Carroll Du Chateau meets yoga devotees and looks at how the ancient practice has become a multibillion-dollar business.
There are eight pupils in this white room with its wall of ferns and flowers that Nikki Ralston designed and planted herself. The piped Indian music plays gently and the six women and two men stretch themselves like pieces of elastic. It's all very quiet as they roll on their mats into what Ralston calls the Happy Baby position: flat on their backs, legs splayed, hands gripping their ankles. They're breathing deeply enough for me to hear it, but there's a feeling of total peace as Ralston walks between them, gently adjusting an arm there, a head here. "Ask yourselves, 'Am I being kind and compassionate to myself?' And wait to feel what surfaces.
"When you feel restriction, breathe into it," she continues, "not forcing, not pushing, just breathing. When we extend this gratitude to ourselves we fill up, shifting out into the world in a phase of expansion."
It's a pretty beguiling experience. Who wouldn't want to concentrate on being kind to one's self? "But no," said Ralston earlier. "I teach so many young women, especially, who are so hard on themselves."
After class a young woman wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "Silence is Luxurious" confesses that she always cries when she's doing yoga. The others, including the men, thank Ralston for making them feel so much better.
Ralston, who trained in traditional Iyengar yoga, teaches two types of class at her Urban Ashram Studio in Grey Lynn: the psychological "Centered" class I watched today and the "Strong" class, which is focused on the physical strengthening side of yoga. Most of her 100-plus students come two to three times a week and take in both versions. "Actually it's essential to have both skills," says Ralston, "because they complement and help each other.
"I teach people how to be aware of their bodies, to observe their minds and learn to deal with what it throws at them and how to centre themselves. They come to class expecting to decompress and press the 'reset' button."
The passion, or fashion, for yoga is sweeping the world. Over the past decade, this 5000-year-old ancient Indian practice, with its formula of meditation, chanting and praying, partnered with stretching and strengthening exercises, has morphed into a massive $27 billion international industry. US celebrities including Jennifer Aniston, who gifted Oprah Winfrey a yoga mat in 2011 in front of millions of TV viewers, helped fuel the fascination for the cryptic Indian discipline that harmonises mind and body.
Statistics show that America is now at the crest of the popularity wave and Australia's near the top (2009 Census figures show more people participated in yoga than they did in Aussie Rules), while the fact more than 5000 yoga fans headed to New Zealand's first Wanderlust Yoga Festival in January shows we are definitely on the upswing.
As Ralston says "Yoga's not a trippy, dippy thing any more and the health benefits are massive."
It was yoga, she says, that helped her through her most challenging years - her father's illness, her excruciating labour and then, as a single mother, raising her daughter.
Now 37, she sits cross-legged on the comfy couch, back straight as a board yet obviously relaxed, calm shining out of her blue-grey eyes, and explains how she started to develop her own style of yoga. "Maybe it's because of my deep tissue massage background," she says. "It's a kind of organic process that came from listening to my father [the late Jack Ralston, a renowned coach of triathletes and distance runners for more than 40 years] teaching Olympic athletes, watching my clients' postural habits, and remembering my own post-natal experiences.
"Yoga, for young women and girls," she says, "is invaluable. It teaches you how to appreciate yourself. I'm the best, physically, mentally and emotionally that I've ever been."
Ralston believes yoga gives people tools to cope with their stressful lives. It is centred on three elements, two of which put students into a mindful or meditative state.
First, students learn to achieve relaxation while adopting various poses and stretching their muscles; second, they practise mindfulness, by becoming totally absorbed in the exercise; and third, during the process they learn to concentrate their minds on their breathing, which takes them into a meditative state.
There's even a quick exercise you can do at your desk. She shows me how: "Sit comfortably but alert. Relax your shoulders and tummy muscles; concentrate on your breathing. Welcome, then brush away any extraneous thoughts that come to mind. Keep it up for 10 breaths and you're re-centred, calm and ready to tackle the world."
