I sat down with beautiful Sophia, yogi extraordinaire and owner of Om Yoga 42, to talk to her about bringing Bikram to Beijing more than six years ago. Read it here or on China Daily:
Q: What did you do before you became a yogi?
A: I was a pianist and once studied marketing. Actually, my background is rather “messy”. My mother was a pianist, so I started playing piano when I was three. I studied it all the way through university, at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, but I hated it. I quit playing after graduating. I wanted to do something completely different. At the time, business and marketing were in fashion, so I went to Canada to study marketing.
Q: Where does yoga come in?
A: A month after giving birth to my son, I was desperate to lose the 30 kg I had gained during pregnancy. A friend told me about a hot yoga studio. At the time, Bikram yoga was new to Canada. During the first class, I was shocked by how inflexible my body was and was amazed by the other students. I liked the challenge yoga presented. I kept going back, six days a week, and lost the weight in four months. My favorite instructor noticed that I was the most regular student and he suggested yoga teacher training to me, which I did. When I came to Beijing for a family issue, I searched everywhere for a place to practise yoga. That’s when I discovered that Bikram yoga didn’t exist here.
Q: Is that what prompted you to build your yoga business?
A: The idea of building a business didn’t even occur to me. There was no market for yoga six and a half years ago. I just wanted a place to practice for myself. A lot of my friends in Beijing saw how different I looked and wanted to learn yoga. We got together to design a loft studio at 798 and I started teaching friends. Every day, one friend would bring another, and people kept coming. They started asking: “Why don’t you open the studio to the public?” In 2005, I moved the studio to this location at Lido. That’s how it started.
Q: What were the challenges with introducing an “exotic” form of exercise here?
A: I had the most difficulty with student etiquette. Elsewhere, yoga is not considered a service business, but in China people think of it as service. People show up late for classes and argue when they are refused entry. In North America, people know that if you are late, you can’t disturb the class, so you just have to leave.
Q: Who are your students?
A: In the early days, Faye Wong, Na Ying, Zhao Wei, Tao Hong, and other celebrities were coming to me. Nowadays, a lot of younger actors and models take classes at the studio. I don’t really know all of them because I have about 200 to 300 regular students.
Q: Why do you think people become so addicted to yoga?
A: People come for all kinds of reasons. Some of them mainly want to keep fit, to look good. Others are concerned about their health; they want to undo the effects of pollution. Some people do yoga to clear their minds.
Q: There are now many bilingual yoga studios in Beijing. How do you explain your loyal following?
A: The most important thing in yoga is finding the right class and the right teacher. When I started the studio I wanted the best teachers, but there weren’t many people doing yoga in China at the time. I personally trained my instructors and they continue to learn. My instructors have traveled to India to attend yoga conferences and training, as well as locally, and one of them was one of my first students in Beijing.
Q: There are hardly any men among your staff and students. Why is that?
A: I think it’s a cultural thing. In Hong Kong or North America, you see a lot of male yoga students. On the Chinese mainland, normal guys think yoga is a “girly” thing. It’s partly due to a lack of knowledge about yoga and partly due to a lack of awareness of exercise among Chinese men. What I see here is that people who want to exercise can’t afford it, but those who can -the business people – think it’s a waste of time.
Q: Yoga is becoming increasingly popular in China. Where do you think it’s headed?
A: Yoga is still not very professional on Chinese mainland. A lot of studios see a good thing and try to copy it. You can build a studio that looks good, but you can’t copy the quality that comes with experienced teachers. Shanghai is more mature than Beijing in yoga. My dream is that one day China will have its own large yoga conference for all Chinese to get to know true yoga.