Mimi Wu sits down with multi-talented Jojo Yang to talk about her Yangon Yoga House, her long-term plan to expand Myanmar’s health and wellness market, and what exactly Vinyasa Flow yoga is.
Jojo Yang, founder of the Yangon Yoga House, sits upright on the couch in lotus position – legs crossed over each with feet resting on her thighs – while I half-slouch, cross-legged and lean against the couch back.
“I started yoga because when I was a management consultant in New York City, you do this four days on, one day off,” which made it difficult to stick to a exercise regime. But “you can do yoga anywhere. It’s one of those exercises where I can just do sun salutations for fifteen minutes, where it can be compressed in time, and still get the benefits.”
As a longtime yoga practitioner, she’s extremely slender, but she makes it clear that “yoga is holistic wellness. Yoga is not about losing weight necessarily; it’s about feeling good in your body. Especially when you’re traveling, when you’re sitting in conference rooms, taxis, you never feel like you’re expanding your body. It feels really good getting into these postures.”
When she and her partner felt it was time to move somewhere new – and for Jojo, she realised that included getting out of the corporate world, “a soulless thing” – they considered Vietnam and Taiwan before settling on Yangon less than one year ago.
“Right before I came here, I got my yoga teacher training certificate. I’ve been taking yoga for 10 years, and I wanted to deepen my practice. It’s 200 hours, and I just never had the opportunity to do it before. You know, the best thing to do for yourself is to jump right in and teach. I didn’t come here with the intention of setting up a studio, but it was perfect; I started by teaching four to five people.”
Jojo teaches Vinyasa Flow, which is a series of poses synchronised to the breath. Inspired by Ashtanga Yoga, this style takes Ashtanga postures but allows practitioners to change the routine without being bound to a philosophy or rulebook. The beauty of Vinyasa Flow is its almost dance-like quality; sun salutation, for example, flows smoothly from plank to chaturanga to upward facing dog to complete a sequence. By inhaling and exhaling through movement, there is a rush of energy, clarity of the mind, and expansion of the body.
“I pull my inspiration from Pilates and calisthenics,” said Jojo, who incorporates push-ups and core work into her practice. “Yoga is about building strength, flexibility and balance in your body. Some teachers think if you’re doing the moves with students, you’re amateur. But I want to be right there with you, especially the harder poses.”
That mentality towards Jojo’s teaching style is the reason why so many of locals have become regular attendees, and it is little surprise that demand for her classes shot up quickly. “In a couple of months, we had completely filled out the space, so I started looking at other spaces. I was teaching on a rooftop in Tamwe; I was bouncing around. So I thought, ‘now it’s time to start a place.’”
Jojo needed a place within walking distance from her house that was also, conveniently, nearby the majority of her students’ residences. “I wanted some place that was 100% my own that I didn’t have to share.”
It was a random taxi driver that eventually found her a suitable space, but “it was a long process to get it to where it is now. We found this single storey house, but because it’s single storey, it comes with a host of problems: tons of leaks, loads of structural problems. The plumbing, electricity, and water weren’t working. We blew our budget by 100%.”
Despite the logistical setbacks, Jojo is dedicated to her students, teaching daily at the Yangon Yoga House and often taking on additional private classes throughout the day for up to classes in one day.
What sets the studio apart from others is that, first and foremost, Yangon Yoga House is a centre that thoughtfully has been built with a padded studio, showers, and a kitchen and provides yoga mats during class. The business also uses a simple but professional website that allows advanced booking, a feature markedly absent from Yangon’s sprawling yoga market. The major draw, however, is being a one-stop location to explore yoga techniques taught by several different instructors, who are diverse in their styles and pose sequencing. Pilates and barre classes are also offered.
“There are quite a few yoga teachers around Yangon, but they’re all teaching in random spaces, like L’Opera and Governor’s. What was so important for my personal yoga practice was learning with a bunch of different teachers,” she said.
“I’ve definitely had people come to my yoga class just once and never again, and I just want to say to them: I’m not offended, you don’t have to like my style, but there’s definitely a style for you, so don’t give up on yoga.”
However, Jojo has been already confronted with the reality that “yogis in general are a bit of a nomadic group. Pair that with people in Yangon being so transient. We’ve only been open for two months but have gone through three teachers.”
Jojo plans to buck that trend; the plan is to stay in Yangon indefinitely with a long-term goal of the studio being self-sustainable with reliable teachers.
“The next step for the studio is to incorporate healthy eating [into the studio]: Kombucha, quinoa…” For a short time, her partner and she experimented with protein balls and smoothies sprinkled with chia seeds. “Once you’ve taken yoga and been healthy, you’re inspired to eat healthy as well. And I think certainly being in Yangon with the lack of healthy food options, I’ve been a lot more aware for the need for it.”
Eventually, Jojo plans to develop Myanmar’s health and wellness tourism. “Myanmar has so many of the same qualities as detox retreats in places like Bali and Thailand. There are beautiful mountains and secluded beaches, and there’s a huge opportunity here to have a sanctuary of holistic wellness.”
Though some may be wary about starting yoga – perhaps you think you must come in with a dancer’s grace and flexibility and a gymnast’s strength – Jojo herself only practiced yoga casually for years. It was a love-hate relationship, one that she quickly dropped when she went back home to NYC after a week at client sites but still reaped the benefits from. Ultimately, yoga is about feeling good and energized within your body.
“No matter how shit of a day I’ve had, I get on the mat and everything else dissolves. It’s me, the mat, and the people practicing around me.”