10 Yogis Walk Into A Bar

By Stephen Ewashkiw | December 20, 2013

8,008 km so far.

What happens when a bunch of yogis go out together? They talk about yoga, of course. Tonight was one of those nights. Fortunately we were at Dr. Beer, one of Shanghai’s hip brewery bars, and it is well set up for mingling, talking, and, naturally, drinking beer.

Tonight, we talked a lot about how yoga is different in China than it is in the West.

The Studios

In Shanghai, yoga is very much a big business. Most studios have several locations and each is immaculately finished. They are run in a similar fashion to the big fitness chains in North America.

Most studios here have a team of sales people whose job is to sign up new students for anywhere from one- to three-year contracts. In LA, most students pay per class, or buy a 20-class package. The studios in LA usually have only a couple of full-time employees, and a tiny curtained-off area serves as a changing room.

Because labour costs in China are low, the studios here are teeming with staff: there are several front desk staff, a team of ladies who clean the mats and freshen up the rooms after each class, and a management and ownership team.

The studios are gorgeous, luxurious spaces, kitted out with all the amenities of a first-class spa.

Stylish lounge area at Karma Life Yoga.

Stylish lounge area at Karma Life Yoga.

When you check in you get a sweat towel and a bath towel, plus a key for your own personal locker. The changing rooms have a row of showers for freshening up after class, hair dryers, heated floors, and full-length mirrors. Each practice room at the studio has mats laid out awaiting the students so all they need to do is show up.


The Students

Most of my classes have been very mixed in terms of practice level. Most classes have had a few students who have been practising for a long time, and a few students who are brand new to yoga. This has offered me lots of opportunity to think on my feet and to adjust the planned class as needed to give each student the best possible experience.

Regular students here are very focused in class and open to directions, but sometimes my lack of Mandarin is a drawback. In every class I have a few students who don’t speak English. Teachers here often practice along with the students, so students are used to watching the teacher and copying. This is not my style.

Yoga is not just about making shapes with your body, but about accessing the personal, seeing how the poses make you feel, and getting to know yourself. All of this takes mental work, work that I often present through the words I use. I also give endless cues to help students realign within the poses, and within themselves.

I find it difficult when I can’t communicate with my students through words, and I feel like they miss out on so much. This month I’ve worked on learning a few yoga instructions in Chinese, which have proved very useful. If I was staying in Shanghai I would want to learn a lot more.

The Teachers

Studios here have trouble filling the schedule with local teachers: there aren’t enough well trained people to go around. So, many of the teachers are ex-pats and there is a desire here for Western teachers, even if most of the students are Chinese. In our short time here we have met teachers from Canada, Poland, Austria, Australia, Argentina, the US, the UK, and Brazil.

Jane’s note: There is a tight-knit teaching community here, and it seems as though everyone knows everyone else. We’ve are so lucky to have had a chance to hang out with many of the teachers here and to compare experiences in teaching, travelling, and living far away from home.

These teachers are finding great opportunities to help build yoga in China and to be at the forefront of a quickly growing community. I am so happy to be part of this and will definitely come back for more workshops and trainings in 2014.

The Classes

Just like in LA, hot flow yoga and regular flow classes are extremely popular in China. I am not really a flow teacher, because flow classes tend to focus more on sweating and less on learning and growing as a student of yoga. Students get to move, yes, but if they don’t want to, they don’t have to think.

I was asked to teach some flow (and even hot flow!) classes in Shanghai, so I accepted the challenge. This gave me a chance to step out of my comfort zone and also to work out how I could actually teach alignment in these fast-moving classes.

I was surprised to discover that students were actually hungry for the knowledge. I feel that we, as teachers and studio owners, might be selling some students short, catering to what we think they want, when in fact they are searching for more. We just have to open the door for them.

It has been a great experience, challenge, and opportunity to be able to immerse myself in the Shanghai yoga community for the past four weeks.

Thanks go out to Jack and Nelly at Karma Life Yoga for inviting me to teach there, Jen, Ailin, Flora, and Susan at lululemon athletica for their incredible support, Ashley at Raja Yoga for inviting me into her studios, Chops, Alvaro, Kasia, Vic, and Bernd for being supportive, generous teachers and friends, and to Yang, who I met at my Yoga Goes Outdoors class in Helsinki, who pointed me in the right direction to help open doors across China.

Jane’s note: And to my loving wife Jane, who said yes to Shanghai when she could easily have said no.

What she said…  


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  1. Comment by Diane

    Diane December 26, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Well done Stephen for following your passion and acting on it. Perhaps you two will become expats for a while yourselves!

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen December 30, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Diane. It was a great experience, and I am so happy it was possible for us to take this diversion. I feel like we are already ex-pats, just a new nomadic kind instead of settling in one place. The world is our home!

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