The popularity of yoga (瑜伽) in Shanghai, China has taken a great leap forward over the past five years. An initial internet search easily brings up over forty yoga studios in the Shanghai area, many with several branches, and this number is not inclusive of fitness clubs with yoga offerings on their class rosters. The rising wealth of the city and a growing focus on quality of life have opened up a huge market space for the health and wellness industry, easily visible in trends like the boom in farm-to-table restaurants and health food eateries like Hunter Gatherer and Sproutworks, wellness centers and educational collectives like Sprout Lifestyle and Octave. The yoga scene, arguably already well-established before the peak of this wellness trend, has benefitted tremendously. Even while maintaining a prohibitively high price point, the last five years have seen yoga broaden its membership from an expat niche market to a primarily well-heeled local Shanghainese base.
This blog aims to provide a flavor of yoga studios in Shanghai across the broad range of offerings available here. I tried out both the large, high-end yoga chains such as Y+ and the smaller bespoke studios such as Red Door. Having moved to Shanghai after several years of living and practicing yoga in India, I admit that I initially experienced yoga culture shock. Shanghai definitely has a unique yoga culture often highly influenced by U.S. fitness focus and, perhaps more interestingly, mixed with Taoist energy practices and philosophy. Here’s my experience with four studios in Shanghai.
The Big Players
One of the most established high-end yoga chains in the city, Y+ was the first studio I tried upon arriving in Shanghai. I was attracted by the great locations (one studio was next to my work and another right next to my apartment) and the variety of classes offered throughout the day, starting from early morning and going well into the evening. I could get in a good Hatha class before work or a Vinyasa class after work if I over slept my alarm. On the weekends, I could hop over for an Yin class or try something more intense like a Hot Detox. Classes were offered in Chinese or English and the instructional language was clearly stated in the online schedule. Coming from India, I was not used to having the variety of styles offered in one place and the whole Hot Yoga and Yin offerings were totally new to me. I found the teachers whose classes I attended were all very solid in their asana practice and methodology, explaining and demonstrating postures in a highly professional manner.
Ultimately, I did not stick with Y+ because the size and scale of the operation made it difficult to connect. Classes were very large and I often had to join a waiting list due to a special VIP booking status which allowed students to do block bookings in advance (I did not have this VIP status). I also sensed a performance culture, which, coming from my practice in India, seemed the opposite of all I learned about the heart of yoga. On my first day in the Xintiandi studio, trying to navigate my way to the crowded locker rooms, one of the students turned to me and said, “oh you are new here, what level are you?”.
The upshot is that I know many happy yoga practitioners who have been going to Y+ for years and swear by the teachers. If you are looking for convenience and more of a gym atmosphere, with asana practice focused on physical health and performance, this would be a good choice.
If you are looking for a deeper practice, personalized instruction and more focus on pranayama and yoga philosophy, your best bet might be elsewhere.
Headquartered in Hong Kong, Pure’s Shanghai site is the first in Mainland China and joins Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and New York in the Pure Family. I had attended a couple classes with a colleague at Pure in Singapore and, when Pure opened at Shanghai’s new iapm mall in the fall of 2013, my colleague suggested I check them out. With their luxury location, air filtered rooms and Manduka mats, I feared I would find something quite far from the level of authenticity for which I was looking.
However, I was very pleasantly surprised. Somehow both the administrative and teaching staff were able to create a family atmosphere, recognizing students by name and creating a very welcoming space. Since I joined when Pure was just getting started, classes were quite small and I never had issues with booking. The variety of classes and workshops were there as well as great timings throughout the day. But I stayed for the teachers. Most of the instructors brought in elements of yoga philosophy, pranayama, chanting and bandhas to their classes. All of the teachers were extremely solid in asana practice and I learned an incredible amount about alignment. The majority of classes are offered by bilingual instructors and thereby accessible to all (and helpful for my Mandarin!). The rich offering of workshops ensured that I was able to really deepen my practice both physically and spiritually, though more emphasis still remains here on the physical.
Sadly, as Pure has grown in popularity, the experience has begun to change. Classes are significantly more crowded and sometimes students are just packed in like sardines. This lessens the personal instruction time and attention. The crowd has also taken on a more elite yoga fashion show feeling as of late. While the instructors are still solid, many of the initial instructors have cycled out, and the small family feeling has waned.
