In search of a quiet place for the mind and body

Artist Tan Yang Er, 25, has a morning ritual she swears by.

It starts with a coffee – Nespresso and coconut milk – followed by a podcast as she does her make-up. This is followed by meditation, at least thrice a week for 10 minutes, sometimes on the bus or in a taxi, guided by a subscription app on her smartphone called Headspace.

Ms Tan is among a growing number of millennials here aged 23 to 38 who see value in spending time and money on self-care, many with the help of technology.

Self-care refers to the trend of consciously looking after one’s physical or mental well-being. Its association with millennials stands in apparent contrast with the young workforce’s “hustle culture” – an obsession with striving.

Giving back to oneself is a growing industry.

In 2015, 94 per cent of millennials in the United States reported making personal improvement commitments, compared with 84 per cent of baby boomers, Forbes reported. While baby boomers, aged 55 to 73, said they spend an average of US$152 a month on self-improvement, the survey found millennials expect to fork out nearly twice the amount.

Mental-health experts in Singapore note differences in the way millennials care for themselves, saying more seek professional help when they notice early symptoms of issues such as stress – unlike the generation before, which tends to do so only after receiving a diagnosis.

Wellness studio operators add that while older clients may attend classes like meditation to relax, younger ones squeeze in sessions on the go during the day – aided by wellness marketplace apps – in hopes of boosting focus and productivity.

For Ms Tan, self-care takes effort, but is both energising and relaxing.

Apart from having a morning ritual, she sets aside time every night to sit by her plants, reading and writing in her journal.

“It’s made a huge difference in my life. I feel a sense of balance the moment I step back into my room… because I put in a very conscious effort to build a sanctuary.

“I love giving; it’s my way of receiving love, but sometimes, I feel there’s nothing left. The best gift to my loved ones is being my best self and, in order to do so, I have to take care of myself.”


In the US, the self-improvement industry is worth some US$11 billion (S$14.9 billion) and associated with everything from physical wellness classes to meditation apps.

In Singapore, there are also signs of a burgeoning market.

Already, the Asia-Pacific fitness industry is worth US$16.8 billion, says a spokesman for US-based fitness marketplace app ClassPass, which recently expanded in Asia.

In August last year, it entered the Singapore market and, in January, it acquired rival GuavaPass’ operations in 11 Asian cities, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.

It now has about 360 studios offering activities such as boxing, barre or yoga on the platform here, up from 100 or so when it launched, adds the ClassPass spokesman.

While she declines to share user numbers, she cites the rise in studio offerings as an indicator – strength training is one of the most popular activities on the app, followed by yoga, pilates, barre and fitness boxing.

About 60 per cent of ClassPass users are millennials, she says.

Millennial users tend to look for “meaningful consumption” as well, seeking immersive experiences and new activities and to build communities with others on the platform, she says.

Brick-and-mortar wellness studios here observe a similar trend.

Mrs Christina Nikolovski, 48, founder of Space 2B in Stanley Street, says almost 90 per cent of her client visits each month are by millennials.

Ms Suraya Sam, 31, co-creator of meditation studio House of Ascend, along Chay Yan Street in Tiong Bahru, adds that she held gong meditation classes only twice a week about two years ago.

But this rose to a peak of more than seven times a week with up to 20 people in a session, although the studio now focuses on smaller groups.

She estimates over half the participants are millennials.


Senior clinical psychologist Jeanie Chu of the Resilienz Clinic, which provides psychiatric services, therapy and counselling, says she sees 30 per cent more millennial clients compared with about three years ago.

Part of the reason lies in greater knowledge of and emphasis on self-care circulating on social media.

With millennials more tech-savvy than past generations, they look for solutions and recommendations online, seeking help earlier, for example, if they feel stressed or burnt out.

Ms Geraldine Tan, principal psychologist of The Therapy Room, adds that she has seen up to a three-fold increase in clients in their 20s and 30s compared with eight years ago, attributing this to better education on mental health, accessibility of information online and less stigma on getting help.

“Millennials without disorders are also coming forward. They are perhaps stressed at work, not coping very well or feeling stretched and don’t know what to do,” she says. “The working crowd of the past would not do so, unless diagnosed with a problem or forced by circumstances.”

An assault survivor, who wants to be known only as Ms Liew, says access to information online and word-of-mouth recommendations helped her discover meditation as a means to combat post traumatic stress disorder.

The 28-year-old now goes for sessions at least once a week, conducted with crystal bowls, gongs or yoga. “I was sceptical at first, but I felt more peaceful than I had in a long time,” she says, adding that meditation helps her to “ground” herself after flashbacks.

Millennials are “increasingly focused on mental, spiritual and emotional wellness”, compared with the previous generation, which is “more into physical wellness such as fitness and spas”, says Mrs Nikolovski, drawing from her experience as a spa owner for close to two decades.

“Millennials are really about accomplishing as much as they can in their everyday life,” she says, noting the way they take and post pictures on Instagram in the moments after class.

“Social media has a big contribution to their lifestyle. They do a lot, show a lot and live a lot,” she adds.

But a Harvard Business Review article last year noted the side effects of social media, which add to users’ pressure to share their personal victories, even in self-care, turning these into opportunities for self-marketing.


Ms Sam also points out that technology has its downside, recounting how some people book classes given the ease of doing so on apps, but turn up not knowing what the session is about.

There is growing awareness of self-discovery, aided by social media, she notes, but caring for oneself should transcend material indulgence and extend to bettering one’s mental or emotional heath.

She adds that the education on self-care could start even earlier and be taught in secondary schools.

Another proponent Caster Teoh, 29, who works in public communications, seconds this, calling self-care a “perpetual opportunity for personal growth”.

Two years ago, he picked up Reiki, a purported form of energy healing that has grown in popularity in Singapore, and uses it on himself for an hour daily to relax his mind and promote “healing on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies”.

“This practice encourages introspection and I believe that is helpful in managing the stress that has put you in the need for self-care in the first place,” he says. He also meditates at least once a week, on top of hitting the gym and reading novels.

But the end point of all these has to go beyond just feeling good or self-soothing.

He warns: “If you don’t experience personal growth from self-care, it could become a cycle of self-indulgence.”