay my rent, it was a really difficult time. I had barely enough money for food,” Swenson recalls.

“Then I had an epiphany one day, that I should really be teaching yoga and I’m going to commit to do that. I remember I wrote down on a piece of paper: ‘I have no idea what the future holds, but I feel as though I am being drawn forward by an unseen force. I have no idea where this force will lead me, but I know now I am doing what I should be doing and so I surrender.’”

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However, his dedication to his practice and teaching would not pay off for at least another decade. “No one knew me; I’d call up yoga studios and ask, can I teach there … I’d sleep on the floor at night, teach in the day. And that was how I started. For 12 years, I travelled like that.”

Gradually, his popularity grew and so did his class size. “Then I came out with some videos and people seemed to like that, and I came out with my book [Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual, 2007] and people liked that. And all that grew from that moment of stepping into the unknown,” says Swenson.

Today, Swenson is one of the most sought-after teachers in an industry that is rapidly growing. In the US alone, revenue generated by the yoga industry amounted to US$9.09 billion in 2015, and is projected to reach US$11.6 billion by 2020, according to Statista.

I understand there’s a trend of everything being called yoga but as long as someone becomes a nicer person, then I am supportive of that
David Swenson

Swenson says yoga’s rising popularity – the world celebrates International Day of Yoga on June 21 – is due partly to the yoga teaching over the past 30 years and partly because famous people are practising it.

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“One thing that made yoga more accessible and acceptable is celebrities started doing yoga,” he says, citing pop stars Madonna and Sting, who both practise Ashtanga.

“These people started talking about doing the yoga and other people then wanted to do it because they made it cool, also. So people may start yoga because it is a fad, but they will keep doing it because it works. It doesn’t matter why they start but what will make them continue is the results they get from the practice.”

Swenson also has no qualms about the proliferation of different kinds of yoga on the market today, as long as people benefit from it.

“Sure, the world needs more yoga. And there are all sorts of weird yoga now: goat yoga and beer yoga … well, do the people that went to that class, when they go home, are they nicer to their children? Did they get something positive from the class? Then great, I am a fan. The proof is in the result.

“It’s not my thing – I don’t drink, I don’t have goats in my class – but if they work for someone else, it’s fine. I understand there’s a trend of everything being called yoga but as long as someone becomes a nicer person, then I am supportive of that.”

It is not uncommon for yoga practitioners to push themselves beyond their limit on the mat, and in the age of social media (#yoga has more than 50 million posts on Instagram), yoga teachers feel increasingly pressured to post challenging yoga poses on the internet to gain followers. Sometimes they pay the price in injuries. Swenson’s advice is to listen to your body.

“The real yoga is what you cannot see,” he says. “It is OK to be fascinated with how a posture looks, maybe that gets someone excited to do it, but that is not what’s going to keep you doing it.”

This summer, Swenson will spend more time teaching in this region – China and Japan – before going to the UK and then back in Asia. “I think it’s a very interesting and exciting time in China for yoga.”

He says being on the road teaching – sometimes with his wife, former contemporary dancer Shelley Washington – has been a fantastic part of his life, but he hopes to start travelling less and create programmes where practitioners can come to them, in their home in Maui, Hawaii.

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“I’d like to be part of the voice of presenting yoga in a traditional format because it’s confusing now. There are all these teachers doing all this stuff and it’s all called yoga,” says Swenson. “So I want to be involved in the communication and presentation of the yoga to explain in a very clear way the foundation of it. To create a base for it to grow upon.”