Robyn Wexler (center) poses with a mixed group of students and teachers at Yoga Yard in Beijing. It is an eclectic bunch: some are housewives, some students, some business people, some Chinese, some foreign. But once together they are brought in unison by a simple sound: “Ommmmmm… ”
The group is just beginning a 90-minute yoga class at the Yoga Yard in Sanlitun, where Robyn Wexler, 34, a Californian who co-founded the studio, is leading the class.
Wexler said that 10 years ago she found it hard to find places to practice yoga in Beijing. “There was essentially no yoga going on. I maybe remember hearing about one class taught by a foreigner,” she said.
Her experience was not a unique one a decade ago, but today yoga has spawned a thriving community of Chinese and expats that is supporting dozens of studios in the capital.
Various styles and environments for yoga are offered from the popular dance-like vinyasa to hot yoga, which is practiced in a room with a temperature of between 35 C and 40 C.
Many fans also visit all-day yoga retreats in the mountains.
For Anna Sophie Loewenberg, a US native who lived in Beijing in the late 1990s and moved here permanently in 2006, yoga’s increasing popularity in the city seems to have happened overnight.
“I remember coming back and being shocked to find yoga was everywhere,” said Loewenberg, a documentary filmmaker in her 30s.
When Loewenberg discovered Mountain Yoga retreat near Fragrant Hills, it was like “finding a diamond in the rough”.
“Before Mountain Yoga there was never a place like this in Beijing – a place to get grounded and gain a sense of well-being,” she said.
Loewenberg now makes regular weekend trips to the center with her girlfriends to rejuvenate with a morning hatha yoga class, meditation, tea and an afternoon hike in the countryside.
Theresa Pauline, a 26-year-old art teacher who moved to Tianjin from Denver in 2007, said she felt lonely at first as she did not speak Chinese, but that all changed when she found her first yoga class at a local gym.
Despite the language barrier, she practiced frequently at the classes, which helped her cope with the transition of arriving in new country.
Pauline later moved to Beijing and earned her yoga teaching certification last year. When she has enough time in her schedule, she teaches Chinese students in a local studio to share the joy yoga gives her with others.
“For me, yoga was a complete lifestyle change,” she said.
After experiencing her first hot yoga class at age 21, Pauline decided to “stop partying and start focusing on my body and mind”.
She said that since starting yoga, she has noticed growth in physical flexibility, strength and her overall well-being.
Outside of Wexler’s studio the rain slaps against the thick-paned windows. The sound mixes therapeutically with the “breathe and release” of the class. Wexler tiptoes on the hardwood floors so as not to break the mood.
She remembers the instant demand for the first classes she offered back in 1999. “After a few classes, the room was overflowing with students,” she recalled.
Three years later, she opened Yoga Yard with then student Mimi Kuo-Deemer.
Wexler said she has witnessed a tremendous change in the city’s attitude to yoga.
“Today if I stop a young person on the street and say ‘yujia’, they will have an idea what I’m talking about. In 2000, that wasn’t the case,” she said.
This is one of my favorite pics taken at Mountain Yoga retreat in Li Jiang in 2012.