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Yoga is Now a Leading Fitness Trend

Once dismissed as boring stretching, yoga is now a leading fitness trend and the new age of fusion yoga styles looks set to take the practice even further.

It’s 7.30pm on a Friday and the house is packed. In a loft-like studio overlooking Orchard Road, all 42 mats are taken, mostly by insanely good-looking people in tiny shorts, their bare skin slicked with perspiration. Welcome to hot yoga, one of the latest yoga trends hotting up the city.

Practised in a heated room of about 38 deg C, hot yoga was popularised by Bikram Choudhury, the famous founder of the patented Bikram series. Hot-yoga practitioners believe that the body limbers up in a short time thanks to heat, allowing greater mobility and lowering the chance of injury. It is also believed to speed up metabolic rates and allow the body to sweat out toxins.

Until recent years, yoga was favoured for its calming, mind-body benefits and seen as a complementary exercise to cardiovascular workouts. Now, thanks to the physical intensity of hot yoga and its claims to aid in weight loss, the practice has taken on a sexier, fat-burning persona.

Busy executives are filling up hot studios for a mind-body workout that torches calories, while offering respite from hectic lifestyles.

“There’s something beautiful about being in touch with your body and pushing it to accomplish more,” shares lawyer Teo Jia Yun, 26, who took up hot yoga this year, in a bid to lose weight and get healthier.

In a clear reflection of rising demand, several boutique hot-yoga studios have sprouted in the past three years, joining earlier players such as Affinity Yoga (previously known as Absolute Yoga) and Updog Studio. And they are not slowing down – Updog Studio, as well as newer but popular choices Hom Yoga and Yoga Movement, each opened a second outlet last year, and two out of three upcoming openings (see below) are hot-yoga studios.

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THE EVOLUTION
The popularity of hot yoga is an indication of how much the practice of yoga has grown and changed. Originating in India some 5,000 years ago, yoga was designed to connect one’s mind, body and spirit, most commonly through the use of breath, physical postures (asanas) and meditation.

Traditional yoga leans towards the spiritual, with enlightenment as the ultimate goal, but the practice has evolved considerably since its popularisation in the West and, subsequently, other parts of the world.

Following a paradigm shift in the late ’90s towards mind-body workouts – exercises that also contribute to mental and emotional well-being – along with studies supporting the link between yoga and stress reduction, yoga was soon catapulted to mainstream popularity, even more so after celebrities like Madonna raved about its benefits.

By the early noughties, the practice had broken out of its mould as boring, stereotypical stretching and transcended its place on the mat to become a voguish lifestyle choice, spawning million-dollar businesses in its wake and garnering a rapidly growing market of practitioners across the globe.

According to the results of a 2012 “Yoga in America” market study released by Yoga Journal, 20.4 million Americans practise yoga and spend US$10.3 billion (S$13 billion) a year on classes and related products.

While nowhere near that scale, Singapore’s yoga scene has matured considerably in the past five years and there are now over 50 studios offering various styles of yoga – a remarkable development from yoga’s former reputation as a placid practice taught mostly at community centres.

The market today is an incredibly diverse one, with forms ranging from restorative sessions like Yin to more dynamic ones like Ashtanga and Vinyasa (see below).

Modern practitioners are often drawn to yoga’s physical benefits such as increased fitness, better flexibility and weight loss, and many contemporary yoga classes cater to that, designing programmes to give students what they desire. Therapeutic mind-body effects such as increased focus, deeper sleep and a calmer temperament are usually realised only at a later stage in their practice.

This is exactly the case for lawyer Kevin Wong, 49, who practises yoga two to three times a week to complement his gym workouts and endurance training.

“I enjoyed it so much that it stopped being a supplement or alternative workout to the other exercises I do. Beyond the physical benefits, I realised that it helps me to deal with stress and helps my concentration off the mat,” he says.

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THE REVOLUTION
Traditional yoga has evolved considerably. More than just a static practice, yoga has morphed with increasing fluidity to incorporate modern fitness trends, and a combination of factors – including deviation from strict traditions and increasingly creative practitioners – has birthed a new age of hybrid yoga workouts that combine yoga with one or more disciplines such as dance, spinning or martial arts. In Singapore, it started and seemingly subsided with Yogilates, a combination of yoga and pilates, but the past three years has seen a surge in fusion yoga styles, most notably SUP Yoga, practised on a stand-up paddleboard out at sea, and aerial yoga, which fuses yoga, dance and aerial acrobatics and is practised while suspended from a fabric trapeze.

The appeal of fusion yoga lies both in its ease and challenges – the yoga portion is comforting to seasoned practitioners, while the fusion element keeps things fresh and prevents stagnation. It also allows business owners to carve out a niche in an increasingly saturated supply market, although dwindling demand is unlikely to be an imminent issue, at least not this year. Yoga has made it to the top 10 list in the much-quoted 2014 fitness-trends survey by the American College of Sports Medicine.

“Yoga is invigoration in relaxation, freedom in routine, confidence through self-control, energy within and energy without,” writes author Ymber Delecto.

Regardless of style, tradition and evolution, this quote seems to best sum up the essence of yoga that would draw the growing pool of yogis to their mats and keep them coming back.

IN VOGUE
New studios to check out this year.

1. Meraki Yoga
This cosy yoga studio provides both heated and non-heated classes suitable for all levels. Owner Roxanne Gan has taught at several hot-yoga studios, such as Hom Yoga and Affinity Yoga. Opens next month. #01-15, One North Residences, 7 One North Gateway.

2. Yoga Inc.
Located at the former Singapore Badminton Hall, this spacious boutique studio is outfitted with three yoga rooms offering both heated and non-heated classes, including a gentle yoga suitable for elderly practitioners. Opens this month. #01-08, Guillemard Road. yogainc.sg

3. REVOLUTION
A partnership between Verita and Space & Light Studios, this fitness and health centre offers programmes including yoga, pilates and TRX (Total Body Resistance Exercise). Check out its 30-minute intensive yoga session, designed to work practitioners fast and hard in minimal time. There’s also an onsite spa and juice bar. Opens this month. #03-09 Vivocity. www.r-evolution.com.sg

MASTER STANCE
Hatha yoga provides solid grounding for advanced manoeuvres.

Hatha Yoga
It is said that most forms of yoga practised today stem from Hatha, which focuses on postures and breath control. In modern times, Hatha is often used to describe a gentle class with more static poses. It is a good place to build your foundation for stronger yoga styles.

+ Transitions = Vinyasa
Also known as Flow or Vinyasa Flow, this is a dynamic sequence of postures sequenced in a flowing, almost dance-like manner, with strong emphasis on linking breath and movement. Most Vinyasa classes include sun salutations throughout the practice to raise the heart rate and build strength and endurance – great for people who want a cardiac workout.

+ Heat = Hot Yoga
A general term for yoga that is practised in a heated room (up to 40 deg C), as the heat is believed to relax the muscles and rid the body of toxins. Hot flow, a dynamic series of flowing poses, and Bikram, a fixed set of 26 poses, are two popular styles of hot yoga.

+ Longer Poses = Yin Yoga
A slow practice with poses that are held for up to several minutes, so as to work the connective tissues and lubricate the joints. It is also believed to improve the flow of qi, which, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, runs through the meridian pathways in the body. Yin is a good complement to more muscular, dynamic yoga styles such as Vinyasa.