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Quiet and unexpected rise of yoga in China

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya | China Daily | Updated: 2017-05-31 07:32

I was returning to Beijing from the southern city of Nanning in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region a few weeks ago after a story trip when I found a woman in all-white clothing and high heels sitting next to me on the plane. In my experience, the odds of having to jostle for elbow room on a slim, shared armrest are considerably lower with a female co-passenger than a male.

That the flight was taking off just 20 minutes or so behind its scheduled departure time had already put me on peppy mode. So, Miss Wei (as she introduced herself) and I launched into a conversation. She said she was visiting Beijing to participate in a yoga camp along with a few other women, who were seated in rows behind us, and like her, were fashionably dressed.

Many Chinese assume I practice yoga since I am from India. This is akin to the notion some Indians hold that most Chinese are into tai chi.

But some scholars say the growing popularity of yoga in China, especially among women aged 25 to 40, is in part due to perceived similarities between the two traditions.

Zhang Yongjian, a researcher on yoga in China, told me last week that learning the ancient Indian discipline requires money here.

"In recent years, more and more people in China have started to learn and practice yoga because their incomes have risen."

And while there is greater health awareness in the country today, Chinese women mostly view yoga as a way to stay fit and look youthful, he added.

Zhang works for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an influential think tank that produces reports on a variety of topics.

The CASS report on China's yoga industry is likely to be released ahead of the International Day of Yoga (June 21).

In India, there is a spiritual side to yoga that involves meditation. In many parts of the world, it is more about prescribed postures and controlled breathing.

There are more than 10,000 registered venues that offer yoga courses in China. But why has yoga suddenly become so popular in the country? After all, over the decades, it spread from India to the United States to the extent that some people, including Chinese, believed it originated there. By some accounts, pop yoga is a multimillion-dollar industry in the US.

According to a Chinese woman who organizes yoga events, some Chinese have been practicing it for the past 20 years although the numbers have lately increased.

The need for qualified teachers is also expected to rise in the country.

Ma Huiying, a 30-year-old woman from Shenyang in Northeast China's Liaoning province, told me that she has been teaching yoga at a sports institute in her city for the past five years and that her students, in their teens and early 20s, include boys. In her opinion, yoga practitioners in China fall into two broad categories - serious and lifestyle.

The first pursue the holistic approach of "change from within" and the second roll out colorful mats for lighter workouts.

As for me, the mat seems within reach.

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