After a stellar career in luxury fashion PR working with some of the most creative forces in British fashion, Hongyi Huang is now devoted to the study and practice of yoga, as a teacher and yoga therapist. We spoke to Hongyi about his unusual path, and how his journey unfolded...
YOU HAVE HAD AN UNCONVENTIONAL JOURNEY TOWARDS BEING YOGA TEACHER, TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR CAREER PATH?Indeed, I had worked in fashion for over 15 years, spending a good part of my career as a PR, particularly with 2 British houses – Vivienne Westwood followed by Alexander McQueen.
Teaching yoga wasn’t even a viable option to consider as way of living. And frankly, neither was fashion. I didn’t even have the inkling that a multitude of roles existed within the trade and started learned more about PR when I moved to London.
The job of a PR appealed to me; I liked the idea of contributing towards the creativity of the team. Whilst a PR isn’t directly involved with designing, the role offers a lot of support to the designer and the creative angle lies in communication and how you share the ideas/stories/concepts of the collection to the world. I was in London pursuing a degree in Journalism and PR gave me the opportunity to use my writing skills too.
The role of a PR remains broad and ambiguous to many; a misconstrued idea of a name-dropping world, full of air-kissing where little work is done and plenty of lunches and parties to attend! Though it’s a possible narrative for some, it certainly isn’t a true reflection of this world.
In actual fact, there’s a lot of planning and organisation involved in the work. Anticipating and thinking ahead on how to lead/present a campaign/launch. The ability to communicate well is important too – being succinct yet absorbing at the same time.
WHAT WAS YOUR FITNESS ROUTINE LIKE WHEN YOU WORKED IN A OFFICE SETTING? WHAT WERE THE BARRIERS TO KEEPING YOUR ROUTINE AND GOALS ON TRACK?I went through several different phases – there was a period where I did body conditioning with weights, I also did Muay Thai (kick-boxing) for some years as well as Reformer Pilates.
Throughout these phases, yoga is the only constant in my fitness routine – a weekend morning + a weekday evening. I wasn’t a very sporty kid, but yoga gave me the confidence to explore other disciplines. It complements any other routine that you’re keeping as it cultivates flexibility, agility, coordination and stability. Muay Thai is a great example – the flexibility I gained through yoga, in the hips and hamstrings, made it easy to achieve those high kicks!
It’s a routine I’ve continued to this day – yoga and a fitness discipline I’m exploring – so that you’re using your body physically in more than 1 method.
The key to maintaining a routine – hire a personal trainer/private yoga teacher if you can afford it! Get someone to shoulder that responsibility especially if your job is stressful enough. A personal trainer/private yoga teacher can share that burden, plan your routine and monitor your goals for you.
Fix a date, make it regular and turn up!
WHEN DID YOU KNOW IT WAS TIME FOR A CHANGE?Hmmm… it certainly wasn’t an epiphany, more like a gradual realisation – it starts with not feeling the same excitement as you used to for your job until you begin to dread going to work.
Those were the hardest and the worst moments, because it’s the only job you’ve known for over a decade yet you can’t imagine facing it for the rest of the life! You feel so trapped by your own doing – when you’ve invested so much of your lifetime in this career so letting go becomes difficult.
Once you’ve worked in the industry you began to notice the amount of people that come and go. Some last for 5 years, some for 8 and a few hang on for a decade... It’s a fleeting and a youthful industry, which means you’re always having to keep in touch and stay ahead; I knew I had to expect a change, just when.
HOW HAS THIS LIFESTYLE CHANGE AFFECTED YOUR OVERALL WELLBEING?For starters, it’s a much more physical job so you’re not sat by the desk staring into a screen, instead you’re actively using the body and the mind when you teach.
Yoga studios are far more neutral and positive spaces too; there’s no office politics or competition amongst colleagues and there’s generally a camaraderie between teachers. Students on the whole are grateful and appreciative!
WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO YOGA IN PARTICULAR, AND DID YOU KNOW STRAIGHT AWAY YOU WANTED TO BECOME A TEACHER?I’ve practised yoga since I was 19/20 years old. I was living in Singapore then and only knew of this one yoga studio in town. It was a 30-minute drive from home and all of the clientele were older women, so I was the only young, male person sticking out like a sore thumb.
As a guy, I’ve always had good flexibility, rhythm and balance – none of which were highly regarded for sports – but gave me a natural flair for yoga. These physical traits got me teased in school but were finally recognised as something positive! The teacher noticed this and would constantly adjust the poses to keep me challenged. One day, she asked if I had ever considered training as a yoga teacher; I just never took it seriously, though it’s clearly etched in mind for all these years.
In the past, teaching yoga tended to be something a person did on the side, so he/she likely had a job in the day and taught some classes in the evening/weekends. But this is changing.
