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Yoga, Pilates and other exercise systems

by Mark Derby

Body-based practices such as yoga, qigong and Pilates are used by New Zealanders to improve their health and wellbeing. In the 2000s elite athletes were practising yoga – as were some prisoners.

Traditional exercise systems

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.

    • Bay of Plenty Times, 22 April 1989. Back
    • Melissa Billington, personal communication, 13 November 2012. Back

Recent exercise systems

Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique was developed by an Australian, Frederick Alexander. In the late 19th century Alexander worked as an actor and elocution teacher in Melbourne. He began to suffer from breathing difficulties which threatened to end his career. Eventually he succeeded in breaking habits of tension, and these problems disappeared. In 1904 Alexander moved to London where the principles and practice known as the Alexander Technique attracted the attention of celebrities, including actor Henry Irving and writers George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley.

Alexander in New Zealand

Before developing the Alexander Technique, Frederick Alexander delivered dramatic recitals, a popular form of entertainment at the time. In 1895 he performed in several New Zealand cities, receiving excellent reviews. In Wellington the audience was so large that he performed in the biggest suitable venue, the skating rink. He gave vocal lessons for several months in Auckland, and was impressed by Māori, whom he considered to have retained a natural breathing control.

The Alexander Technique teaches people how to stand, hold themselves and move in order to eliminate unnecessary physical tension. It is directed at changing the responses of the nervous system – the link between mind and body – through individual instruction. This involves developing a more natural relationship between the head, neck and back. ‘Primary control’ of the head on top of the spine is central to the technique. The technique is usually taught one-to-one.

Teachers of the Alexander Technique undertake a three-year training programe. In 2012 about 28 registered teachers were represented by the Alexander Technique Teachers' Society of New Zealand.


Joseph Pilates (pronounced Pee-LA-tes), a German national, worked as a fitness and self-defence instructor in England. He was interned during the First World War and taught fellow internees his personal system of physical exercises for health and fitness. In 1926 he set up a studio in New York which attracted boxers and dancers hoping to prevent or recover from injury. Many of them became his students and assistants, helping to spread his techniques internationally.

The Pilates exercise method seeks to develop controlled movement from a strong core (the muscles of the body’s centre). Specialised resistance training apparatus and other equipment is used to guide and train the body. Pilates has been taught in New Zealand since the mid-1990s.


In the 1970s Moshe Feldenkrais, an Israeli physicist and keen athlete, developed a series of exercises to rehabilitate patients after physical injury. This evolved into a philosophy of greater efficiency of movement and improved health, summarised as ‘awareness through movement’. The Feldenkrais Method uses slow and precise movement sequences of the whole body to engage the brain through the body and nervous system. Feldenkrais is taught in group sessions as well as individually.

Feldenkrais practitioners complete a four-year professional training programme. They also have annual accreditation and ongoing professional development requirements. The first overseas Feldenkrais trainers worked in New Zealand from the 1980s. The New Zealand Feldenkrais Guild was incorporated and affiliated to its international parent body in 1995. In 2012 it represented some 57 certificated teachers.

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Yoga, Pilates and other exercise systems', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 September 2021)

Story by Mark Derby, published 5 Sep 2013