Published on May 22nd, 2013 | by Colleen Mayo
The Home Stretch: How I Learned to Love Yoga in Korea
I’ve never deemed myself a “Yoga girl.” Neither long-limbed nor flexible, I’ve always lacked the grace necessary to don leggings, nasally exhale and mount the perfect downward dog. I envied my yoga-going friends’ sexy abs, yet felt bored (literally) stiff when I accompanied them to classes. I was a “sporty girl,” therefore I liked … hitting things. A hearty sport follows three rules: competition, aggression and sweat. I wanted to exhaust myself and then feel justified inhaling a hamburger and a few beers afterwards.
After moving to Korea, my change in fitness routine came over three phases and fifteen months.
Phase 1: Denial. I pretended I could enjoy the same sports in Korea as I did in Texas. This didn’t work. I couldn’t find lacrosse or tennis partners. I do still run—at the risk of my personal safety. Sharing the road with taxis, delivery bikes and hoards of (finger-pointing) teenagers turns a casual jog into a sick game of Grand Theft Auto. After some months of frustrating workouts, I turned indoors.
Phase 2: Acceptance. I joined a gym. Not fond of imitating hamsters, I scorned the treadmills. The weight-circuit was fine except for the Korean men who lifted half-as-much iron, consequently crowning me resident Waygook Strong-Woman Wonder. Strike two.
Phase 3 (Assimilation): Yoga. But I’m not a Yoga Girl, I told myself again and again as I signed up for HotYoga (“HotYoga” is the studio’s name), two months ago. Yet I was desperate for a fulfilling workout. And the studio—located in Gwangju’s classy Bongseon-dong district—looks so much more legit than a lot of Korea’s ajumma-pounding, sparkle-infested group exercise classes.
Legit it is. “HotYoga Studio” (핫요가 아카데미) offers two options: five classes per week for 120,000 won a month (280,000 for three months) or three classes for 110,000 won (260,000 for three months). Towels, mats and a locker room are provided. The locker room has showers. Read this: you will need a shower after these yoga classes. Whether you go to “Hot,” “Core,” “Balance” or “Ashtanga” yoga, you are guaranteed to leave any after 60-minutes swimming in your own sweat. This is in part due to the room’s constant 38-degree Celsius (or 102 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature regulation. But the majority of your sweat serves to emphasize my most recent realization: yoga is work, y’all. Like, it hurts.
Some readers may have practiced Bikram Yoga, also known as “hot yoga,” in their home country. I’ve gone to a few Bikram classes back in America: they’re held in 105 Fahrenheit rooms, 90 minutes long and conducted solely by Bikram-certified instructors. Let’s label “HotYoga Studio” as Bikram-Lite. The room isn’t quite steamy enough and the poses aren’t held long enough to induce the same nauseating exhaustion/euphoria as Bikram. But it’s a significantly more intense workout than the stereotypical, docile hippy-pant yoga I imagined.
From the moment I walk into the studio to the moment I leave, the vibe just feels professional. Classes are held in pure Korean so I try to make maximal use of visual instruction. But it’s surprisingly easy to follow (if difficult to imitate). A mix of fellow newbies and calendar-fit yoga enthusiasts surround me. It’s a comfortable blend. I know I can follow the hard-core girls if the instructor steps out of sight, but I feel secure knowing that I’m not the only person struggling. Furthermore, our instructor is efficient and clear in her directions; she demonstrates everything and isn’t shy about correcting my posture, which I appreciate. I’ve been the lone foreigner in a Korean exercise class before and felt extremely awkward for it. Perhaps it was my own insecurities but I felt more spectacle than part of the class, so much that I couldn’t focus on my own workout. I’ve never suffered “Awkward Waygook” Syndrome here. I chalk it up to the studio’s instructor and every member’s own seriousness towards the class. I always leave with sore muscles and a peaceful state of mind.
Now the truth all foreigners come to accept: Korea changes you. It’s a comically obvious truth. We often think of “change” as a poignant yet nebulous shift in our interior beings; we forget change is most evident in the ways we conduct life here that’s different from back home. Expectations of what we once did easily—drink a craft beer, eat a dollar taco, go for a jog—evaporate in a new cultural landscape. The absence of these “normal” activities challenged my initial happiness in Korea. But ultimately, the HotYoga Studio has disproved two of my more narrow-minded notions: quality group exercise is available in Korea and yoga is awesome. What I once dismissed as a lackluster pseudo-sport, I now embrace as a challenging and ultra-physical conditioning that influence both body and mind. Truth: I’ve never craved a hamburger afterwards. But maybe that’s for the best.