Transcendence in bright elastic pants.
It’s hot and bendy, sweaty and stretchy. It's a hardcore workout, toning even your smallest muscle groups. It’s therapeutic and mind-gathering, a practical way to realize inner silence. It’s a competition of representation, with fancy postures on Instagram. It’s a transcendent commitment.
It's all called yoga and Shanghai has a great representation of its wonderful diversity.
Five years ago, Shanghai had nearly 650 yoga studios. In 2020, a search on Dianping finds 3,000 results for yoga. That abundance of choice makes Shanghai both the best place in China to do yoga, and the worst place to start — where to begin?
Here! With our essential guide to yoga in Shanghai.
Going Way Back to Yoga in History
Yoga dates back at least 3,000 years, all the way to a collection of Hindu poems called the Veda, although, most of its content has nothing to do with the physical workout that we know as yoga today.
The word "yoga" derives from Sanskrit root "yug", which can mean "to unite, yoke, connect, to hitch up" — but with what? The ancient yogis were mainly concerned with The Mind, and how to transcend the fluctuating waves of thought that cause us suffering. In a word, enlightenment. They didn’t practice to slim down or get bendy.
Most contemporary yoga practice is "hatha", a term with many meanings but best translated as "forceful effort". Hatha Yoga induces a meditative state by "forcefully transforming" the body, breath and mindset.
There weren't as many crazy postures back then. In Hathapradipika, a centuries-old hatha yoga text, there were only seated postures, breath control, and internal work called bandha. That was it. Much of the bodily practices that people obsessively love (and hate!) didn’t exist until the 1900s.
The birth of contemporary yoga can largely be credited to T. Krishnamacharya, a Southern Indian of humble beginnings who went on to tutor the two most well-known teachers today: BKS Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga Institute, and Pattabi Jois, advocate of Ashtanga.
In the 1930s, the maharaja of Mysore offered T. Krishnamacharya patronage to promote yoga. Under colonial rule, Indians wanted nothing to do with some ancient, arcane tradition, so to get people interested, Krishnamacharya combined hatha yoga with dynamic movements found in modern gymnastics, and had his young students demonstrate impossible pretzel postures in public.
That's how yoga-as-we-know-it-today officially began.
Going Back a Bit: The History of Yoga in China
Yoga has grown crazy popular in Shanghai, with a heavy influence from the craze in North America.
This isn't the first time yoga's been in China, though.
Modern yoga first came to China via Shanghai in 1939 when Indra Devi, one of the very few Western students and the only female to study directly under T.Krishnamacharya, arrived with her husband and taught classes at the former French Club (nowadays Okura Garden Hotel). A few years later, her class was so crowded that she moved them to Soong Ching-ling(宋庆龄)’s house, specifically inside her bedroom, which hosted 25-person classes five times a week.
Then, a long hiatus due to uh… "social turmoil." There was a revival during the national qigong hype in the early 80s, possibly because they seemed similar.
The first Chinese "yoga star" appeared around the same time. In 1985, Taiwanese yoga teacher Zhang Huilan (张慧兰) began giving classes on CCTV 1, the main channel. The series, which aired every single day in the morning or afternoon, didn't miss a single broadcast until it ended in 1999.
The first batch of yoga studios that appeared in Shanghai in the early 2000s were influenced by Huilan, but apart from that small community of practitioners, yoga mostly went dormant until about 2010.
Interest has exploded in recent years. A 2018 report by a Chinese consulting firm predicted that the market value of Chinese yoga industry would rise to 47 billion rmb in 2020. Billion!
Unfortunately, they've stopped keeping count. And who knows if they even counted sales of Lululemon pants in that figure.
So you're not alone in feeling that you want to start practicing yoga in Shanghai. Plus, there’s really no downside to improving your health and quieting your mind. You just need to get started.
Know What You Want and Need
First, are you looking for fun or something more serious? Much like Tinder, it's important to decide what you want before you dive in too deep.
