Thailand’s second city has a thriving yoga scene. Taking some classes provides an instant community and an entry into the culture.
As many a traveller has found, there’s nothing better than yoga for ironing out those kinks in the body acquired in the course of a long haul trip. But finding a place to study or maintain a practice isn’t always easy. Yoga studios are few and far between outside major cities, guesthouse rooms are often too poky to practice in, tiled or concrete floors are hard on the body, and a regular practice is tricky to maintain when hours and days are consumed on buses, trains, boats and planes. It’s a relief to find any kind of yoga class, but to come across a multiplicity of studios and teachers is an absolute blessing. Chiang Mai has just that. Already well known as a university town, a handicraft and shopping mecca and an elephant rescue centre, the city has a well-established and growing yoga scene.
Chiang Mai is an ancient city with a population of around a million, and is the cultural hub of northern Thailand. Far less frenetic than Bangkok, it’s a popular place to learn Thai massage, which goes hand-in-hand with yoga. Many yoga teachers who travel to Chiang Mai to study massage end up teaching some classes while they’re there. The core of teachers who live in the city is constantly being supplemented by guest teachers offering regular classes, workshops, immersions, retreats and teacher training courses. The bulk of the activity happens in dry season (November to April) but all the studios remain open year-round and offer a wide variety of classes even in low season.
Many of the studios can be found in the old city, a three-kilometre-square block honeycombed with inviting side streets and surrounded by the ancient moat and what remains of the imposing city walls and gates. A particular favourite is Wild Rose. Converted from an old wooden house, it’s owned and run by American expat Rosemary Bolivar, whose beautiful and generous spirit infuses every aspect of the studio. Rose’s particular talent is gathering and fostering an international yoga community, and the global network of instructors who teach at her studio is large and impressive, with a particular emphasis on Anusara yoga. Some well-known teachers can be found at this little studio, all drawn there by Rose and the community she has created. Classes at Wild Rose are usually a combination of laughter, playfulness, and serious and challenging yoga. This studio is best for those who already have an established practice.
Not far from Wild Rose is Yoga Tree, a purpose-built studio surrounded by a quiet, leafy garden. With both a large and a small studio, Yoga Tree can offer a more ambitious schedule which includes dance, meditation and capoeira. One-off workshops and community events are often staged here – as they are at Wild Rose – and include diverse offerings such as qi gong, tai chi, voice and drama, self-hypnosis and alternative healing practices. It all depends on which teachers are in town at the time. Classes are offered for all levels of students, so this is a good place for beginners.
Another school, Namo, is primarily a massage training centre but yoga classes are offered in the upstairs studio every morning and evening except Sunday. This studio is popular with backpackers as it has the cheapest classes (though not by much) and is closest to the main cluster of guesthouses in the old city. There is a variety of teachers, some local and some visiting. Yoga instructors in Chiang Mai often teach at more than one studio so don’t be surprised to take a class one day at Namo and find the same person teaching the following day at Yoga Tree. Yoga Room and BeYoga are well regarded studios located outside the old city.
One of the great things about Chiang Mai is that there is a genuine yoga community, and anyone who stays for a while and shows up to a few classes is likely to be warmly embraced. Quite often the community will get together in informal ‘yoga play’ sessions in one of the local parks, particularly for AcroYoga. This communal spirit has also led to outreach programs such as assisting Burmese refugees and other underprivileged communities. An example of this is the Yoga Mala Festival on 17-18 September. Hosted at The Spa Resort, it features yoga and meditation, live music and dance, alternative healing, organic food, talks and more. All proceeds from the event will be donated to the Children’s Shelter Foundation. For more details about the festival visit yogachiangmai.com