SHANGHAI — In a downtown shopping mall, a crowd of office workers are spending their lunch breaks searching for spiritual harmony.
Pulling back a heavy curtain, the group step into a meditation room and lie down on a row of cushions on the floor. Above them, stripes of indigo cloth ripple down from the ceiling like waves. The air is thick with the aroma of flowers and herbs.
Once everyone has settled and put on eye masks, a facilitator bangs a large gong at the front of the room to begin the session.
The Shanghai-based studio — Creative Shelter — is one of many businesses emerging to cash in on urban China’s latest obsession: mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness — a type of meditation that teaches participants to focus on what they feel in the moment — has been practiced by Chinese Buddhists for centuries. But it’s now being reinvented as a trendy lifestyle activity for China’s stressed-out middle class.
Meditation centers have mushroomed in major cities like Shanghai and hippie enclaves such as Dali, offering to help clients practice silent contemplation, heal themselves using soothing vibrations, or even meditate with their pets. Some charge as much as 18,000 yuan ($2,770) per year for the privilege.
But young Chinese are signing up in droves. While data on China’s mindfulness industry isn’t available, the yoga industry — a closely related market, as many yoga studios also offer meditation classes — is growing rapidly. The number of yoga studios in China increased over 9% in 2020, despite the impact of COVID-19.
The classes are especially popular among young Chinese professionals, who often struggle to cope with grueling “996” — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — work schedules.
The rise of China’s “996” work culture has driven many millennials to drop out — known as “lying down” in China — or embrace a range of alternative lifestyles in recent years. However, meditation centers like Creative Shelter promise to help clients find inner peace without having to quit their high-paying jobs.
In its marketing materials, Creative Shelter stresses the popularity of mindfulness techniques among Silicon Valley CEOs and Wall Street investment bankers. It appears to be an effective tactic: Since opening in May, the studio has already attracted more than 500 members.
Most of the clients are women in their 30s and 40s who work in creative industries like media and advertising, according to Huang Xinyi, Creative Shelter’s founder. The business charges 9,800 yuan per year for its meditation, sound healing, and aromatherapy courses.
Frankie Song, a 27-year-old fitness instructor, has been taking classes at Creative Shelter for about two months. He tells Sixth Tone meditation has helped him manage the stress of his job, which requires him to teach 30 classes per week and often caused him to suffer from insomnia.
“After practicing with the group, my sleep has improved and I’m no longer feeling a rollercoaster of emotions all day long,” says Song.
In the past, China’s largely secular middle class turned their noses up at the idea of meditating. Its long association with Buddhism led many to dismiss the practice as superstitious nonsense.
But attitudes have shifted dramatically in the past few years. The “mindfulness revolution” in the United States — which saw pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn strip meditation of its Zen Buddhist roots and rebrand it as a psychotherapeutic technique — has also helped the activity catch on in China.
In 2011, Kabat-Zinn made his first trip to China to promote mindfulness-based therapy. Since then, it has rapidly won mainstream acceptance in the country.
A growing number of Chinese health clinics now recommend mindfulness therapy as a treatment for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Academic institutions including Beijing Normal University have set up dedicated mindfulness research centers.
Zeng Xianglong, an associate professor of psychology at Beijing Normal University, says he has been taken aback by how quickly the demand for mindfulness programs is growing. For the academic, it indicates how much China still follows trends in the West.
“Mindfulness is part of traditional Chinese culture, so why is it being taken by the West and then sold to China?” he says. “It’s really worth reflecting on.”
The mindfulness industry looks set to become even more influential as China grows ever more concerned about rising levels of mental disorders in society.
The Chinese government recently made promoting the nation’s mental health a key goal in its “Healthy China 2030” strategy. Last year, it began directly advocating meditation as a method for coping with the stress of COVID-19 lockdowns.
The government recommendations have provided a huge boost to China’s emerging ecosystem of mindfulness-related online courses, apps, and social networks. Meditation app Co-Sleep claims to now have more than 50 million users. And high-end studios have also felt the benefit.
