A Canadian qigong master, a yoga instructor and their vegan cafe in the little town of Yangshuo, China. As I step through the doors of Mood Food Cafe, I immediately get settled. I know I won’t be satisfied until I hear the whole story.
It all started with a decidedly independent girl from Dongbei going to India to learn yoga.
Chen Yan, (or Yanzi, as her friends call her) has placed herself firmly outside the ‘Chinese Girl’ stereotype, and is not afraid to show it. Travelling abroad, opening her own yoga studio, and marrying a foreigner; she has broken with tradition multiple times, but doesn’t see the big deal in all that – such is her ‘just do it’ nature. She did admit to being scared when she went to India, however, as it was at a politically unstable time and her family were against it but her solution was simply to write a will, pack her bags, and go anyway. Happily, she didn’t regret it.
Looking at Yanzi now, fresh smiles on her face, happily married, and in her element running the cafe and yoga studio. I could easily assume this was her life long dream that she had achieved after years of hard work. But none of this was planned or even imagined, she tells me.
“I took up yoga only as another way to keep fit but found it made me feel much better than other methods. I didn’t even know that teaching yoga was a viable career. A friend suggested it and a random magazine gave me all the details I needed on how to do the training in India. So I went.
“I am a very lazy person”, she says, proudly, “I need freedom – to be in charge of my own time. That’s why I chose to open my own studio in beautiful Yangshuo. I like being my own boss.”
The cafe is delightfully cosy. I sit cross-legged, sipping on a superfood smoothie, looking at the multitude of activities they run. Yoga classes, detox programs, educational sessions, meditation and qigong, the works. I am curious to know how she and Daniel met. As an interracial couple they seem to work very well as a team, bringing their different expertise together to create this wholesome fusion of east and west.
“I married for love. I am the only one in my friendship group who can say this. My friends’ marriages were arranged by their parents or they ‘settled’ because they were panicking about their age. A woman is considered ‘left-over’ if she is unmarried at 25 in China, and I was already 30 years old. I thought I would never find true love, especially considering my friends examples around me. My mother told me that life gives us the opposite of what we want.
“One day, Daniel came to ask about rooms for a retreat he was planning. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him but he told me later he was really interested in me. He said he noticed I was different from most Chinese girls. I don’t wear a bra, you know?” she says with a flippant air and a cheeky smile.
The next year he returned for his retreat and they hit it off together.“He gave me a feeling of being safe” she says. “We got married after a year, even though he had previously decided never to marry”.
Daniel brought with him his experience of qigong, chinese medicine and raw food, and together they transformed the little yoga studio into an oasis of health and wellbeing.
I am curious to know how Daniel came to be so experienced in the Chinese art of qigong. Yanzi laughs and retorts:
“It was very strange to see a Westerner knowing so much about Chinese medicine. Sometimes I would go and check things up in a book just to see if he was lying.”
Daniel smiles, “Life has different means of moving you”, and then comes a story that opens my eyes to just how unexpected life can be.
“I have always been body-oriented,” Daniel says, “a bit of a sports enthusiast and an avid swimmer. I learnt yoga in Montreal from a teacher who had been to India, and was amazed by the feeling this practice gave me. But information on eastern practices were limited, and so for many years my only meditation practice was long distance sports – teaching me the art of breaking through difficulties.”
“It wasn’t really about the zen, but after a while of seeing the amazing benefits, I threw myself whole heartedly into it, and worked hard to learn as much as possible.”
From there he branched out into Qigong, as he discovered it to be a preventative measure for many ailments he was treating with Chinese medicine. Then a hernia led him to a healer in China where he stayed for two years learning KungFu and Tai Chi.
After that he spend some time in Bali to develop a qigong training system more accessible to westerners. Finally a quick trip to Yangshuo to plan a retreat eventually became his happy marriage and this cafe.
Yanzi agrees,“Chinese culture dictates that we eat everything, which has led to many problems with food quality standards and scandals. However, the younger generation are more open to change and come to eat here to try a new flavour, not necessarily because of the health benefits. Our richest customers are usually clueless as to what we are about. Families sometimes come in proudly boasting they have already eaten, but they order a meal anyway (whether its to show off to the western customers around them, or to their own kids, we’re not sure). However, many people notice a difference in energy levels after eating this food and come back wanting to know more. Then we can educate them about health and well being.”
“Get involved in the moment. Serve wherever you are. That is my happiness. Life is not a straight line. My life ‘plan’ was interrupted many times with sabbaticals etc, and I would always spend as much time as it needed to master something I wanted to do or something I felt I needed. Life is about energy, attraction, give and take. We are light beings. If we don’t know where the switch is, we steal eachother’s energy. We live in a world of saving, which is a spanner in the works of happiness. Deals and exchanges have no element of surprise – just give and let yourself be surprised by all the different ways it comes back to you.” Daniel Li Ox