"I want to de-stress" counts as half-serious. If you care about more than just your body, it doesn’t make sense to go to a place where everyone is doing gymnastic handstands or dancer splits.
Next, consider your schedule and location. Pick somewhere that fits your schedule. Don't twist your schedule to fit a particular studio. Commuting an extra half hour each way to class is not sustainable.
Keep in mind your Chinese proficiency. Yoga practice is experiential, and language plays a big part in it, especially if you’re also interested in the philosophies behind the body works. That said, once you learn the basic vocab, it's not so hard to follow along.
The basic vocab
- Asana, Sanskrit word for "posture". Ti shi (体式) in Chinese.
- Pranayama, means "breath control", referring to yogic breathing exercises.
- Vinyasa, a practice method which coordinates specific movements with inhalation and exhalation. A "flow", you may have heard. In Chinese it's beautifully translated as liu (流). It can also mean a "sequence".
- Ujjayii, the name of a type of breathing method used during posture practice. You inhale and exhale through the nostrils only, making a natural hissing sound from the back of your throat.
- Surya Namaskara, translates to "salutation to the sun". Because the sun is great and gives everything life. This refers to a sequence of movements arranged according to a specific order in coordination with the breath. You may hear your Chinese teacher say bai ri shi (拜日式).
- Downward Facing Dog, it's not a sex thing. Sometimes it's just xia quan (下犬) in Chinese.
I’m a Total Beginner
Everyone starts somewhere. It’s actually easier to find a studio when you have no previous knowledge about yoga – less comparison, less confusion.
You can start like everyone else, at a fancy, big-name studio. These commercial studios schedule at least three to five different classes daily. You can slowly try them all and get a sense of what you like, plus have a nice shower afterwards. Classes are often available in English, sometimes by foreign instructors.
Apart from being pricey, the downside of these big studios is class size — sometimes these places get crowded, which means you won’t get much personal instruction in a room with 30 other students.
Y+ Yoga Center, long-time studio popular with Chinese and foreigners. Many of their teachers are dedicated and disciplined practitioners themselves, although their classes and workshops can feel a little commercial.
PURE Yoga, a well-known Hong Kong-based corporate studio with three locations in downtown. Many foreign teachers and good for an English-speaking environment. Feels more like a spa center. Expensive but consistent.
Fine Yoga, a big Chinese chain studio. Most of their studios are located inside modern shopping malls. Not every class is bilingual.
Yi-Om Yoga, a chain of four studios, two downtown. Their teachers are experienced and take notice of each student's capacity. Some of them can teach in English. Their newly decorated Nanjing Xi Lu location feels particularly homey.
Vita Yoga, a Chinese chain that partners with hotel spaces.
Yoga is usually available wherever you have a gym membership. Classes are good enough if you’re just looking for a sweat or a stretch – don’t expect a soulful experience. Sometimes it’s under a branded name like "LesMills Body Balance," which resembles a yoga class. More or less.
Some fitness places also do drop-ins. Both SuperMonkey and Justin&Julie offer yoga; search for their mini program on WeChat. Classes are about 100rmb.
Instead of squeezing yourself into a room full of people and getting confused by obscure class names, consider building a solid foundation at a boutique or private studio. Most of these places are run by experienced teachers who like to keep classes personal. Shanghai has a lot to offer, especially if your Chinese is okay.
A few suggestions:
Changle Yard, which has two villa apartments along Changle Lu. Yan, the owner, is highly experienced and dives deep into the practice and the philosophy. They also do prenatal and post-partum yoga. Teachers are multilingual.
Maha Yoga, inside a cozy loft near Xiangyang Park. They do relaxation stretching classes, core exercises, aerial yoga, etc, as well as private lessons. Most teachers speak both English and Chinese.
Free Soul Yoga, owned by Jade Qin, a former medical student who got into yoga during college. The teachers are very experienced and the classes have a really wholesome feel. Bilingual instruction in Chinese and English.
