Flexible Hours: A Career in Yoga

By Joshua Cawthorpe, November 25, 2022

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State media asserts that yoga was introduced to China by way of the daily CCTV broadcasts of Wai Lana. However, the generation that fuels China’s yoga craze today would probably snicker at the quintessential 1980s fitness videos with soothing guitar melodies playing as the Hong Kongnese yogi guides viewers in her flowing technicolor jumpers and flower crowns.

wai-lana-yoga.pngThe popularization of yoga in China is often attributed to Wai Lana. Screengrab via @张蕙兰Huilan/Weibo

Although Wai Lana might technically be the world’s most-watched yoga teacher (according to her own website), China’s growing yoga culture is comprised mainly of Millennials. One key driver for the predominantly female customer base is the desire for sculpted physiques in line with ever-evolving beauty standards. The elements of meditation and spirituality don’t seem to be what sparks the interest of Chinese fitness consumers but, in the age of hectic overtime and six-day work weeks, they might be what make people stay. This month That’s sits down with Shen Yan to discuss how this ancient art is amassing followers in the modern age.


Image via Yan Yoga

Shen discovered yoga in university back in 2014. When you see him practicing yoga it becomes immediately evident that he has a special kind of dedication and discipline that most people simply don’t possess.

We meet Shen in a Starbucks, 13 floors below his studio: Yan Yoga. Shen tells us that he began practicing almost every day from early on in his yoga journey. When he graduated in 2016, he got a ‘proper’ job at a good company but he immediately felt uneasy about sitting at a computer all day. “I felt discomfort,” he tells That’s, “and I could see that my bosses were in bad shape too. They were rich but I knew immediately that it wasn’t worth the sacrifice for me.”

shen-yan-difficult.jpegImage via Yan Yoga

Shen decided to quit his job and progress into teaching yoga. Around that time he claims to have seen a shift in the demographic of yoga practitioners.

“Yoga was already well-known in 2016 but it had a stigma of being slow, boring and mostly suitable for the elderly. The yoga that China’s older yogi generation practices is a slower Indian style. However, around 2016 we saw more American and European influences on yoga being practiced in China. More upbeat music, a faster pace and more fitness-oriented movements draw in younger people.”

yan-yoga-instruct.jpegImage via Yan Yoga

Shen has watched yoga explode and he has friends that have ridden the swell. Not wanting to replicate the stressful lifestyle of an office job, he chose a more conservative approach to entering the yoga business. “I have friends who have opened yoga studios all around the country — Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu,” says Shen. “They opened big studios in malls and they can tell me firsthand how the business is going. Their costs are too high and they are consistently losing money. Like me, they got into the business to master their own yoga and teach others. But now they are always stressed out and glued to their phones.”

These friends will ultimately downsize, and they imparted the following wisdom to Shen. Do not exceed three locations and each one should be no larger than 400 to 500 square meters. Three locations are reasonable to manage as you can visit them and teach in a single day. Despite yoga being the passion that brought Shen into the business, he still intends to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

The yoga business is booming in China but the per-customer spending remains relatively low. “No matter how much we love yoga, the industry still needs to keep us alive. The rent and the fixed monthly expenses must be carefully considered when choosing a space and designing a course schedule.”

yan-pose-help.jpegImage via Yan Yoga

Shen explains that the biggest shift he has witnessed in the yoga business has been in the membership and payment structure. In the beginning, it was always annual and monthly memberships to the studios. This discourages people from trying out yoga and it’s not realistic for young professionals with busy schedules.

Thus, the industry shifted to multiple class passes. A 10-class pass at Yan Yoga costs RMB1,500 but doesn’t expire. This makes it more approachable to customers while maintaining the value of each class for the business.

Yan Yoga opened in 2020 at a time when many businesses that require in-person gatherings were struggling. Nonetheless, Shen says that they built it slowly and were able to sustain it because of the studio’s modest size. “In the beginning, we would only have five or six people join a class but this would cover the fee for the teacher and it grew from there.”

Shen hints that he’s looking to expand into a larger space but he quickly reminds us of his raison d’être.

“The original choice was to open a yoga studio so that I could live a life of balance. If it turns into a high-pressure job then it becomes a contradiction. I chose this lifestyle because I looked at my future self and at those who walked this path before me. I decided this is the kind of life I want.”

Scan the QR code below to join a yoga class:


[Cover image via Yan Yoga]

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