The Hong Kong wellness community has changed beyond recognition in the past two decades, going from a sparse landscape of a few big-name gyms to a varied selection of boutique and niche studios around Hong Kong. One such studio is Flex, founded in 2005 by Heather Thomas Shalabi and Anna Serafinas Luk, which has been at the forefront of the exercise revolution in Hong Kong. The Pilates studio now has two locations, the flagship in Stanley and the newly opened Central studio on Wyndham Street. Heather shares with Compare Retreats the story of Flex, the perks of regular Pilates practice, and why Pilates is for everyone.
Life before Flex
When I moved to Hong Kong’s south side in 2003, I was surprised to find there were literally no services for residents living there. I had envisioned the south side would feel like Hong Kong’s version of “Santa Monica” in California, with fitness studios, healthy restaurants and cute shops.
When we opened the first Flex studio above Pacific Coffee, the cafe itself had just opened months earlier, which was big news in the community. The vision for Flex was a joint Pilates and yoga studio, with services ranging from private training sessions to group classes, to appeal to a wide demographic.
Pilates for everyone
A Pilates devotee myself, I knew the method’s popularity would grow in Hong Kong, as its benefits were being touted in international media and by celebrities. And indeed, the method yields results for all who practice: from office workers, new mothers, rugby players, skiers, golfers, men and women in their 70s…the list goes on. We have always aimed to dispel the myth that Pilates is for women only, that it is for new mothers only, that it is only for the elderly who need rehab. Over the past five years, knowledge of Pilates’ benefits has exploded in Hong Kong, and we feel like our message has finally been heard. It’s incredibly rewarding to see a diverse population here embracing the practice and utilising it in their everyday lives.
However, Pilates has been around since Joseph Pilates created the concept in the 1920s, one that was popular originally with dancers and performers in New York City. Now, his form of body ‘controlology’ has morphed into a global phenomenon, practised around the world by all ages for its ability to change the way we move. That is, from a place of imbalance and weakness to one of full awareness of how best to move our own body. That’s why Flex constantly stresses the mantra of Intelligent Movement.
Like Pilates the man, our belief is that when you focus on activating The Powerhouse (abs, butt, thighs, back) to undertake simple, full-body movements (either on equipment or a mat) you not only strengthen and ‘lengthen’ but are less prone to injury, accidents, neck and back pain and stiffness overall. The genius of Pilates apparatus is that the equipment is really the teacher, not the instructor. The equipment gives guidelines for proper alignment, even weight distribution, and works the body in all planes. In this way, it is a “corrective” form of movement, creating a uniform development of the entire body.
Man vs. machine
Another unique aspect of the equipment is that it is spring-based resistance, offering constant tension changes, requiring the nervous system to fire at all times. This also provokes eccentric muscle contraction (engaging a muscle in its lengthened phase) which creates more endurance, reduces injury potential, and increases responsiveness in muscles.
Of course now “eccentric muscle training” is all the rage (particularly in weight training), but it has always been the central tenant of Pilates training. Most people don’t really understand how to train their muscles “eccentrically” which is where the beauty of Pilates apparatus comes in.
For those working long hours in Hong Kong, there has always been a huge need for such a tool. Today, I still see so many people coming to us with chronic pain from sitting for too long, teenagers with debilitating postural issues and those who have a long-standing ‘issue’ with exercise. Yet once they start Pilates, they turn their lives around – and not just physically. Mind-body exercise has shown to alleviate depression and stress, as well as make us generally feel better about ourselves, which can lead to better life choices.
Health as a habit
Prior to the Pilates wake-up call, many folks considered exercise a chore, something one did simply to lose weight before a big event or holiday, if at all. They didn’t see it as part of their daily lives (or importantly, understand it’s critical role in longevity), as they would enjoy sipping a coffee, reading a book or eating lunch with a friend. They often had a bad memory of a long-abandoned gym membership, sweaty treadmills and a lifeless, faceless environment.
Typically, once a person takes their first spin on a Pilates reformer, they are hooked. The apparatus gets a person “into their body,” and helps them move in proper patterns, pain-free. Fundamentally, the body wants to do the right thing, yet often doesn’t know how; once guided by equipment, the body’s potential emerges. This is a huge confidence boost for many people, who then realise that working out can be an enjoyable part of life, and integrate it into their daily lives. This alone has been one of the most satisfying elements of growing this business: seeing the fruits of our efforts result in changing bodies, mindsets and lifestyles. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch people find happier, healthier lives.
Fitness in Hong Kong
And yes, Hong Kong has embraced exercise in recent years with vigour (take note of the crowds on hiking trails and the emergence of new gym chains on every street corner), but as the fitness industry is so unregulated, it’s not always taught by fully qualified and reliable trainers. Unfortunately, many people have been left high and dry financially when these chains close and their memberships simply die.
Alongside our constant desire to teach our clients about moving more intelligently and not just mindlessly doing sit-ups, our professional staff and short-term price packages (or pay as you go) is why I believe Flex has not only stood the test of time (and grown) but attracted other like-minded trainers who love what they do and care about the people they train. Hong Kong people like to know they will get results when they spend money, and a studio like Flex gives them that confidence.
In terms of our studio ethos, I can state categorically that since 2005, Flex has worked long and hard to create a studio environment that is a true community. We wanted to create a space where people enjoyed going as part of their routine. ‘Eat, work, Flex, dinner, sleep’ and so on. All our hires are highly experienced, fully certified, and passionate about what they do. Our aim is not to expect our clients to simply ‘look hot’ in a bikini, but to inspire them to live healthier lives through regular activity, eating better and understanding what kind of exercise they like to do and how to stick with it. And yes, many of them do end up looking hot in a swimsuit as a by-product of that.
Flex in the future
Happily, the science of exercise has become widely accepted as a vital element of living a healthier, longer life, which has fuelled our concept of a boutique fitness studio which offers motivating, personalised attention to meet individual needs. Currently, Flex has two contemporary, light-filled fully equipped studios in Central and One Island South, each consisting of three full studio spaces, showers, lockers rooms and retail boutiques.
Last year we introduced FLEXtreme to our range of fitness programs (which includes Xtend Barre, AntiGravity© Suspension Fitness, and Teen Fitness in addition to Pilates and yoga). This cardio and strength-based programme complete Flex’s range of services, to fulfil all fitness needs. We are excited to see the physical developments of our clients as they embrace this new programme, as well as their mental peace and happiness as they find more energy, live well, and embrace every day in a state of wellness.
For more information, visit flexhk.com