Whilst few grow up with the aspiration of becoming a yoga teacher, more and more, you meet fellow teachers who are disillusioned with their present jobs/environment and are finding greater gratification teaching yoga.
Yoga stands out amongst all exercises and movement disciplines because there’s a ‘spiritual’ element to it. We try to connect you with your body, breath and mind so it goes beyond a physical practice. Exercising makes a person feel good but yoga gets you glowing from the inside out; you feel lightness and a sense of calm after a yoga practice.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES WHEN STARTING UP AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?There are several and they prop up as you continue to grow as a business. Making that decision to switch is a big one. Change is scary and to give up what you’re familiar and had success with is even harder. Self-doubt is inevitable but stay focus on the new path.
I’ve learnt to appreciate all the teachers past and present too. I never realised how daunting it was to stand in front and instruct a group of people you didn’t know. It’s a vulnerable place to be and there’s a skill in managing your nerves when all eyes are upon you. I remembered feeling so overwhelmed that the mind went blank and all I could hear was my own heartbeat. So to reassure myself, I planned what I could when I first started teaching – the sequence, the area of focuses etc. – going through the lessons over and over again until it was planted in my mind and body.
Make new friends, form new relationships within the trade as you’d need support from people who share the understanding of what you’re going through.
Relax your expectations and be flexible with your ways – try to stop yourself from comparing your previous role/benefits/industry with the new one.
DID YOU FIND REGULAR PRACTICE OFFERED BENEFITS TO BOTH YOUR BODY AND MIND?Absolutely! When I first started practising yoga, it was almost essential that you completed a course (like a 4-week or 6-week foundation training) so you’re taught the basic principles of the discipline. Executing those poses are the easiest part of yoga; connecting with your breath as you practice mindfully adds a complex layer to it. The author Malcolm Gladwell famously claimed in his book “The Outliers” that, to truly master a skill requires the dedication of 10,000 hours at least. The understanding and feeling for the benefits of yoga develops progressively with regular practice.
WE LIVE IN UNCERTAIN AND CHALLENGING TIMES. IN YOUR OPINIONS, WHAT ARE THE KEY TEACHINGS FROM YOGA THAT YOU BELIEVE CAN HELP ALLEVIATE STRESS AND ANXIETY IN OUR LIVES?There are 2 yogic ethics that particularly ring truth in this context – one’s called Aparigraha and the other is Santosha – non-attachment and contentment.
Is it possible that perhaps, the stress and anxiety are self-inflicted…? We’re told throughout our lifetime that it’s necessary to have certain possessions, achievements and comforts to be happy in life. When we accomplish them, we’re told we’d be happier if we attained more. So we end up on this non-stop hamster wheel of trying to amass more to our name…
But didn’t you feel most accomplished when you bought your first car? Did we feel increasing elated as the car got bigger?
Allowing yourself to feel that it is enough; to be content and feel no need to reach for more.
WHAT'S YOUR STYLE AND HOW CAN A BEGINNER UNDERSTAND WHAT'S THE MOST BENEFICIAL FOR HIM/HER?I teach Vinyasa yoga which can be adjusted to be stronger and faster or slower and gentler. For someone starting yoga, it’s important not to focus too much on achieving the shapes of the poses; try to look inwards and observe the sensations and changes to your physical/mental/emotional state whilst you practice.
DO YOU HAVE ANY CLIENTS FROM YOUR PREVIOUS LIFE IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY?I do actually… several come to my evening class in Hotpod Yoga which is a great way of staying in touch. In fact, one of the studios Strong & Bendy in Hackney Wick where I teach weekly is owned by 2 sisters whom I used to purchase a fashion database management programme from. I had no idea they owned the studio and had reached out at random. One of the sisters noticed my name immediately as it’s quite unusual in UK and we worked out the connection quite swiftly. I’ve taught for them since.
YOGA CAN BE DONE ANYWHERE AND EVERYWHERE, WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE SETTING? A STUDIO WITH A GROUP, SOLO ON A MOUNTAIN TOP?At home in rags! In Goa. Yoga classes tend to happen very early in the morning or late afternoon where it isn’t so hot. I loved waking up, getting on the scooter and riding through the cool morning breeze to go to class when the roads are empty. It feels so blissful and carefree.
FINALLY, WHATS NEXT FOR YOU?I’m currently completing a training in Yoga Therapy, which has taken 2 years of study. It’s the therapeutic application of available yogic tools such as breath-work, poses, mindfulness and meditation, relaxation techniques, to help alleviate symptoms from any physical/mental conditions. Yoga Therapy tends to be offered on a 1-to-1 basis and the practice is customised specifically to the needs to the client.
I’ve also been exploring other holistic, movement disciplines and combining them with yoga where it’s able to help a client achieve his/her goals.