Two months ago Ralston was teaching a sold-out class of 150 at the Wanderlust Yoga Festival. Held at Wairakei, Lake Taupo, it was the first of its kind for New Zealand. The idea for the festival originated in Canada and is now huge in the United States. Drawn by the promise of "an all-out, ecstatic celebration that brings together the world's leading yoga teachers, top musical acts, renowned speakers, exquisite chefs, and thrilling performers", more than 5000 yoga devotees flocked to Wairakei. They threw themselves into days of meditations, lectures, yoga in all its forms including on paddle boards, and their nights listening to "all-night chakra-spinning musical performances".
Unlike America and Canada, New Zealand's yoga industry is almost unregulated. Government departments don't keep figures on exactly how many yoga practitioners there are, how much money the industry turns over, or the educational standards teachers must meet before they can begin supervising others.
What we do know, after a troll through Google, is that there are at least 121 yoga studios in Auckland city, many of them still clustered around the formerly hippie centres: Grey Lynn, Ponsonby, Titirangi and Waiheke Island, plus Bombay, where many Indians settled in earlier years. These days there's also a decent representation in Remuera, Takapuna, Milford, Parnell, Mt Eden and Kohimarama as well.
If each studio had a conservative 50 pupils on its books, it would add up to roughly 6000 yoga students in Auckland. Most teachers learned their craft through the studios where they started learning as students. Although there is no overall governing body, others graduate through the professional-sounding Yoga Aotearoa, or International Yoga Teachers Association (NZ) IYTA NZ, where they are trained to integrate classical yoga into their classes.
Psychologists and yoga teachers say the move is driven by a middle class who work long hours. Downtime, if you could call it that, is spent on their iPhones, "just checking my email". Time is more fragmented than ever before. No one knows yet exactly what physical damage this does to our bodies and minds, but many sense problems.
By their mid-20s many people are worn ragged by the ongoing deluge of it all and looking for release. Enter yoga, with its cool methods for pulling people back into themselves, teaching relaxation, mindfulness and exercise rolled into one: offering them a way out of the non-stop, over-stimulated world they were born into.
Yoga also fills a gap left by the fall in popularity of organised religion, by offering a feeling of spiritual connection with the universe. By placing their full attention on basic actions like increasing awareness, breathing and holding good posture, devotees achieve a feeling of calm and connection.
Then there's the celebrity thing. The Beatles probably whetted the Western world's interest in yoga in 1968 when they flew to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The new wave is led by Madonna, Sting, Matthew McConaughey, Gisele Bundchen and other celebrities who have helped turn what used to be a cultish pursuit into a mainstream mind-body regime now followed by millions of people around the world. Yoga, they claim, is responsible for their slim bodies, their fitness. Yoga helped them drop alcohol addictions and get off drugs as well.
New Zealand isn't far behind. Our own celebrities and TV stars are turning to yoga to help maintain their svelte figures, flexibility and peace of mind. Actor Amanda Billing, TV hosts Carly Flynn and Samantha Hayes all agree that yoga keeps them fit, physically and mentally. Indeed, many of the benefits of yoga seem to be psychological rather than physical. A newly released paper from Harvard University in the US, confirms that meditation, often attached to classical yoga, lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation of body tissue (responsible for many auto-immune diseases) and alleviates stress. It's different from the feeling of relief people get after a run or hard game of tennis, which helps relieve stress temporarily: the practice of yoga is supposed to help you identify and release the deeper sources of stress and imbalance in your body: to feel how your physical and spiritual bodies are connected and how both can slot in with the rhythms of the universe.
Enter the money men, where even in New Zealand yoga is a multimillion-dollar business-in-waiting. Probably not for people like Ralston, who charges $95 for five classes, but more the international yoga-wear fashion stores headed by Lululemon, which bring out new lines of yoga clothing every season.
