- As China’s yoga market expands, local and international teachers are setting up schools
- They offer the classic poses and mix it up with science, gymnastics and TCM
China is stretching its yoga muscles, and catching up with the rest of the world in its demand for lessons in the stress-relieving practice that marries breath work and poses.
By 2020, the yoga market in China is expected to stretch to nearly 47 billion yuan (US$6.7 billion), not far behind the US yoga market which is expected to be worth US$11.6 billion, according to projections from Statista. Five-star studios are opening up across mainland China, led by a growing number of devoted, respected, yogis who have trained locally and internationally.
These teachers are dedicated to passing on yoga's core values, but they are also enterprising. Acrobatics, gymnastics, massage techniques, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and mind mastering methods are giving China's yoga curriculum a modern twist.
Nino Mendes is 1.88 metres tall, athletic, spiritual, and fluent in Chinese (as well as English, Italian, French, Spanish). Mendes, 40, is from France and has travelled the world learning and teaching yoga. He moved to Shanghai in 2012, originally to learn martial arts, but his "Nino Yoga" took off, and he has called Shanghai and China home ever since.
"I think people like me here because there is honesty in my teaching. I'm not here to be nice to people. I teach them to push themselves, to challenge their beliefs and do the poses they think they can't do. This expands how they see the world," says Mendes, who uses his communication skills to help his students change the way they think, to push through fears and limiting beliefs and to change their thoughts and actions.
He applies neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques when they are working through complicated and advanced poses, and at the end of the class, teaches them to focus their attention on having a peaceful, relaxing day.
He has made a career out of not only sharing the principles of traditional Hatha yoga, but also teaching advanced poses like the "hollow back", a combination of a handstand and a back bend.
"Students want to learn with me because they get a strong understanding of yoga philosophy, NLP and the poses, and because I include circus and acrobatics. We have to give them something new and fun, otherwise it feels a bit old," Mendes says.
The ultimate goal of his teaching, though, is to reach students at a deeper level. "I hear so many students say, 'I don't know how to be myself'. Yoga helps them do that. But yoga is still quite a new phenomenon in China. They see it as a very energetic and visual practice, rather than a spiritual practice. Some are starting to open up, which is good to see."
Mendes teaches at retreats and workshops globally, and offers a 200-hour teacher training course (TTC) in Shanghai (a 300-hour course is coming soon), which costs around 17,000 yuan.
Ronan Tang, 39, is a new-generation Chinese teacher who has become recognised in Asia for his expanded yoga programme. Along with his Hatha yoga curriculum, he focuses on TCM, meridian massage, acupuncture, tai chi and qigong.
Tang, who started teaching yoga 14 years ago in Beijing, has long been interested in how the practice affects the chi, or energy, in the body. "A lot of TTCs focus just on the body and not on the chi. I combine what I have learned about yoga with TCM, qigong and massage, which helps my student teachers recognise chi and how to clear energy blocks in the body," he says.
Tang has so far delivered more than 7,000 TTC hours. His 200-hour TTC programme (which costs around 14,000 yuan) differs from others in that he offers two weeks of online courses, and then 10 days of face-to-face tuition to make it as accessible as possible.
"Most TTC programmes don't teach students how to handle issues like insomnia, digestive issues and so on. But my students know what to do.
"They can't learn it all because TCM is vast, but they have to learn the basics. They have to have an open mind. Without this, the new breed of teacher is just like the rest of the world," Tang says.
Meanwhile, husband-and-wife yogis Richard Baimbridge, 50, and Sara Pei (Pei Hui), 31, are soaring to new heights, quite literally; they specialise in teaching alignment-based Vinyasa and AcroYoga. They have worked hard to create a unique teaching programme that draws on different influences, from Iyengar to Ashtanga. The couple travel the world showcasing their skills and are booked up a year in advance.
Pei, and her American husband teach advanced moves backed by ancient yoga philosophy. "We have the same teaching background, which focuses on Vinyasa with proper alignment," Pei says. "We take an intelligent and therapeutic approach and mix these elements with flowing Vinyasa-style yoga poses and some acrobatics."
Their 200-hour TTC Vinyasa programme with AcroYoga (which costs around 20,000 yuan) includes a traditional curriculum of poses, philosophy and anatomy, as well as elements of gymnastics, acrobatics and Thai massage.
Pei explains that Thai massage had its origins in traditional Indian medicine, known as Ayurveda, and many Thai massage poses come from Hatha yoga.
"We use Thai massage as a way for students to relax and have fun during the training because people get tired from the long, intense schedule. But it also has great healing effects," she adds. "It teaches students how to perform adjustments (to their own student's poses) with a deeper awareness by developing their sense of touch and creating a strong sense of connection."
Students want to learn with me because they get a strong understanding of yoga philosophy, NLP and the poses, and because I include circus and acrobaticsNino Mendes, yoga instructor
Baimbridge, who speaks fluent Chinese and who trained and worked as a journalist in the US, became involved in AcroYoga about 10 years ago, when he studied it with founder Jason Nemer. He says he is the first AcroYoga teacher in mainland China. "And there still aren't many AcroYoga teachers globally," he said.
Pei, Baimbridge, Mendes and Tang will all be teaching yoga at the Bali Spirit Festival 2020.
A founding teacher at Pure Yoga Hong Kong, Canadian Patrick Creelman, is interested to see the long-term benefits that could flow from the yoga fusions being taught in China.
"The yoga that has been really time-tested is the yoga out of India, for example. The other, newer, fusion versions, well, they're entertaining, but we don't really know the impact. We need time to test, to see if these new versions are more valuable than the traditional ones," says Creelman, 46, who witnessed the emergence of the yoga scene in China and was with the company when Pure Yoga opened in Shanghai in 2013.
He has long been observing the development of the yoga scene in China and says the schools there produce well-trained graduate yoga teachers.
"Some of my best student teachers, and I've been teaching for 20 years, are the people I have met in the past five years in China. They are dedicated, serious and hard-working," he says.
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