YUGOULIANG, China — As the top Chinese official in this village, Lu Wenzhen had a problem. The young people had all moved away. The elderly farmers left behind were ailing. His aging hamlet needed money. Life. A spark.
Then, two years ago, he watched a 60-year-old woman sit cross-legged for about half an hour on a kang, a stone bed common in China’s northern countryside. Mr. Lu suddenly had a eureka moment.
“Yoga,” he said.
It was an audacious plan that seemed out of place in Yugouliang, a village of fewer than 100 people in Hebei Province, far from the gyms and health food stores in places like Beijing and Shanghai. It is so remote that the closest train station is two hours away. The internet had just arrived two years ago. The average age of a Yugouliang resident is 65. They survive by tending to their cows and sheep and small plots of land.
China’s rapidly aging population is one of the most pressing issues facing the ruling Communist Party. In rural China, at least 50 million older Chinese have been left behind by the country’s economic boom, according to official data. Many struggle with poverty and depression. By 2050, the number of people in China age 60 or older is expected to reach 487 million, representing more than one-third of the total population, according to government figures.
The residents in Yugouliang were unconvinced. They had never heard of yoga. Was Secretary Lu, as they called him, trying to introduce them into a cult?
There was another wrinkle: Mr. Lu, 52, had never taken a yoga class.
“I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I didn’t know how to do it,” he said.
The internet was his guide. He watched videos and looked at photos.
He knew that getting older farmers to do yoga would be tricky. He bought gloves and yoga mats to entice them.
Those first few sessions, just a few residents turned up. Mr. Lu started off slow. First he taught them how to breathe through a singing exercise. Then he tried to take them through some simple, cross-legged moves.
It didn’t take long for more people to join. Nor did it take long for them to try more ambitious poses.
Encouraged to do more, Mr. Lu enrolled in a yoga course sponsored by the government. The Chinese government, which often suppresses spirituality and officially discourages mysticism, supports “yoga with Chinese characteristics” that excludes chanting and meditation from routines. This version is “removed from religion, demystified and localized for China,” said Mr. Lu, citing the government’s policy. From there, Mr. Lu got a certificate as a yoga judge and has since judged competitions.
The authorities were encouraging. In February 2017, the State General Administration of Sports, which oversees the country’s athletics, gave Yugouliang the title of “China’s first yoga village.” But it wasn’t until the end of last year that Mr. Lu felt his residents were good enough to compete. He entered the farmers into a yoga competition in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital.
They won an award for being the “best collective team.”
Yugouliang’s yoga craze has been well covered in China’s state-controlled news media. The local government has said it is giving Mr. Lu $1.5 million for a nursing home and a yoga pavilion, a gleaming, glass-walled compound that will make it easier for villagers to practice year-round.
But his goal of setting off a tourism boom could be difficult to achieve. The village is hard to reach and there are no amenities to speak of.
Mr. Lu still sees positives. Yoga-strengthened residents, he said, save on medical costs.
There are about 36 yoga regulars in Yugouliang, who showed remarkable stamina when they gathered on a recent afternoon. Wearing the same outfits that they use to farm, scarves tied around their heads to protect them from the hot sun, they blazed through a 15-minute routine of standing splits, side planks and boat poses.
After that, Mr. Lu selected several people to perform headstands and splits, to the applause of others. Around them, gaptoothed women in their 80s and 90s watched from worn armchairs.
Ge Luyun spent years taking medicine to treat the pain in her shoulder and elbow. Two years ago, the 62-year-old weighed over 150 pounds.
Then she started doing yoga. Ms. Ge has lost 11 pounds and said she has a flatter stomach.
“Now, I don’t have to take a single painkiller,” Ms. Ge said.
The next morning, Mr. Lu led the residents through a series of balancing poses. Then he told them to relax their entire bodies and laugh loudly. “Ha ha ha ha ha,” the residents said, many bursting into peals of genuine laughter.
It was a happy moment in a village that has had little to look forward to. Because of a recent drought, vast patches of fields are barren and brown. The residents’ children work or study in Chinese cities, coming home to visit only once a year.
Zhang Xiying, 62, said that she had never felt motivated to work until she learned yoga. “Before this, training the body was playing cards,” she said. “Now, we don’t play anymore.”
Yoga has become part of the daily routine for many. Many practice at 5:30 a.m., then let their cows and sheep out to pasture before sunrise, followed by breakfast, farming, lunch, rest, farming, evening yoga at 5:30, then dinner.
Wu Qilian, 73, was reluctant to join Mr. Lu’s yoga sessions because she suffered from dizziness. But, curious about what her husband and neighbors were doing, she spent days peering over the wall of her yard. She eventually decided to join them.
After two years of yoga, she said, she doesn’t feel the pain in her knees and waist that once afflicted her.
Mr. Lu, who was previously the Communist Party secretary of a technical college in Shijiazhuang, was sent to work in Yugouliang in 2016, part of the party’s longtime practice of sending cadres to less developed areas. Like hundreds of other cadres in rural China, he was tasked with alleviating poverty by 2020, one of President Xi Jinping’s signature campaigns.
All around the village, there are drawings of stick figures in yoga poses and slogans painted by Mr. Lu.
“Be Good Farmers in the New Era,” one said, invoking one of Mr. Xi’s pet phrases.
Jing Wanshan, 68, said years of walking from putting his sheep out to pasture caused his legs to hurt. Previously, he struggled to run two or three laps around the exercise square. Now he can do 20.
Mr. Lu said he had bigger plans. He wants to turn Yugouliang into a yoga training base for farmers from all over China, which he says will draw tourists as well.
“All these are dreams for now,” Mr. Lu said as he drove amid mud-brick homes and toilets that were little more than pits. “But one has to have dreams.”