Seoul

Isabel Kwak: “Yoga is a gentle stroll, not a sprint”

Isabel Kwak had a demanding corporate job and a stressful life in Seoul. Her start in yoga became a life-changing moment, inspiring her to transform her habits and connect to her true self. We chatted about her passions, daily routine and valuable me-time.

How did it all begin, Isabel?

Exercise has always been my escape from daily stresses and strains, and I found yoga led the pack because it gave me freedom of body and mind. I was stuck in a dead-end corporate career for many years. And then it dawned on me that life’s too short, I should do something I really enjoy: share my skill and passion for yoga.

Then you joined a course?

Yes, an Ashtanga/Vinyasa instructor training programme in beautiful Bali. It was really full-on intense: a jam-packed schedule of breathing techniques, anatomy, philosophy, postures, and practice, practice, practice.

I learned heaps about yoga, and it was a real journey of self-discovery. I felt transformed and committed myself 100% to making yoga instruction my true passion and full-time profession. It’s been hard work. But I feel absolutely stoked – I get heaps of job satisfaction and I love seeing my ‘yogis’ make progress.

“Yoga is universally beneficial – all are equal on the practice mat.”

Is yoga for anyone?  

Absolutely, yes: all ages, genders and fitness levels. That’s what I love about it. Beginners, the over 40s, couch potatoes: yoga is the one size that fits all.

It’s all about finding escape: freedom of mind and freedom of movement. That’s why yoga is universally beneficial – all are equal on the practice mat.

What inspires people to first roll out their yoga mats?

There are lots of reasons. Motivations range from the physical (flexibility, strength, balance, fitness, cross-training top-up) to the psychological (stress relief, calming the mind, finding focus). Most simply find yoga the perfect escape: 60 minutes of tranquil bliss amid busy lives.

On being a yoga instructor

Being a yoga instructor must be great. 

I love it. It’s great introducing yoga to novices and guiding their progress, especially when they master a new asana [body posture].

What’s the first asana students master? It must give you a warm glow.

When my students first try the Bakasana (Crow Pose) arm balance, they find it pretty tough and can’t imagine ever doing it right. But once they’ve found that sweet balancing spot, everything comes together; it’s such a wonderful feeling for them! And I love seeing their look of joy and amazement.

I’m also motivated by teaching future instructors, and the support of attending one another’s classes. But most of all, I like yoga’s warm and welcoming lifestyle, and the opportunity to meet lots of great people – more than 30 nationalities attend my Seoul studio. Everyone is welcome!

Any time for your own training? 

I’m currently pretty pushed for time. When I’m not teaching, preparing, or working on promotions and outreach, I’m occupied with the new studio, but it’s a positive experience and very inspiring. I always try to squeeze in at least one practice every day – some crucial me-time!

What are the challenges that both the yogis and instructor face?

Moving up to a new pose can be really tough. It takes flexibility, strength and, of course, patience. Many newbies start out wanting to make fast progress and ‘win’ the class. But yoga is a gentle stroll, not a sprint – a journey refined through regular practice. The here and now, taking time and following your own pace for step-by-step (even small ones) progress, and well-being at your own pace.

As an instructor, I view the class as individuals, not a whole, each with unique abilities, physical limitations and goals. I put myself in their place: are the instructions clear and the pace appropriate? It’s my job to ensure they’re getting maximum benefit from each class, and to prevent any potential injury caused by an unsuitable pose.

Any downsides to being a yoga teacher in Seoul?

Focusing on breathing is such an important aspect of yoga. But often the air quality is so poor here you can’t be outside without a mask. And this can physically and mentally affect me and my students. We use air purifiers inside the studio during practice, but sometimes students simply can’t come on bad-air days due to coughs, headaches, skin irritations, or low motivation to go outside in those conditions. It’s a really worrying issue that impacts every aspect of life in Seoul.

What should beginner yogis be wary of?

Everyone has different bodies, so it’s important to use support props and to modify poses for comfort. Yoga is a personal journey, not a competition with a winner. If you can’t hold the full version of an asana yet, that’s fine – you’ve reached your limit for now. Modified poses or using supports are very beneficial. Be patient and eventually you’ll get further. Focus on the journey, not the destination.

Eight limbs of our bodies

Is yoga more than your average workout? 

It’s the whole package, from physical to mental and even spiritual. The Ashtanga I practice represents the eight limbs of the body, while physical poses [Asana] account for only one such limb.

The other seven are Yama [our relationship or behaviour in the world], Niyama [our relationship with ourselves)] Pranayama [breathing], Pratyahara [withdrawal of the senses], Dharana [concentration], Dhyana [meditation] and Samahdi [enlightenment].

How does it deliver on the health front?

The benefits are multiple and proven: yoga relaxes the body and clears the mind, gives focus, releases stress, detoxifies organs, and improves strength, core stability, posture, alignment and balance. Yoga also makes you feel great and is a fantastic social activity!

For me, it’s about balance: between body and mind, work and leisure, others and self. Appropriate diet, meditating, and lots of exercise that you like and look forward to. Even a relaxing walk in a park. Improving physical and mental health in an enjoyable and positive way.

Any healthy lifestyle myths you’d like to expose?

Where to start? There’s just so much misleading information out there, and so many anecdotal experiences that people follow. For me, it’s crucial to accept that body types are unique, so poses that might make one person stronger, thinner or feel great aren’t universally applicable.

Evenings

What are your interests outside yoga class?

I love CrossFit, weightlifting and HIIT. And when I can find the time, some cycling, hiking and snowboarding. If its active, I’m there!

…and then downtime with a beer?

Ha, I wish! Evenings, I take time to reflect on the day’s classes: a mini-SWOT analysis of events and my performance, planning next lessons, confirming bookings, responding to questions and updating my social media – all accompanied by invigorating Yogi tea. I also strive to pin down some daily me-time through words, music or meditation.

“Evenings, I take time to reflect on the day’s classes: a mini-SWOT analysis of events and my performance.”

Do we need to re-learn how to relax in this fast and furious world?

It can be really tough to switch off, and I struggle with that too. Yet finding quality me-time for true well-being and relaxation has never been so important. Try to set aside time for yourself every day. Simple breathing techniques can lift mental fog to reveal calm: just taking ten deep, focused breaths can deliver incredible results.

Any closing thoughts about yoga?

Come along and try it! It’s a really welcoming, non-competitive environment to enjoy and have fun in.


Isabel Kwak is the founder and owner of The Flow Room Yoga Studio, a new boutique studio project for both expats and Koreans in Seoul.

Photography by Denis Bosnič