Story: Yoga, Pilates and other exercise systems

Page 1. Traditional exercise systems

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Most cultures have some tradition of using physical practices to maintain and restore health. Exercise systems have been developed with the aim of improving health, fitness and general wellbeing. Some, such as yoga, t’ai chi, Pilates and the Alexander Technique, share the premise that thoughts, emotions, attitudes and behaviour affect the body, and vice versa. Many forms have ancient origins.


Yoga, which promotes the union of the mind and body, arose in India in ancient times. Hatha yoga is the general term for the practice of yoga postures. A number of forms of hatha yoga are taught and practised in New Zealand, including:

  • Vinyasana – a set series of postures linked by deep breathing
  • Bikram – ‘hot yoga’, practised in a room heated to 40°C
  • Iyengar – yoga using props such as belts and blocks.

Idolatrous cult?

New Zealand yoga practitioners have sometimes come into conflict with Christians who believe the practice is incompatible with their faith. When the Tauranga Yoga Centre received local council funding in 1989, one ratepayer responded that yoga was ‘an idolatrous Hindu cult’ that was ‘totally in collision with the Word of God’.1

The earliest regular yoga classes in New Zealand may have begun in Tauranga in 1962. The International Yoga Teachers Association (NZ) was formed in 1970 to ensure teaching was of a high standard. In 2012 yoga classes were held in communities throughout New Zealand. At least 10,000 people were thought to attend regular classes, with many more following a personal practice without attending classes.

Kara-Leah Grant, founder of the Yoga lunchbox website, believed that in 2012 yoga’s popularity in New Zealand was increasing in line with an international trend. This was due partly to the systematising of styles such as ‘hot’ yoga, which was taught identically worldwide. She estimated that 70% of New Zealand’s yoga practitioners were female but that more men were taking up the practice, especially for athletic training. Wellington yoga teacher Scott Milham has worked with the All Blacks, Hurricanes and other elite athletes.

Yoga on the inside

Yoga appealed mainly to white middle-class New Zealanders, but there was a growing movement to teach it in prisons. In 2012 Wellingtonian Melissa Billington taught mainly Pacific Island and Māori women at Arohata prison’s drug treatment unit. ‘Some only have jeans to wear, so I adapt the teaching to their situation.’2


Pronounced ‘chee-gong’, qigong means ‘energy breathing’. Qigong derives from ancient Chinese breathing, meditation, martial arts and gymnastic practices. In the late 1940s these practices were combined into a simple set of exercises aimed at bringing health and vigour to the Chinese masses. Qigong clinics were founded to heal the sick without medicine, and by the 1980s millions of Chinese practised qigong techniques daily.

An offshoot named Falun Gong, emphasising spiritual advancement, has faced opposition from the Chinese government. Its founder settled in the US in 1998. Other qigong masters also emigrated, and contributed to the spread of this practice in many countries, including New Zealand.

In the 21st century various forms of qigong were taught and practised in New Zealand under names such as soaring crane, wild goose, and dragon and tiger qigong. They typically used rhythmic breathing, slow and fluid movements, a calm state and visualising the guiding of qi (life force) through the body.

Modified t’ai chi

New Zealand martial arts expert Robert Gemmell developed a modified form of t’ai chi designed to help elderly people avoid falls and other injuries. From 1998 the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) funded classes in modified t’ai chi for elderly people. ACC ceased funding modified t’ai chi in June 2012, after the establishment of Tai Chi for Health Community New Zealand, a national body to fund these activities.

T’ai chi ch’uan

T’ai chi derives from qigong. Although some forms are practised purely for exercise, relaxation and agility, others are fast-moving and active forms of martial art. A number of New Zealand practitioners of t’ai chi as a martial art have won international competitions. They include Dave Thew of Christchurch, a gold medallist in Australasian, Oceania and world championships.

The earliest known t’ai chi ch’uan teacher in New Zealand was Loo-Chi Hu, a Chinese immigrant, who began teaching Yang Style Long Form at Canterbury University in 1967. He continued to teach in the 2000s, aged over 80. Many of his students later taught t’ai chi throughout New Zealand.

  1. Bay of Plenty Times, 22 April 1989. Back
  2. Melissa Billington, personal communication, 13 November 2012. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Yoga, Pilates and other exercise systems - Traditional exercise systems', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 July 2022)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013