Ai He Yoga, a popular studio near Jing’an Temple, inside a residential building. Teachers are friendly and offer constructive feedback. Classes are in Chinese.
Si Fang, which has many long-term members. Their main studio is on Julu Lu, but they operate smaller spaces for private sessions nearby. Some of their teachers can communicate with simple English.
Leaf Yoga, near Tianzifang, offering different types of classes every day. The space has a homey and feminine feel. Some of their teachers speak simple English.
Karma Yoga, inside an old villa house on Xinhua Lu, right next to Moose, is a popular private studio among yoga practitioners who live nearby. Their classes are intimate and communal. Some of their classes are in both English and Chinese.
The Living Room by Octave does all sorts of programs related to mental health and wellbeing, and there’s an organic kitchen on site. Feels like a country club. Charges like one too, but the teachers are solid. Classes are in English and Chinese.
Most of these studios are in Jing‘an and Xuhui. Class sizes vary from three to ten people, though there are options for all budgets and levels. Private sessions are generally around 400-600rmb. Cheaper if you buy more.
What Are The Different Styles?
Most style and brands that identify as contemporary yoga do hatha yoga postures, but they are sequenced, organized and practiced differently. Therefore, how you feel during and after the practice may vary quite significantly.
All contemporary yoga originated from hatha, and every studio offers a class with the name. The term now just means the class will focus on fundamentals – less moving around, less sweating, more focus on breathing and static postures. There are still places in Shanghai that keep the practice more traditional.
Just Yoga is owned and operated by a family of Indian heritage. They offer a holistic approach to yoga practice with nearly 50 small-group classes weekly. They also do Ayurveda special care, which is not found anywhere else in Shanghai. Great place to go. Most classes are in English.
Changle Yard mentioned above has a class called Niguma Yoga, a very traditional sequence practiced by some Tibetan Buddhists. Instruction is in Chinese and English.
Hatha Yoga Boutique, a 16-year old studio inside a beautiful old villa on Wuyi Lu. They stick with the basics and keep things intimate. Go in the evenings if you don't want to chit-chat with stay-at-home Shanghainese ladies. A few of their teachers speak English.
The term refers to a breathing and movement system. In modern yoga studios it is synonymous with "flow." According to T. Krishnamacharya’s son Desikachar, this method was used by his father to teach teenagers who wouldn’t stay still. The pace is usually faster and you move from one posture to the next without holding still for long.
Every studio in Shanghai offers vinyasa or flow classes. Some are gentler than the other. Ask the teacher for guidance. If you fancy yoga-gymnastics, go to MANI Yoga.
This practice was made famous by BKS Iyengar, student and in-law of T. Krishnamacharya. It was made popular by virtuoso violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Iyengar’s patron and long-time friend, who first invited him to teach in Europe.
Iyengar’s yoga focuses on minute details of anatomical alignment – he was badly injured due to intense postures and had to figure out how to practice safely. A lot of props such as belts, blocks, wall ropes and chairs are used. The method can seem dry and meticulous, but it helps build an understanding of the body and strong mental concentration.
His teaching has infused every yoga class that takes note of body alignment. Because of that, there are not many studios that specializes in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar Yoga Vidya, a studio authorized by the Iyengar yoga center in India. Chinese-speaking teachers, but can instruct in simple English.
Janya Yoga, a sizable studio that focuses mainly on Iyengar’s method. Their wall-rope classes are often fully booked. Teachers can speak simple English, but most classes are in Chinese.
Hegu Yoga, a private studio that offers very small group classes and private sessions, focusing on Iyengar. Classes in Chinese.
iYoga, a well-established studio in an old residential building near Zhongshan Park. Most classes in Chinese.
Also called "Bikram Yoga" until that franchise went bust after an ugly sexual assault case. It is a fixed sequence of 26 postures practiced in a room set to 100-104F (38-40C). No, it does not burn fat, nor does it detox. You will certainly sweat a lot, but the temperature mainly prepares your muscles for deep stretches.
