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Flex obsessed

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, August 25 2015.

Post-race yoga at Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Photo: Lululemon

From Vancouver’s Stanley Park to a Bali beach and a Hong Kong hotel, yoga is being repackaged as ‘flowga’, ‘broga’, and as plain exercise, and winning new adherents

By Jeanette Wang

On a vast field in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, against the downtown skyline glowing in sunset hues, a few thousand people formed their bodies into a down dog, flowing along to silky tunes spun by a live DJ.

This wasn’t your usual yoga class – a rock concert awaited after, to top off a day that began with a 21km race around the city’s famed seawall. Run, yoga, party: the annual Lululemon SeaWheeze two Saturdays ago is part of a collective that’s democratising yoga.

“Yoga is becoming more accessible to everybody,” says Travis McKenzie, global events manager with Lululemon, the yoga and fitness apparel company. “There are more studios, more online practices available. There aren’t as many barriers to entry. People are becoming more mindful and aware of slowing themselves down and becoming more present.”

Participants of the Lululemon SeaWheeze half marathon run along Vancouver’s famous sea wall. Photo: Lululemon

The trend is apparent in Hong Kong: more people, especially men, are picking up yoga, notes yoga instructor Victor Chau. “Yoga, to a lot of people, is very deep, super spiritual and you need to be flexible to practise it. This is not necessarily true,” he says.

Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago as a philosophical and spiritual discipline to deliver practitioners from suffering or disease. These days, yoga is often treated as exercise or even complementary therapy for cardiovascular and respiratory disease. To many, yoga is not a way of life; it’s just a workout.

In the same vein, classes are increasingly being led in English rather than referring to poses by their Sanskrit names; for example tree pose instead of vrikshasana, and shoulder stand instead of sarvangasana.

The setting in which yoga is practised is also changing. Local wellness company Mayya Movement, for example, organises yoga at Kee Club in central with a live DJ. Farther down Wellington Street, you’ll find a Broga class – yoga for “bros” – led by a practitioner beamed live from London. It is followed by a mingling session over tea cocktails.

Victor Chau leading “flowga” – yoga on a junk – at Victoria Harbour. Photo: Lululemon

Two months ago, Chau led a “flowga” class – yoga on a junk sailing in Victoria Harbour. He says although the delivery of yoga classes has changed to suit the local and modern audience, the fundamental teachings and philosophies of yoga have not changed much.

“Two hundred years ago you needed to find your guru, who might have resided in a cave or forest, making yoga available to only a select few,” says Chau. “But today, you can learn it in a studio, from a book, on YouTube or even on Instagram.”

At the W in West Kowloon – and in the hotel chain’s properties worldwide – guests are told to “forget about being zen and start being fabulous”. The in-house TV service offers yoga videos to cure jet lag, give an energy boost, prep for a big night out or nurse a hangover.

The videos are led by Tara Stiles, an instructor from New York who’s been branded a “yoga rebel” by traditionalists for her yoga style called Strala, which focuses on flowing movement rather than poses. Stiles created Strala in 2008, drawing on Eastern movement and healing practices, as well as her background in classical ballet and choreography. Apart from studios in New York, Seattle and Singapore, Stiles also teaches on YouTube.

“I grew up doing yoga but my friends weren’t doing it because they felt it was too rigid, or they weren’t flexible enough, or weren’t having fun in the class. I saw the opportunity to create something more fun and help people connect and feel good,” says Stiles, who was in Hong Kong in June to launch her “Fit with Tara Stiles” programme at the W.

“I think it’s actually positive to be recognised as something that’s rebellious and different because there’s still more people not doing yoga than doing it. Yoga can make you feel good, and if you’re not doing it then you’re not feeling good.”

Tara Stiles is known as a “yoga rebel” for her own style of yoga called Strala. Photo: Franke Tsang/SCMP

At W Bali in September, Stiles held a yoga retreat that included sunset yoga on Seminyak Beach accompanied by a rock band. It ruffled some feathers, according to Arnaud Champenois, Asia-Pacific senior brand director at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which owns the W brand.

“We received a nasty email from a local yoga association asking why we brought this girl to Bali and destroyed their business model of yoga gurus and retreats,” says Champenois.

Michael James Wong, a London-based yoga teacher, thinks what’s important is having the right intentions and practising yoga in a way that suits and serves the individual.

“For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a traditionalist in the practice or if you’re bringing a contemporary spin to it. If it inspires you and inspires others, then why wouldn’t it be positive?” says Wong.

Not your usual yoga dude: Michael Wong is the founder of Boys of Yoga. Photo: Michael Wong

Last year, Wong created Boys of Yoga, a project to make the practice more accessible to men and raise awareness of what it can do for them physically, mentally and holistically.

“In five years I hope that yoga is as commonplace as running, cycling and walking in how we perceive its benefits,” says Wong. “On a physical level, yoga is one of the best types of functional movement for the body, and on a mental and emotional level, it’s an amazing way to help find your own sense of self-confidence, happiness and compassion to yourself and the world around you.”

