Meet Vanessa Budihardja—The Fitness Guru On A Mission

By Viola Gaskell

The Bali-based CrossFit champion talks reductive views of female beauty, tropical island life and why post-sport recovery is Asia's next big trend

Tatler Asia

Warning: reading any further might leave you consumed with envy. Why? Because not only is she an impressively accomplished athlete and businesswoman, but Vanessa Budihardja might just have the perfect life. The thirty-two-year-old fitness coach, personal trainer, weightlifter, health-food entrepreneur and Nike coach made the move from Jakarta to Bali four months ago—and her average day in the Indonesian wellness paradise is envy-inducing.

Monday to Friday, Budihardja wakes up with the sun to teach her first Empire Fitness group class at 7am, followed by another one at 9am and a 5.30pm sunset class. In between are meetings and personal training sessions—and it is the one-on-ones that she finds particularly rewarding.

“It is a really special relationship,” she says. “Sometimes a client will call in the middle of the night in tears—you are psychologist and a nutritionist and a trainer all in one.”

Tatler Asia

Budihardja says yes to training anyone with a promising attitude who is willing to learn. And although it broke her heart to part with her Jakarta-based clients, she firmly believes that being the best coach is inseparable from being one’s best self—and Bali has helped her find who that was.

“I want to root my soul here” says Budihardja. “I will be able to give back a lot more if I am at peace with myself and my environment, and for me that means being a trainer and a coach here in Bali.”

Aside from the island’s rich intrinsic spirituality, Bali is filled with health and wellness resorts—yoga and meditation centres and ayurvedic retreats. From the surfer’s paradise of Uluwatu and the budding CrossFit scene in Canggu to the wellness mecca of Ubud, there are plenty of ways to tone your body and soul.

Although, like most women, she has been subject to her fair share of unwanted judgement. When she first started CrossFit in Jakarta, her mother disapproved, and friends warned her that men wouldn’t find her powerful physique attractive. One look at her proves how ludicrous this is—but we still have a long way to go before we throw off the misogynistic binds of the past, and the idea that female beauty is something rigidly defined.

Tatler Asia

Being the self-proclaimed glass-half-full person that she is, Budihardja is optimistic about how female strength will be perceived in the future. Certain men still approach her in the gym, offering unsolicited advice or insisting that they can lift more than her, but many others are supportive.

“People are becoming a lot more respectful of women lifting weights” she says. “Now it is seen as a lot sexier to be able to move, which I think is a really good thing. I think with this next generation, we will see women training differently and we will see women performing differently.”

With her CrossFit years behind her, Budihardja is now focused on weightlifting as her preferred workout. At 160cm and 50kg, Budihajaraja can squat nearly twice her body weight and can manoeuvre a 70kg barbell overhead in complicated lifts like the two-part clean and jerk.  

Often, women put themselves in a box and they believe they are stuck in that box, but when you finally give them a tiny bit of confidence, they see the amazing things they can do,”
Vanessa Budihardja

Having slightly more time on her hands in Bali than in Jakarta, Budihardja is also revisiting dance—the artform that first nurtured her love of movement. “When I’m dancing or lifting weights, I have to focus on one thing—myself and my body,” she says. How I move and how I react will completely impact what happens the next second. For me, that is the definition of being mindful. Because I find so much peace in that, I just keep going.”

Like most of us, it took her a while to find her ideal career path. In her twenties, Budihardja moved from public relations to business development for Bobobobo’s lifestyle department, to becoming a fitness instructor and co-founding Pura Vida, a food delivery service for wellness-lovers on the go.

After four years in Jakarta, Pura Vida is now based in Hong Kong, where the market potential is higher than in Indonesia. Budihardja says there has been some talk of opening an outlet in Bali, where tourists and expats have a hankering for all things chia and fruit.

Tatler Asia

Budihardja still overseas Pura Vida operations, but her heart—and her time—is now dedicated to the physical and spiritual. Along with daily meditation and time and space for her fitness regimes, the pace of life in Bali has brought her a clarity she hankered for in Jakarta. “It has become completely clear to me that this is my role—to impact people by making them move better and making them feel better,” she says.

One aspect of moving and feeling your best that she believes is often overlooked is recovery. Gyms are opening daily across Southeast Asia, as developing countries find their financial footing and people’s concerns move from simply making a living to living well—but this mindset needs to extend beyond straight exercise.

“Right now we are focusing on opening gyms left and right, just performance, performance, performance” says Budihardja, “but nobody really thinks about what comes after that: the rehab, the recovery. Recovery is going to be a huge business here in the next five to ten years.”

Her notion of wellness is one-part physical fitness, one-part mindfulness, and one-part recovery. Physical fitness has been popular for years in more developed Southeast Asian countries and Budihardja says mindfulness is “already here” as the next trend. In the West, Mindfulness app Calm has a US$1 billion valuation, and its comperitor Headspace isn't far behind. Budihardja believes Asia is next.

Tatler Asia

Budihardja believes the future of the industry lies in holistic health: wellness hubs that incorporate functional fitness, nutrition planning, mindfulness practices, and recovery steps like physiotherapy and sports massage in one place. “Health and wellness all in one, that’s my vision of the future” she says.

And years of breaking down stereotypes of South Asian women with her rigorous physical training, while using meditation to overcome what she calls her biggest obstacle—her own fears of inadequacy—have made Budihardja a particularly strong role model for the next generation.

“Often, women put themselves in a box and they believe they are stuck in that box, but when you finally give them a tiny bit of confidence, they see the amazing things they can do,” she says. “From where I am standing, it starts with the body then it translates out once they start believing in themselves. I can only imagine the things they can do outside of the gym."

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.