From Vegan Pastries to Bilingual Yoga: Inside Paris's Distinctive Wellness Scene

Photo: Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images

When I landed in Paris five years ago for a semester abroad, I was required to attend a cultural immersion session during orientation. Really, it was just a general overview of customs and practices that would allow us to blend in a little more seamlessly with our French counterparts—everything from proper restaurant etiquette to differences in dating. One of the few details I recall from this crash course had to do with proper dress: namely that "gym clothes" and the like were highly discouraged in public. "Try to avoid wearing leggings to class if you can help it," said the professor.

This advice crossed my mind again this past February when I returned to Paris for the first time since those months as a student. While strolling in and out of the vintage stores and birch-accented coffee shops that comprise the perennially cool Le Marais neighborhood, I noticed a handful of people decked out in head-to-toe activewear—with a couple of them even slinging yoga mats over their shoulders. I thought back to that orientation session and the frustration I had felt during that semester when I had struggled to find a conveniently located yoga studio. Then when I was peering at the menu of a traditional-looking brasserie, I noticed a standalone "vegan-friendly" section and had to stifle a laugh. I had only been back in the city for a few hours, but it was already clear that, at least in this regard, everything had changed.

And that's why I was back in the first place. When Air France invited me to check out its new mindfulness initiatives based out of its flagship lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I jumped at the chance to extend my trip and take a closer look at the evolution of the health and fitness scene in Paris as a whole, especially in contrast to how it looked when I had last lived there. I spent the week frequenting buzzy spin classes, impeccably decorated yoga studios, and organic juice bars; on paper, it probably didn't look all that different from my life here in the wellness epicenter that is Los Angeles. But as I continued to explore, it became increasingly clear that France is establishing a wellness industry that's very much its own.