The number of people who attend meditation classes at Shanghai-based wellness center The Living Room has increased by at least 50% since the pandemic began, according to Chen Huiqin, a psychological counselor at the center.
Chen has begun integrating five to 10 minutes of meditation into her counseling sessions after finding clients often respond well to the technique.
“Some people fear taking medication or seeing a psychiatrist after being diagnosed with a mental disorder, but they’re willing to try meditation,” she says.
Zhou Chaoyang — co-founder of Qiwan Mindfulness Center, a lakeside meditation center in the picturesque southwestern city of Dali — says the pandemic and the authorities’ growing support for meditation has been a game-changer.
“It lays a foundation for the development of mindfulness in the country,” says Zhou. “Before, many people thought that mindfulness meditation was in some way religious or superstitious. But in fact, it’s a tool for training the body and mind.”
Like many Chinese mindfulness advocates, Zhou first learned to meditate while living abroad — in his case, running a luxury company in Italy. At the time, Zhou had been suffering from ankylosing spondylitis — a chronic form of arthritis mainly affecting the spine — before a doctor advised him to try a meditation-based rehabilitation course. Within a few months, the pain was gone, he claims.
“It was so effective — like magic,” says Zhou.
Young people take a meditation class in Dali, Yunnan province, 2021. Courtesy of Dali Qiwan Mindfulness Center
That experience convinced Zhou to sell his Italian firm and set up a new venture to promote mindfulness in China. The studio mostly serves tourists who fly in from major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Qiwan is also working with the Dali government to create mindfulness courses for local retirement centers, schools, and hospitals, according to Zhou.
“You can better connect with nature when you practice in Dali,” Zhou says.
For now, mindfulness remains a new and unfamiliar concept to many in China. Xu Yawen, a Shanghai-based meditation and yoga instructor, tells Sixth Tone her clients often ask her basic questions such as “how do you meditate?” “how long does it take?” and “what should I think about while I’m meditating?”
Because so many clients are new to mindfulness, Chinese studios tend to promote aromatherapy and sound-based meditation classes that appeal to beginners.
Huang, the Creative Shelter founder, recalls her astonishment the first time she experienced a gong bath — a type of meditation based on harnessing the healing power of sounds — in 2017. She was living in the southern city of Shenzhen at the time, and traveled to Hong Kong to try the class on a friend’s recommendation, she says.
“I discovered there were such amazing musical instruments in the world,” says Huang. “After immersion, I realized the universe had told me this is what I should do with my life.”
From then on, Huang made trips to Hong Kong every week to practice gong bath. After moving back to her native Shanghai in 2019, the 32-year-old decided to set up a studio in the former French Concession in Huangpu District to help more people discover it.
Though the classes aren’t cheap, clients are willing to pay because — unlike other forms of meditation — it’s difficult to replicate the gong bath experience via an app, Huang says.
“With gong bath, when you’re there in the room, your whole body is in contact with the vibration,” she says. “If you play the recording, only your ears are receiving it.
Eventually, however, Chinese mindfulness practitioners are likely to move beyond gimmicky therapies like gong bath and focus on meditating without external stimuli, predicts Zhao Xue, a yoga and meditation instructor based in Canada.
“Sound healing and aromatherapy are commercialized models that attract you to start practicing — it’s a short-lived joy that others give you,” says Zhao. “But as you really enter the world of meditation, you can just practice it at home.”
Huang, meanwhile, is searching for more ways to bring mindfulness to the masses. Her team at Creative Shelter are working on an experimental product they have dubbed the “spiritual power bank” — essentially, a soundproofed pod that people can sit inside and experience a 20-minute guided meditation.
According to Huang, the pods might one day pop up in public spaces all over China, just like the for-hire karaoke booths and phone chargers that have become ubiquitous in Chinese cities.
“Massage chairs in airports can help us relax physically,” says Huang. “But it’s also necessary to give ourselves a mental break.”
This story was published on Sixth Tone.