Lululemon, which started in Vancouver, Canada in 1998, is a big part of this story. The brain behind the brand belongs to Chip Wilson who, seeing a huge increase in the number of people trying yoga, created Lululemon to offer yoga-inspired exercise clothing that was functional and beautiful. Thanks to him it's okay now (in fact, seriously cool) to run around in a pair of leggings, even if you're over 50.
Built on a heady message of exercise, health, fashion and community, the company's first store shared a building with a yoga studio, aiming to create a meeting place for people to learn and discuss yoga, running, healthy living - and buy their gear. Today the 302 Lululemon stores across the world follow the original concept. Gross profit for the fiscal year 2014 increased by 9 per cent to US$914.2 million ($1.193 billion) while net revenue for the year ending February 1, 2015, increased 13 per cent to US$1.8 billion.
Key to the idea are yoga ambassadors they employ to spread the word. In New Zealand's six Lululemon stores, which are throughout the country, assistants routinely clear the decks at 8.30 on Sunday mornings and roll out the yoga mats, while a teacher, usually a Lululemon yoga ambassador, takes an hour of free training for anyone who turns up.
While some newbies walk away, others move on to regular yoga classes and, no doubt, the whole yoga lifestyle. The clothes make it fun and sexy just to get dressed, while the yoga brings people together, boosts their health and, if they're lucky, teaches students how to relax, breathe properly and meditate.
Which brings us back to Ralston, who became a yoga ambassador two years ago. Soon she'll be the first New Zealander to attend one of the corporation's global ambassador summits. It's an all-expenses-paid trip to reward their most effective yoga ambassadors. Ralston will fly to Whistler to mix and mingle with yoga ambassadors from Canada, the US, Britain, Germany, China, Singapore and Australia and learn about the company and its culture.
It's a big opportunity and she's excited, but basically it's all about business. As the Lululemon PR machine tells us, "We've been overwhelmed by the response from our guests [store owners] across New Zealand. It's clear that New Zealanders love to sweat and we've seen incredible growth in the yoga and fitness community since we opened our first New Zealand store in Ponsonby in 2011."
The other big money-spinners, apart from Bikram yoga, (see sidebar) are international yoga festival and retreat businesses, which entice devotees to come together for retreats in tropical places like Fiji, Bali and Sri Lanka, or enjoy a yoga festival at home. American-born Jacque Halstead and her husband, Jonnie, who bought the Australasian Wanderlust Yoga Festival business three years ago, stepped into a new world, too. At the time Jacque was a yoga teacher, Jonnie organised musical events, they had three small children.
They were looking for a business they could run together. Wanderlust sounded a good fit, but they weren't convinced the concept would work in New Zealand.
"Then we emailed co-founders Jeff Krasno and Sean Hoess in New York," says Halstead, "Jonnie got on a flight to a festival in Colorado and was 'blown away'.
"It was a very welcoming event, very accessible to the mainstream."
Their own mission statement is clear: "To create a community around mindful events." Wanderlust's first Australasian Festival included a lecture on Power, Sex and Money, classes on Yoga for Non-Bendy People, plus musical performances every night after a day at the Repair, Restore and Renew Meditation, and Channelling Your Soul's Purpose workshops.
Tickets cost $575 for four days plus accommodation costing between $180 a night for a double room at the Wairakei Resort, to $25 for a campsite. People flocked to register. And although Halstead wouldn't be drawn on the money they made, she did explain that the Wanderlust concept isn't so much a franchise, more "that our American partners profit-share with us. Soon Jonnie and I are going to a festival in America to help."
But probably the most intoxicating thing about yoga at its best is the bliss it brings. As I finish writing this, a Radio New Zealand "Spiritual" feature catches my ear. It's a young Muslim yoga teacher talking about her chosen profession.
"I consider myself a facilitator of bliss," she says. "Practising yoga induces the release of oxytocin, the hormone that makes us feel good. Massage, orgasm, all of that is bliss. So I'm a bliss facilitator."
