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Teaching Yoga in Japan

by Ruth White(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 98 - April 2004

It was an enlightening experience teaching in Japan. Sayoko, who is in her 5th module TT, is a delight to teach with. She stands at the side, translating to the Japanese. Their strength of will or staying power is incredibly strong. If I asked them to stretch or hold, they absolutely did, while the Europeans or Americans relaxed and came out of the posture. Their dimensions are very different. In Prasarita Padottanasana their elbows and some heads are dangling on the floor, even when their feet are only two feet apart. It is not considered polite to have eye contact, so there was no reaction in the posture until Sayoko spoke. Normally for beginners, it is good to demonstrate at least 80% of the time, but it's a little tricky if they don't look at you.

I OD'd a bit on the rice balls and seaweed. They're delicious, and I made the excuse – it's so healthy! The Sushi is great too – the Japanese have the highest IQ in the world, could it be the fish oil perhaps? Although the fish is raw, it is very decoratively and delicately served. It is impolite to refuse food but John and I did find sea snails difficult! My daughter Karuna could not bring herself to even get it out of its shell. I got around it by saying, "What beautiful shells!" So they were presented back to us, beautifully packed up with flowers and miniature parasols in a Perspex box for us to bring home.

After teaching for a weekend in Tokyo, we stayed on an organic farm, in Minima, three and a quarter hours out of Tokyo on their 'shinkansen' – their highly efficient rail system. This runs on time to the minute, and they are beautifully clean, as is everything in Tokyo.

Mobiles are hardly ever used in public, occasionally used with muffled tones and a hand over the mouth. The platforms are marked out into waiting areas, one for women, about to board, and another area for disembarkees. No one would rush or push, and on the underground, the attendants have immaculate white cotton gloves just in case they have to touch you.

The couple that ran the farm in Minima were delightful because they were so happy to be cooking and farming in this organic way. They had left their minuscule flat in Kyoto to come to this, their hearts desire. They built their own wooden farmhouse in local wood, a spacious, warm and harmonious home. Living space is really at a premium on these crowded islands although only 6% of the land is inhabited. The rest is covered in wonderful forests, mostly cedar and cypress. On one of our country walks, we met a 92-year-old lady, with a basket on her back. She was extremely lively, maybe due to the fish oil and wonderful natural diet, wheat and dairy free. She explained she carried the basket on her back rather than in her hand because is kept her shoulders back. Her parents would carry stones in their back baskets to keep their back straight and their chest open.

This dear lady, all of five foot, asked Sayoko, John, Karuna and myself in for green tea on the knee high table, with fitted rush mats on the floor and slippers waiting for us at the door, placed neatly in pairs facing the right way. Slippers are always provided for hallways and then as you enter a room you take them off.

She allowed me to gently correct her shoulders and she straightened her knees. Most folks over 50ish, have bowed so much the groin has closed and their backs are at a 45% angle to the legs, thereby closing the groin. As I drew her back up, her knees bent, so the groin wasn't opening at all! John, with great demonstrations, gently suggested she straightened her legs and her back went forwards! Such a generous soul, she insisted we take the remainder of the chestnut sweets with us.

Teaching in Kyoto, in an Indian social society, we could hear chanting in the next hall. There was a good feeling in the building and in the basement, curries for those fed up with rice balls and seaweed! There were over a 100 students on our weekend there. The figure of 8 Pranayama was popular and appropriate. They were also receptive to stories from Good Company and the philosophy of yoga. In the Pranayama a lady was breathing rather hard, although her pulse rate was not up. She opened her eyes, and said, "Yes, I do have a hole in the heart". I had asked, but students are too shy to speak of their problems. I learnt to ask them to come and whisper to Sayoko or me.

The figure of 8 breathing was helpful to this student. Her heart was used to working hard and there was no stress. I found no problem with this dynamic breathing, only great benefits.

This Japanese experience was truly wonderful and very different. The people were kind and hospitable and so courteous. Although the cultural differences are enormous, underneath all that, THE HIGHER SELF, the Yoga is just the same.


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About Ruth White

Ruth White is an established yoga teacher, who was taught by BKS Iyengar. She has two centres for Yoga, one at Fetcham, Leatherhead and the other at Cheem, Surrey. She has produced an entire range of Yoga Videos and DVDs useful for everybody's needs or abilities. Ruth conducts Teacher Training Certificated Courses and Workshops throughout the UK. She can be reached on Tel: 020-8641 7770;;

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