Well-being for beginnersThe term “well-being” seems to be showing up everywhere you look in Korea these days. Membership in a health club? It’s all about well-being. Organic produce? Same thing. Yoga classes? Ditto.
Condominiums? Bibimbap? Instant noodles? Believe it or not, the “well-being” label has been used to sell all of them. The mere fact that instant noodles ― surely one of Korea’s less-healthy food options, no matter how you change the recipe ― can be associated with “well-being” indicates how far the term has drifted from its origins in the holistic health movement in the West.
Martin E. Sligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, defines well-being as “the pervasive sense that life has been and is good. It is an ongoing perception that this time in one’s life, or even life as a whole, is fulfilling, meaningful and pleasant.”
Hong Sung-min, director of Cheil Communications, a major Korean advertising agency, says the term “really hit the market” last summer, when a book by Paul Zane Pilzer called “The Wellness Revolution: How to Make a Fortune in the Next Trillion Dollar Industry” was published in a Korean translation.
“It’s a trend book, like Faith Popcorn’s ‘The Popcorn Report,’” Mr. Hong said. “People are interested in wellness. One of the key words that Koreans picked up on was ‘well-being.’ It includes a person’s physical, emotional and spiritual condition.”
That wasn’t long after the Korean publication of “Bobos in Paradise,” the book by American commentator David Brooks that was influential here. The holistic “well-being” lifestyle ― marked by an interest in organic foods, physical fitness and spiritual consciousness ― is key to the self-image of the “bourgeois bohemians” Brooks describes.
Noh Hee-young, author of the cookbook “Organic Foods for Parties,” says the “well-being” concept “is grossly misunderstood in Korea.”
“The purpose of seeking well-being was to feel free from a materialistic, success-oriented society and seek ways to find inner peace, to cultivate one’s inner world, to define what happiness and time mean to us,” Ms. Noh said. “This was important in Korea, which has suffered from corruption and a pretentious way of life... But now the term is being abused as a marketing tool.”
If so, it’s working. Housewives sign up for yoga classes and shop for organic produce. Workaholics squeeze in exercise in a conscious attempt to relieve stress. And, of course, shoppers are urged to choose “well-being” instant noodles, whatever those might be. From the specious to the sensible, here’s a guide to keeping up with your neighbors in the well-being department.
Environmentally friendly, socially responsible
The “well-being” movement isn’t all about self-improvement ― it also means taking care of the world around you and making it a better place for your neighbors. Obviously, there are a million ways to do this, from recycling your garbage to donating money to welfare organizations to volunteering your time. Many of the expatriate organizations in Korea, including the American Chamber of Commerce, the Seoul International Women’s Association and the Irish Association of Korea, raise funds for local charities. Ask your embassy about different associations. For volunteering, you might look up www.yheesun.com, a support group associated with several orphanages.
Yoga and emotional well-being
The emotional side of well-being is just as important as the physical, and yoga is one practice that bridges them both. It’s long been known for bringing harmony to both mind and body.
When yoga first entered Korea in the 1960s, its spiritual and mystical aspects were emphasized. It was often practiced at meditation centers. But yoga is also a great, low-impact way to tone the body.
Today in Korea, yoga is viewed as a boon to fitness in general, and the newest facilities emphasize its health benefits. Pure Yoga (www.pureyoga.co.kr) is a popular site for classes in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul. One of the first in Korea to teach yoga in English, Ron Katwijk, runs Magic Pond Yoga School in Itaewon (www.rajayoga.co.kr), offering both hatha yoga and the more demanding raja yoga.
Aromatherapy and natural healing
It was in 1926 that the French chemist R.M. Gatlefosse coined the word aromatherapy ― the practice of using essential oils to heal various ailments and complaints. Its practitioners claim aromatherapy is particularly helpful in dealing with stress. The Marquis Spa at the JW Marriott Hotel (02-6282-6262) ends each session by having guests relax in a dimly lit room, where they are provided with an oxygen mask through which they breathe air that has been treated with aromatherapy oils.
