Dynamic Yoga and Healthy Living
This month’s That Girl is Kelsea Bangora, arguably one of the best yoga teachers in Hong Kong. Kelsea is the force behind Yogi Bangora, her own yoga company that offers private, group and corporate sessions, and hosts wellness weekends and retreats. In 2013, armed with expert yogi prowess after winning the Yoga Asana Championship in New York and gaining teacher training from the founders of Pure Yoga, Kelsea made the move to Hong Kong. She now has a loyal following of dedicated students and has taken the HK yoga scene by storm with her dynamic classes that welcome and challenge yogis of all levels.
We chat to Kelsea about her background in ballet, how she ended up in Hong Kong, the difference between the HK and NY yoga scene and how to incorporate yoga and healthier lifestyle practices into a daily routine.
Tell us about your background and where you’re from.
I was born in Hawaii and lived in Las Vegas until I was 12, at which time my family moved to New York, which is where I consider home. I often get asked about my ethnic background, which is European, Polynesian and Asian. I have two brothers – I’m the middle child. I’m also the proud aunt of two very cute nephews and a beautiful niece who live in the US.
Where do you live? How have you made your home your own?
I live on the Kowloon harbour front with a spectacular view of the water and Hong Kong skyline. I feel lucky to see boats pass by my windows everyday. For me, home is wherever I’m living. I make a place my own by decorating it with photos, art and gifts I’ve received. I’m a sentimental person and I like to be surrounded by good memories.
Home is my escape, my space to relax. I keep it clean, organised and minimalistic, with soft touches such as plants, candles and colourful throw pillows. Over the past few years, I’ve been collecting beautiful things for my apartment from my travels around Asia. For example, I have a beautiful bamboo bowl that I brought home from Bali. I eat salad almost every day in this bowl, and it brings back good memories.
What was your first impression of Hong Kong and how has it evolved over the years?
In Hong Kong, at first I was overwhelmed, treading water, sometimes drowning. Now I can swim!
How do you describe your personal style? How does it evolve and change?
My personal style is based on comfort. I dress differently to the majority of people, in that I spend most of the work week wearing yoga clothes and come the weekend, I wear jeans, shorts and dresses.
I have some really fun shoes from the brand Comme des Garcons that I bought in Tokyo. They’re black converse trainers, patterned with red hearts and eyes. I love wearing them. I like to have fun with my outfits and accessories. I treasure shopping with friends and trying their suggestions for different outfits.
My personal style has evolved since I moved to Hong Kong. The style in Hong Kong is more upscale than in New York, people dress a little fancier here. The weather is a huge consideration – in New York you wear layers and boots because it’s freezing for a large part of the year, whereas here I spend a lot of time in shorts and sandals.
Where do you shop in Hong Kong? Any secret finds you can let us in on?
The only time I shop in Hong Kong is if I need something new for a special occasion, in which case I grab a friend and head to Zara or Cos. I do most of my shopping on holiday in the US when I have more time and more brands that I like and am familiar with.
Any favourite active-wear/yoga brands that you would recommend?
I wear a variety of yoga brands. For me, it’s all about the fit and fabric. I like yoga clothes that are seamless and soft. I prefer not to wear clothes that are bulky, thick or that give you that ‘hugged in’ feel.
For yoga, I love Nike Dri-Fit leggings because they’re thin like dance tights. I love Surya for their seamless tops and colourful combinations. I love the Lululemon ‘naked sensation’ collection because the clothes feel weightless and they move with your body. Beyond Yoga uses an amazing material that sticks to your body but is also soft and not at all slippery. My other favourite yoga tops are actually from the dance store Capezio in New York. For casual yoga wear, I really like Spiritual Gangster for their cool yogi expressions. For fitness, I like pullover bras from Gap or Victoria’s Secret Pink, Nike trainers and Swatch watches.