The upshot is that you are in good hands with the teachers and the staff here, but may have to struggle with the crowds. Towards the end, I tended to attend classes as an add-on to my personal practice and mostly for physical fitness. Pure is planning to open more studios across the city and this could initially relieve some of the crunch, but as yoga and Pure both grow in popularity, I predict they will have a hard time keeping that initial magic.
The Boutique Studios
If you are an Ashtangi, this is your place. But a sign should be placed on the door saying “only serious practitioners allowed”. This is not a ‘drop in on your way home from work for some relaxation’ kind of yoga studio. True to Ashtanga philosophy, studio head Rob expects a high level of commitment. While Vinyasa classes and led Ashtanga series classes are offered, the heart of the studio centers around Mysore style Ashtanga, where practitioners cycle through the Ashtanga series on their own with individual instruction from Rob. According to traditional Ashtanga, the series should be practiced every day and there is little tolerance or attention given to students who come fewer than six times per week. Apart from the opening and closing mantras, there is very little in the way of yoga philosophy or spiritual instruction. This is a very personal yoga journey and a very authentic one, based on Pattabhi Joyce’s teachings. I deepened my practice immensely here and learned things about myself and my body that I have not learned elsewhere. Something about the Mysore practice in that small hot room, filled with the soundtrack of ujjayi breath, was like a small temple. It often felt like a great privilege to be journeying alongside the other souls in the room and there is definitely an atmosphere of intimacy here.
At times, however, I wondered if the intimacy was based on a camaraderie that comes from being a part of an elite fitness club. I began to feel stressed about making my Mysore practice every day and stressed about the loss of Rob’s approval if I did not. Old injuries began to play up but Ashtanga philosophy tells you to push through those, to never stop your practice. I learned a lot about my resistance and fears through this, but am ultimately unsure about the wisdom of it.
Ashtanga is not for everyone and, eventually I had to also admit, not for me at this time. The rigorousness is almost addictive and I still find myself drawn to it. But being an American raised on a steady diet of competition and performance-based identity, I realized my journey into yoga is one of learning to let that go. Ashtanga too often feeds that identity for me.
The upshot here is that Ashtanga is a very particular path and style of yoga for which I hold a deep level of respect. If this is your path, then this studio is one of the best and most authentic places in Shanghai to practice.
This is the studio that felt the closest to my experience of yoga in India. Deeply rooted in yogic philosophy and holistic Vedic therapies, founder Ganesh has created a deeply authentic yoga shala in Shanghai, accessible both to those looking for a good asana practice and those wanting to go much deeper. The teachers are primarily coming from India and bring with them a wealth of yoga philosophy and a personalized approach to instruction. While the class schedule deviates into non-traditional yoga practices such as “aerial yoga” and also ranks class difficulty from levels one to three, the feel was quite authentic and grounded.
I attended a yoga temple retreat with one of the Just Yoga instructors, who is also an Ayurvedic doctor. The focus of the asana practice, the pranayama and the teachings were all focused on reaching a meditative state. At the same time, it was accessible for the wide range of practitioners on the trip, from complete beginners to seasoned yogis.
The school also offers free teacher training classes and consistently offers a range of workshops, teachings and therapies to deepen your yoga practice. They also focus on creating a community of practice open to all.
If you are looking for a holistic spiritual practice rooted in the traditions of yoga from India, this is a rare gem in the city.
Beyond the Studios
For those wanting to get a taste of yoga without committing to a big studio, there are numerous small community yoga classes located across the city. The Zen Den at Lizzy’s on Yongkang Lu and Cloud9 Studio on Xiangyang Nan Lu are two good choices for drop in small classes with a neighborly feel and no intimidation. Yejo Circle also puts together fantastic yoga temple retreats outside the city for very affordable prices and attracts a range of experience. For those just getting into the whole yoga scene here, these options offer a relatively soft landing.
Total Yoga in Shanghai
After moving to Shanghai, I have continued my connection with India and my yoga practice there, returning several times a year to join Total Yoga for Yomad Yoga treks to places like Rishikesh and Mcleodganj. At the beginning of 2016, I returned to Bangalore to get my teacher training certification with Total Yoga and have begun to teach in Shanghai. Details about the Total Yoga approach and my classes here can be found at www.total-yoga.org You can get in touch with me on WeChat at ChristieShanghai.
- Christie Caldwell teaches in Shanghai