If further proof were needed of China’s boom, it was on display last week in a Guangzhou hall, sporting garish shades of locally branded lycra.
More than 1,000 Chinese forked out 400 a head to attend a “yoga summit”, along with hundreds of foreign practitioners and one of the world’s most venerated teachers, BKS Iyengar.
Backed by the governments of India and China, the event was conceived as a cultural exchange, to strengthen ties between Himalayan neighbours that fought a war on the edge of Tibet in the 1960s and have regarded each other rather frostily ever since.
Trade has slowly thawed their strained relations, culminating last year in a visit to Delhi by the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who paid tribute to Gandhi, waxed poetic on the impact of Buddhism in China and compared oriental calligraphy to yoga. “Even my daughter practices yoga,” Wen announced. She’s not alone; in the past 10 years, the discipline has mushroomed out of nowhere. When two Americans opened Beijing’s first studio in 2002, most “yogis” were expats. Nowadays, they’re strictly a minority.
“More young Chinese do yoga now than tai chi,” said the summit’s organiser, Chen Si. The latter pursuit is confined for the most part to pensioners.
Reliable figures aren’t available, but estimates suggest that between 10 and 20 million Chinese practice yoga – and they’re predominantly female and under 40. Even if the number was 15 million, the Chinese would already have matched their American counterparts. And while incomes might not yet match the US – they’ve clearly got money to spend.
The summit was sponsored by Chinese yoga companies, whose wares were on sale outside the venue, an arena ordinarily used for basketball.
Visitors weren’t just queuing up for freebies or to try on pairs of “barefoot” Vibram Fivefingers. They bought mats, DVDs, translated books and clothes that made Lululemon gear look frumpy – frilly pink harem pyjamas vied with bodices lined with built-in push-up bras.
Some of the products prized form over obvious function. Unlike standard mat-towels, designed to soak up sweat from vigorous practice, the Chinese variant was more like a shag-pile carpet and slippery even when dry.
All of the vendors had lavish catalogues, mostly featuring Western-looking models – a reflection of yoga’s aspirational status. “Most people do yoga because it’s fashionable,” the organiser said. “They see it as a way to manage weight.” By bringing an Indian master to teach, he hoped to convey a deeper spiritual message, highlighting common ground with Chinese philosophy. “From now on, practice yoga to experience the inner beauty and inner light and not for the external beauty only,” Iyengar told the assembled throng. Hundreds of iPhone cameras flashed assent.