More recently, I’ve been searching for eco-friendly yoga brands or those that use organic cotton. When I was in Bali in May, I discovered an organic yoga collection called Maya that uses bamboo fabric. The clothes are so soft and have beautifully simple designs.
What are your must-have beauty products? Where do you go for hair/nails/maintenance?
I’m pretty low maintenance. I wear makeup when I go out for dinner or on special occasions, but not every day. I have very sensitive skin, so I’m a natural kind of girl. I can’t use most beauty brands, so I’m always on the lookout for skincare products that use minimal, natural ingredients. As a yoga teacher, I sweat a lot and probably shower more than the average person, so I need to use gentle products.
I’ve been using Pratima Ayurvedic Skincare by Pratima Raichur for years. It’s a New York based company, so I order everything online. I use the Pitta Herbal Cleanser, Botanical Cream, Sandalwood Rose Mask, Cucumber Aqua Gel, Neem Rose Sunscreen and Brahmi Nourishing Hair Oil. I also love avocado oil, neem oil, coconut oil and rose water for daily use.
For nails, I go to Nail One or Iyara, and I go during off-peak times when it’s quiet. I get more pedicures than manicures as I’m barefoot everyday for work and I like to have neat feet. Jimela at Toni & Guy has been cutting my hair since I first moved to Hong Kong.
What are your favourite restaurants and bars in Hong Kong?
I love dining out, because I love food and creating memories with friends. During the week, I eat mostly at home and prefer to make healthy meals, such as soups, salads and vegetable stir fries. Some of my favourite recipes are by Deliciously Ella and Hemsley and Hemsley. I have both their books. When I do go out, I like to indulge.
I’ve been eating gluten-free since I was 18, before it was trendy. I have celiac, an autoimmune disorder, so I have to be pretty careful about what I eat and where I dine out. I’m so grateful that rice and fries are gluten-free! A year ago, I eliminated dairy to help with my sensitive skin and I’ve never felt better.
For dinner, I love La Vache for it’s easy (one choice!) menu and unlimited fries; Beef & Liberty (the rooftop!) for bunless burgers; Soi 7 for Thai food; and Mama San for beef rendang and fish. I also love Chino for their awesome tacos and friendly, knowledgeable staff.
My favourite afternoon tea spot is the Four Seasons, because they are the only hotel in Hong Kong that offers a gluten-free and dairy-free tea set. The scones are amazing and the almond milk hot chocolate is sinful. I also love the live pianist!
Describe your perfect weekend in Hong Kong.
My perfect weekend in Hong Kong is a spontaneous one. The best weekends unfold naturally. My ideal day would be to sleep in, do something physical like a hike or swim, meet friends for lunch, and then have dinner and watch a movie at home with a friend. I like to see a ballet or play when there’s something good on in town.
What’s your favourite place in Hong Kong? Are there any peaceful places in Hong Kong that you recommend?
My favourite place in Hong Kong is the south side, especially Repulse Bay and Stanley. I’m lucky I get to spend a lot of time working there, surrounded by trees and beaches. I love the peace and quiet! The noise pollution in Hong Kong affects me quite a lot, so it’s nice to escape it whenever I can.
Tell us about your career and how/why you became a yoga teacher.
Honestly, I never set out to become a yoga teacher, I feel like yoga chose me. It wasn’t that long ago that I was hustling at auditions in New York, I thought I was going to end up on Broadway!
I started practising yoga with my mom when I was 15, after I tore the meniscus (cartilage) in my right knee. I was a serious ballet student so I wanted to avoid surgery, and yoga helped to heal my knee. At that time, I was doing Bikram Yoga because it was the only yoga studio in my neighbourhood.
I moved to Miami when I was 17 to study with the Miami City Ballet. I would go to yoga in the morning before ballet class and not tell anyone. It was my secret space away from the pressures of ballet and school work. I liked being in an adult world and I liked how positive yoga was in contrast to ballet. The studio owner saw how dedicated I was and offered me a work-study position, which meant I cleaned the studio, mats and showers in return for free yoga classes.