A more recent addition to Seoul’s aromatherapy options is Decleor Institut in Apgujeong-dong (02-545-8790). Overlooking Hannam Bridge, Decleor’s new spa opened last year. Known for products based on aromatherapy principles, Decleor touts the value of “awakening the senses.” Different ingredients have different effects ― extracts of neroli to soothe the body, chamomile to relax, rosemary to purify and ylang-ylang to stimulate. When applied properly, they say, the result can be a sense of balance.
Many other types of therapy can be found at local spas. Gyeongrak, similar to shiatsu, is based on restoring the balance of yin and yang in the body. Ear therapy ― in which a candle is placed in the ear and lit (at the other end) ― is said to relax the body. Peter Thomas Roth Spa and Solution Center in Cheongdam-dong (02-3446-2255) offers both gyeongrak and ear therapy.
Fitness and well-being
Fitness clubs cater to the “well-being” lifestyle, and a regular workout at the gym has become a self-improvement activity that can be done with style.
A new breed of clubs opening in the city are equipped with sleek machines and offer music and videos on flat screens, as well as trainers who offer workout tips, diet and nutritional advice. The demand for personal trainers, once the province of celebrities, is on the increase.
To fit urbanites’ tight schedules, these clubs tend to have long hours. Energy Plus (02-3445-6868), frequented by young professionals, is one of the clubs that are open from 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. The popular California Fitness Center, which has locations in Apgujeong-dong and Myeongdong, is open from 6 a.m. until midnight (8 a.m to midnight Sundays); it has a Web site at www.californiafitness.com with a section in English.
A personal trainer at California Fitness Center’s Apgujeong-dong location (02-2106-0999) says, “People used to want be just skinny before, but now they want to be fit and trim, especially after seeing a ajumma chosen on national TV as having the best body in town. In the past, clients were mostly young guys trying to impress, but now we have men and women of all ages, up to the late 50s.”
The perfect shape doesn’t mean great health, though. Even an extremely well-toned body might not have good cardiovascular health. One can greatly benefit from balancing anaerobic (such as weightlifting, calisthenics and isometric exercises) and aerobic (such as running, swimming or squash) exercises in a workout regime.
Feeling groggy or in pain from too much stress or a bad workout? A good hour of chiropractic massage might help. One of the best services is available at Lee’s Skincare (02-3443-4929) in Jamwon-dong in southern Seoul. Lee Sun-gu attempts to diagnose the origin of the pain, finds pressure points and twists and turns your limbs like elastic bands. One appointment-only session costs 50,000 won ($44).
The first step to culinary well-being is saying “no” to instant foods (that includes noodles). Think nature, nutrients and health. Though the validity of the “organic” label is sometimes debated, homegrown herbs and organically grown produce ― that is, grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or other artificial additives ― have been highly sought after, and demand seems to be growing.
While most herbs are available in local flower shops or markets (or can be ordered), organic produce, which can cost three or four times as much as regular produce, is being branded and franchised.
Three major department stores, Lotte, Hyundai and Shinsegae, offer special organic produce sections. The salad sections in these department stores are tantalizing indeed; girdled in soft white mist, they feature dozens of varieties of fresh, green leaves, from which a shopper can select a small quantity in a clear plastic box and have them weighed for purchase.
One of the leading suppliers of organic produce is Orga Whole Foods, operated by Pulmuone, a major organic food company in Korea since 1981. There are three stores in Seoul; its Web site, www.orga.co.kr, offers on-line shopping in English for foreigners.
“Living food,” or saengsik in Korean, has been also a fad of late ― though it’s been largely misunderstood in Korea, due to a highly commercialized powder drink mix sold as a meal. Each small pouch contains multiple ingredients, from soybeans, kale and seaweed to whole grains, which are freeze-dried and reduced to powder. This powder drink comes from the “living and raw food” movement that originated in California, though its practitioners there consider the drink just one element in a health-conscious diet. In Korea, the drink’s popularity is waning because of its harsh taste.
by Ines Cho, Joe Yong-hee