Hike a tike

First hike today with little M on my back in the Deuter Kid Comfort III, which I bought at MEC in Vancouver last week. Twas just a tiny 10k loop up Needle Hill and around Shing Mun Reservoir, but I was working more than twice as hard yet going half the speed of a usual hike. A 10kg baby, 3.5kg sack and another couple kilos of gear, hydration and nutrition makes for a super tough workout. That and 36 deg C heat! Much much harder than stroller runs but so much more scenic. Little M loved it; she was smiling at passers-by and humming and giggling and eventually falling asleep. Can’t wait to show her more of HK’s trails!



Moontrekking Mama

Best training buddy ever.

Best training buddy ever.

Two years ago I did the Moontrekker with a broken foot and unknowingly four weeks pregnant with Marla. I’m revisiting the race this year sans injury and belly – and hopefully can improve on my third place finish back in 2013.

This year the race’s official charity is The Nature Conservancy, the leading conservation organisation working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. As a mother I hope that my kid(s) and their kid(s) and whatever generations that may follow will be able to enjoy the outdoors as I have. Who knows what will still exist in the decades to come?

Your support for the cause will greatly inspire me at Moontrekker. I’d greatly appreciate it if you could please donate generously to The Nature Conservancy. Each Moontrekker participant has to raise at least HK$650, but I hope to go beyond that. Thanks for your support!

Moontrekker 2013: Broken foot, four weeks pregnant, here on the final ascent up Lantau Peak before the home straight to Cheung Sha for a third place finish. Photo: Moontrekker

Moontrekker 2013: Broken foot, four weeks pregnant, here on the final ascent up Lantau Peak before the home straight to Cheung Sha for a third place finish. Photo: Moontrekker

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

Donating through JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your details are safe with JustGiving – they’ll never sell them on or send unwanted emails. Once you donate, they’ll send your money directly to the charity. So it’s the most efficient way to donate – saving time and cutting costs for the charity.

Lululemon SeaWheeze

When I was first invited to race the Lululemon SeaWheeze half marathon I hesitated – how could I travel more than halfway across the world without little M and be separated from her for more than a day? Well somehow it happened – spent two full days and three nights in Vancouver – and I am glad I made it out there because the race was a fantastic experience.

In its fourth year, the annual SeaWheeze sells out its 10,000 spots almost as soon as rego opens (mark your calenders: sign ups for next year’s race open Sept 16 2015). There’s good reason why, starting from the race bag, which includes a pair of exclusively designed Lululemon running shorts (mailed to you early so you can wear it for the race). There’s also an awesome unique finisher medal – this year it was a gold carrot (full metal, mind you) – and a trucker cap. And a yummy post-race brunch box awaits after your effort, as well as sports massage. Oh and racers get exclusive access to buy special Lululemon gear created just for the race – I didn’t buy any but boy, things were literally flying off the shelves and gone in a couple of hours.

For me it was the intangibles most of all that made the race great: the precisely measured course hugs the sea for most of the way, with North Vancouver’s magnificent mountains for scenery across the water. The seven aid stations along the way are well stocked with water and energy drinks and gels. There are tons of supporters that line the course, including many dressed up (trannies, birds, etc), musical groups (jazz band, choir, DJ, etc), and holding big signs of encouragement. The 21km definitely passes by faster than usual with all these distractions. 

Unfortunately I didn’t run with my phone so I don’t have any photos, but this is what you’d see along parts of the route.

This being my first road half-marathon and only third race since becoming a mom, I had a modest goal: go under 1h 40min. Based on a little 5k trial I did a week earlier I felt it was realistic. The race was neither my preferred distance nor terrain, though weather in Vancouver was perfect on race day: 16 deg C, overcast, light drizzle at times, strong winds (tailwind and headwind). I managed a pretty evenly paced 1.38.06. Stats here.

That was good enough to squeeze into the top 200 overall – it was a strong field which included pro triathlete and Olympian Kirsten Sweetland, the eventual winner for the women’s. With such a strong field the race started out fast and I had to rein myself in and not follow the bunch. It was a good move because eventually I’d pass quite a few of those who sped off at the start. Given my history of crashing and burning in closing stages of races, I was extra cautious not to do the same here.

The course is pretty much pancake flat, so I was actually happier when there were some inclines, the major one being Burrard Bridge. Different muscles are used when you go up or downhill than on the flats, which actually helps the legs stay fresh. Each time I passed groups of supporters I drew energy from them and that helped also to keep me on pace.

The gold carrot has got to be one of the coolest finisher medals ever. And how funny is the timing chip with the face of Lululemon founder Chip Wilson stuck on?!

The race was just a third of the fun, however. Participants also get entry to the Sunset Festival at Stanley Park where mass yoga and a rock concert will aid your post-race recovery, as well as a local brew or two.

I’m not one for yoga but I found myself disarmed by the fantastic setting, good looking people and lager, and soon enough I was in a down dog too.

If I could have done anything differently for the race, I wish I wasn’t still chained to the breastpump (pre-race stress = stubborn boobs), I wish I had a proper pre-race breakfast (the buffet at the Fairmont Pacific Rim where I was staying is amazing – but I only had time for energy bars in the hotel room), I wish I had flown in a day earlier (massive jet lag and 10h sleep over two days – not great), I wish I had a pre-race massage (tight glutes and piriformis)…

Anyway, if you’re looking for a destination race, you must give SeaWheeze a go next year!

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