Fast forward to 19, living in New York. My yoga teacher Kyoko Katsura – a Japanese yoga ninja! – recruited me to take an advanced, invitation-only yoga class for teachers. I realised how much more these teachers knew about yoga than they let on in regular classes, and I loved hearing their funny stories about students. They inspired me to become a yoga teacher.
In 2011, I won the Yoga Asana Championship in New York. That same year, I was placed 7th in the national competition. After that, my yoga career took off in New York – I was given prime teaching slots and my classes were full. I was also featured in The New York Times, which further propelled my career.
In 2012, after completing a teaching training at Pure Yoga New York, my teachers recommended me to Pure Yoga in Hong Kong. They were among the founding teachers of the first Pure Yoga studio in Hong Kong fifteen years ago. Pure brought me to Hong Kong for the launch of their studio at Asia Standard Tower.
In early 2015, I started my own yoga company, Yogi Bangora. I mainly teach privates and corporates, but I also teach a weekly public class at Yoga BamBam on Monday nights. I host events from time to time, such as my past Wellness Weekends with Genie Juicery. I’ll be holding some retreats next year, too.
What type of yoga do you specialise in teaching/what type resonates with you most and why?
I enjoy teaching a vinyasa style class, with cool music. My vinyasa class is athletic, energetic and fluid – a blend of classical yoga and functional movement. I’m told my classes are challenging, but I let everyone judge for themselves. When I teach, I read the room and feel what the class needs. For private classes I teach what the individual student wants to work on and what they need. For my workshops, I love teaching Yoga Nidra (conscious relaxation) because it’s different and it’s something I enjoy myself as a student.
What do you do to improve your own teaching style and how has your own method developed after moving to Hong Kong?
The best way to improve as a teacher is to keep teaching! Classes rarely go as planned, there are so many elements in the room that need taking care of. The more you teach, the more prepared you are to handle different situations.
My own teaching method has definitely developed in Hong Kong because I taught a lot of classes when I first arrived here. Teaching 20+ classes a week, with 70+ students in a class, requires physical stamina, mental endurance and patience.
I continue to evolve my own teaching style and I still love attending yoga teacher training. I find inspiration in being a student again and taking time out to study something specific in depth. As a teacher, inspiration is incredibly important. I draw inspiration from art and live performances, such as theatre, ballet and music. I admire artists’ dedication to their craft. If everyone could find that one thing they want to do or be – their true passion – we would all fit together like a beautiful puzzle. These days, we have so many options that many people end up lost, dragged around by impulse. How beautiful it would be if everyone was free to be their true self.
You used to do ballet – are there any similarities between the professional practices of dance and yoga?
Both yoga and dance require a lot of discipline, sacrifice and hard work at a professional level. Yoga is similar to dance, but in a less cutthroat way – it’s a practice rather than a performance. Also, yogis really fine tune their minds as instruments, just as much as their bodies. Overall, yoga is more welcoming and all encompassing.
You’ve won several yoga championships – tell us about this experience and the challenges of practising yoga in a competitive environment.
As mentioned above, I won first place for New York and 7th place for the United States at the Yoga Asana Championships in 2011. I loved training three hours a day for competitions, as well as learning from all the other yogis. It’s not a competitive environment though, it’s more a way to showcase your physical practice. I learned so much about myself training for the competitions, I came into my own during that time in my life. How you practise and dedicate yourself affects your outside life and vice versa.
What are the differences between the yoga scene in New York vs Hong Kong?
The biggest difference between the yoga scene in New York and Hong Kong is that yoga is very popular in New York – everyone does yoga, not just the “yoga crowd”! In New York, there are a lot of small, boutique studios, rather than corporate memberships, and people tend to take drop-in classes. My favourite thing about yoga in New York is that classes are 90 minutes, rather than the standard 60 minutes in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, everything is so fast and efficient, even yoga!
