Seeking wellness through yogaAs part of the “well-being” craze in the country, yoga has become popular among those who desire to be healthier physically and mentally. Adding to its appeal, many celebrities have testified to its positive effects.
With more and more yoga centers opening in Korea, and given the variety of yoga types and practices, how can a potential practitioner find the school that best meets his or her needs?
Koreans’ familiarity with yoga does not have a long history. According to Kim Kwang-baik, president of the Daehan Yoga Association and the Yoga Life chain, a few people sought to promote yoga in Korea back in the 1960s, but the practice did not catch on. Some books on yoga and small classes were available at the time, but he says people’s mentality did not seem ready for yoga. Only some Buddhist monks related their study to yoga practices to a certain extent.
The country began to show an interest in yoga only a few years ago, Mr. Kim says, mainly as a result of media exposure.
“I started considering learning yoga when the actress Choi Yun-young said on TV about two years ago that she stayed in shape by practicing yoga,” says Jeong Mi-ran, who has been practicing yoga for a year.
The yoga boom began with the “well-being” trend, particularly among the well-off in the Cheongdam and Apgujeong districts of Seoul, where many of those who went abroad to study introduced the fashion and trends of upscale lifestyles in such cities as New York. With the media promoting the well-being craze, and some supermodels and actresses conducting a “yoga business” by selling books and videotapes, yoga centers became more popular.
But many practitioners, including Ron Katwijk, a yoga teacher from the Netherlands who has taught here since 1997, are quite negative about the current yoga boom.
“Yoga has become too commercialized. It’s about losing weight and looking better,” he says. “Yoga has become more like an image people buy with money. It’s not about spirituality anymore.
“In Europe, yoga is also popular, but it is not the same as in America and Korea,” he adds. “In Europe, we don’t have the phenomenon of yoga becoming fashionable and suddenly everyone is doing it.”
According to Mr. Katwijk, there is a big difference between yoga and other exercises. “Yoga approaches your body sensitively. Your body should not go too far in certain things. When practicing, you are neither supposed to sweat nor have too much pain, while other exercises or sports make you push yourself through the blockages in extreme ways, and it can destroy the harmony in your body.”
He says that is why in yoga classes some people maintain a pose for only five seconds while others hold it for a minute or more. “Everybody has a different body and different blockages.”
With regard to the mental aspects, Mr. Katwijk says people in modern society can achieve peace through yoga.
“To have peace, you have to stop the input. In doing so, you become your true self, as you peel off all the fake images you have adopted in life. You peel yourself like an onion.” he says. “Once you do that, the result is miraculous.”
In terms of physical benefits, Mr. Katwijk says, “When people practice yoga, the practices improve the energy flow in their body. Every part of the body starts to function better, including the brain.”
Among the various forms of yoga, the oldest and most popular is hatha yoga.
Lee Seung-yong, president of the Hongik Yoga Institute, says the practice consists of physical exercise (asana), breathing (branayama) and meditation. “All three of them complete yoga,” says Mr. Lee. “With any of the three missing, it is not yoga any more.”
He adds, “Yoga is about having peace of mind, it’s not about losing weight.
“It’s easy to go to a so-called yoga center and practice a little to get a nice figure. But to maintain what was achieved, mental strength to continue the practice is necessary,” he says. “To do that, teachers should know about yoga’s philosophical aspects to guide their students in the right way.”
Mr. Lee says many yoga centers only focus on correcting posture and on the joints, which is not what yoga is really about. “Chiropractic, acupuncture and many other methods are available for those who want to correct their posture and joint problems,” he says.
“Yoga is a practice for which people don’t need other people to improve their body,” Mr. Lee adds. “It is about overcoming mental and physical problems with your own strength.”
The ashtanga form of yoga emphasizes building strength, flexibility and stamina through a fast-paced series of poses.
Mr. Lee is quite skeptical about short-term programs here that make it easy for people to get certificates to teach yoga. “Yoga cannot be taught without philosophy,” he says. “Out of all the yoga centers in the country these days, teachers who seriously studied yoga are hard to find.”
In Europe, Mr. Katwijk notes, it’s not easy to become a yoga teacher. “It takes years of study before you are allowed to become a certified teacher,” says Mr. Katwijk, who took courses for seven years beginning in 1989 at a yoga institute in Amsterdam.
“In Korea, people can take courses for a few weeks or months by paying a lot of money to become a yoga teacher. But it is questionable whether people are qualified after such courses,” he says.
Finding a yoga center
When it comes to finding a yoga center, there are a number of things to consider.
“Try to avoid yoga schools that make you feel intimidated or insecure and make you compare yourself to others, which is against yoga’s purpose of gaining peace,” Mr. Lee says. If a yoga center shows too much interest in a student’s finances, it might be a scam, he adds. In addition, he says, “people should be aware that good yoga teachers don’t do unhealthy things such as smoking, or drinking excessively.”
Mr. Kim of Yoga Life takes quite a different view.
Unlike Mr. Katwijk and Mr. Lee, who emphasize the importance of “originality” and “philosophical values” in yoga, Mr. Kim says focusing on the physical aspects of yoga is sufficient. He adds that the country has an urgent need for a sport that maintains people’s overall health, which comes from good posture and active circulation.
“Corrected posture leads to corrected mental status,” he says. “To find a good yoga school, people should observe closely whether the teacher knows about posture.”
When asked about yoga’s philosophical value and mental effects, he says, “People’s mental void or discontent can be taken care of by other religions and philosophies.”
With regard to his center’s three-month program for teacher certification, Mr. Kim says the participants learn the essence of yoga in an intensive way. “After those courses, people still keep on practicing and learning, just like other students. The program is just to help them understand the essence of yoga as a teacher,” he says.
Yoga is so beneficial, Mr. Kim says, that everyone should practice it, and he even recommends making it mandatory for elementary school students. For that reason, a large number of teachers are necessary, and short-term programs help to increase the number. In addition, large yoga centers with many students in a classroom are very cost-efficient and practical, given the current economic stagnation.
There are about 105 Yoga Life branches across the country with about 15,000 students, Mr. Kim says.
Different yoga centers have different approaches. Some emphasize originality, and some practicality. Thus, those who are looking for the “right” yoga center need to first ask themselves what they want to achieve. Some people may only want to develop a good shape, while others may want more. The best advice is “shop around.”
by Choi Sun-young