Heating is expensive for most small studios, and so Bikram is only offered at big commercial studios. PURE, Y+ Yoga Center, and Vita Yoga all have classes in heated rooms. My Soul Yoga & Pilates has some good Bikram teachers.
The word itself means "eight limbs". The idea is that you practice all eight pillars of yoga (including aspects of social conduct, breathing, posture, and meditation) necessary for samadhi, a state of non-duality. Yeah, it's a little involved.
The posture practice focuses heavily on coordinating with breathing, so sometimes it’s also Ashtanga Vinyasa ("flow," remember?). In total there are six posture series of increasing difficulty but most practitioners choose to stay at Primary Series and focus on the other seven elements of Ashtanga.
Ashtanga requires dedication and discipline. The goal for posture practice in Ashtanga is doing self-practice — a "Mysore" – every morning, except for Sundays and full or new moons. Yeah, it's a little… esoteric. A teacher will be in the room during a Mysore practice, but only to assist. It’s perfectly ok to not know a thing – a competent teacher will slowly lead you through the basics and guide you towards self-practice.
Although big chain studios like Y+ and PURE offer Mysore program and Ashtanga classes, you should probably go to a place that focuses on it.
Here are a few reputable studios in Shanghai where the teachers are life-long Ashtanga practitioners:
Mysore Room Shanghai, a studio owned by Bing Bing, teaches nothing but Ashtanga. She used to be an assistant teacher at the Ashtanga school in India. She's strict but kindhearted, and very helpful if you’re as committed as she is.
Red Door, owned by Rob, a long-time Ashtanga practitioner. They follow the traditional method but also offer classes focusing on inversions and back bends. The vibe can feel a bit militant.
the clinic, a health center which has very good Ashtanga classes.
N Yoga Studio, owned by Nish from India. His studio usually schedules group classes in hatha or Vinyasa, but he can slowly introduce you to Ashtanga if you show the interest.
If you want to stick with a certain lineage, say, Ashtanga, then it’s better to go to a place with the same dedication. Most teachers in Shanghai try to master many different types of lineages so they can offer more classes and stay nimble on the hot, hot yoga-teaching market, but that won’t help you much if you're looking for a deep dive.
Looking For Something Serious
Maybe you won’t believe us now, but once you have established a regular practice, at some point you will want to dig deep and learn more about yoga. This info might not be relevant to you this instant, but bookmark this article and come back when you're ready. We can wait.
Themed classes and workshops are a great way to know more about the ins and outs of the postures, history, and philosophies, depending on the topics. Big studios host visiting teachers from abroad regularly.
Y+ Yoga Center and Pure Yoga often host traveling teachers. the Clinic is another great place – they know tons of teachers and invite them over for regular classes as well as themed ones. The Living Room hosts themed classes more regularly, but topics lean towards general wellbeing and parenting. Tuition is expensive – a weekend workshop can cost 3,000rmb or more.
Try Something Fun and Novel
Aerial yoga, Sculpt yoga, and Acro (short for acrobat) yoga are not yoga. Controversial opinion! But to be fair, studios need to make money and keep up with the market, and it doesn’t hurt to have some fun mixed in with all the serious stuff! Here are just three ideas to try.
If you want to try hanging upside-down in the air, try aerial yoga. A lot of postures resemble yoga, but with a hammock hanging from the ceiling. Girl’s favorite, the aerial silk is very pretty. Plus, gravity could help you open up tight parts of the body.
For workout that's like a party, there’s yoga at SpaceCycle, a high-end fitness chain which was initially known for indoor cycling. Now all their classes are built around a music playlist. They have HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) yoga, and Sculpt yoga, done with a pair of small dumbbells.
To get adventurous and bond with friends, there’s Acro Yoga – a series of acrobatic moves practiced in pairs. AcroYoga Shanghai hosts regular classes and outdoor gatherings.