Any tips for those who are interested in yoga but are hesitant to start, or struggle to incorporate it into daily life?
Generally speaking, my advice is to just take a lot of classes until you find a teacher you like. Once you click with a teacher, stalk their schedule and take all of their classes. Finding a teaching you love will encourage you to go to class more. A special bond forms between teacher and student, and it’s nice to have a trustworthy pair of eyes keeping track of your practice.
For people trying to make yoga a daily habit, I suggest going to yoga once a week, then building to twice a week and committing to this schedule, consistently, for six months. It is far better to build your practice gradually so that you’re able to stick with it, rather than going every day for a month and then skipping a month entirely.
One small change, such as a weekly yoga class – whether it’s for a year or indefinitely – can change your life. It’s not only the yoga that will change your life, but also the commitment you’ve made to follow through with something. It’s very self-affirming.
What do you think are the main benefits of practicing yoga?
One of the most precious things about yoga is the time you commit to yourself, to focus solely on your personal well-being. It’s an effective outlet to direct energy, it leaves you feeling strong and empowered.
Living in Hong Kong, we’re often overstimulated, working long hours, while pushing the limits with busy social lives. Sometimes, we should recognise that we are the most important person in our own life. It’s only when we take care of ourself that we are fully able to be present to help others.
How would you encourage people to implement healthier lifestyle practices in their daily routine?
To be healthy means to be human, so we should start by cutting ourselves some slack. To make steps towards a healthier lifestyle, I recommend that people try not to be so extreme. A lot of people stay out all night and then attempt to run marathons the next day. Enjoy life, but be kind to yourself. My best advice is to drink more water, go to bed earlier and turn off your phone whenever possible.
What do you want your students to take away from your classes?
Very simply, I want my students to feel good after a yoga class with me. And I want them to commit and come back to class again and again.
Is there anyone in the same industry that you really admire, and if so why?
I admire many teachers who’ve helped me throughout my yoga practice and career, and who continue to support me today – Yogi Charu, Isaac Pena, Jon Witt, Kay Kay Clivio, Dharma Mittra, Kyoko Katsura, and Troy and Aiko Nakasone. All of these teachers are so talented and knowledgeable, yet very humble. I also admire Tara Stiles of Strala NYC for making yoga commercial and accessible to everyone.
Are there any other areas of wellness that you practice regularly or want to explore further?
I would love to explore yoga therapy more, to learn more breathing exercises and techniques to help heal an injured body, an unfocused mind or broken heart. I like being able to help people of all ages and abilities through the power of yoga.
Every week I work out with my good friend Kristen Armstrong, who’s a Bikini Fit trainer. She teaches me a lot of different and challenging ways to move. I really listen to her verbal cues and take note of how she gets me to do really hard things! She’s an awesome trainer.
I also see Kieran Rogers at Joint Dynamics for physical therapy. At the moment, I’m working on strengthening my shoulders and wrists. It’s important to look after yourself or to seek help if you feel discomfort anywhere. Kieran is so caring and knowledgeable, it’s a great environment to learn from any setbacks and to come back stronger.
What are your hopes and future plans for your own yoga platform and career?
I plan to grow Yogi Bangora both in Hong Kong and further afield in Asia. I look forward to teaching more workshops, teaching trainings and at festivals, which are a lot of fun. I recently returned from Beijing, where I judged a yoga competition and led an advanced workshop. Travelling and meeting new people are some of the best parts of my job.
Long-term, I hope to develop Yogi Bangora into a platform to help others. I would like to give back to the community in a bigger, more effective way. I’m very passionate about children, so this would likely be my area of focus. I believe every kid has the right to a childhood. I’ve done a little bit of work with Mother’s Choice, which I would like to continue, in addition to supporting other charities, too.
Check out our other That Girl interviews here.