Hip hop yoga
The renewed focus on yoga was unexpected for devotee Eileen Evans, who started teaching her own brand of the art in the hills of Titirangi in 1969, when The Beatles had just been to India. Back then Titirangi was still brimful with potters, painters and artists and Evans taught them all.
Forty-five years on, the movie Hip Hop-eration brought Evans back into focus. She was the member of the troupe who stripped down to her bikini for a swim and looked pretty darned good too, despite being in her 80s. In fact, she is surely the poster person for yoga. "I started practising yoga when I was 35," she says. "I did this course with a yogi who had a long white beard, learned to meditate and never stopped."
"Can you touch your toes, Eileen?" I ask.
"Of course I can!" she says. "I practise every other day, often in Albert Park and all year round on the beach. And I meditate while I'm doing the poses as well."
To achieve a posture and figure like hers, that lasts until you're heading for 90, isn't simply about doing the yoga moves. "The spiritual side is very important, because it can help centre and relax people, too," says Evans who's also into iridology, naturopathy and much more. "People have to understand why we do yoga and the necessity of it. They have to be prepared to make the effort: get off their computers and phones and take up yoga. People stop me in town and say 'I'd really like to be like you when I'm your age. How can I achieve it?'" The answer, even after you've read Evans' three books on health, meditation and diet, comes back to yoga. "Everybody needs yoga: I feel younger. The other day I ran up our beach in Waiheke. My grandson was amazed."
Bikram Yoga, Hot Yoga
Bikram or "hot" yoga, was invented by Calcutta-born Bikram Choudhury as his answer to the hectic pace of Western life. Choudhury emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and designed a yoga method based on 26 poses, which must be carried out in studios heated to 35C.
Bikram's classes are designed to last an hour and a half. And devotees are encouraged to sweat it out.
His slogan runs: "Hot for your body, calming for your mind."
In the 90s, Bikram began offering nine-week teacher certification courses, meaning that now there are thousands of certified instructors with Bikram yoga studios all over the world.
For a few thousand dollars, plus airfares, you can also book a Bikram yoga retreat in fancy tropical resorts from Mexico to Hawaii.
Although purists insist hot yoga negates the classical meditative teaching yoga stands for, Choudhury has struck a chord with his health-obsessed, time-poor devotees. Today he lives in a 743sq m Beverly Hills mansion, owns garages full of luxury cars, and, according to Vanity Fair magazine, there are now hundreds of hot yoga studios in cities from New York and Buenos Aires to Shanghai and Auckland. Bikram also has several rape charges hanging over him. They are about to be tried.
Ashtanga / Surfing Yoga
Vic Albon, from Waimauku, practises a form of yoga that couldn't be more different from Bikram. He started Ashtanga-style yoga 15 years ago and believes it fills "the section in peoples' lives that used to belong to religion". At the Grey Lynn studio he attends there's a sign on the door: "You do not wear shoes in here."
He says, "The world at large remains outside. There's a sense of humility around going barefoot. It changes your attitude. You're in a sacred space. Class starts by focusing inwards, breathing so you can hear yourself breathe, then we move into a sun salute."
Albon is convinced that yoga has helped him truly achieve glory in his own life. "It's possible for people to go through life without realising life itself is a far-out trip," he says. "Yoga has taught me that overall it's an amazing feeling being alive. It's like being in a play and thinking, 'I'm glad I got the part'."
He practises yoga three or four times a week and looks on his other passion, surfing, as "aqua yoga". To him, surfing with friends in the water is part of focusing on what's truly real. "You're lifting with the pulse of the ocean, totally focused. Riding a wave you're in sync with the heart of the universe ... it feels absolutely right. Then the wave'll wall up a little and with a bit of luck, it'll come over you and you'll come out the end of it."
And when it's over, "I've got the sensation that I've been gifted: that I'm in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, I see yoga and surfing as metaphors for being in tune with nature, and for this understanding to be applied to all aspects of life."