Sightseeing: The Zoo in Ueno Park

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A few weeks ago, Charlottte Tanaka, Mikoto, Goto Hisako and Ryu Imaizumi invited me to go with them to the zoo in Ueno Park.  I hadn’t been to a zoo in years and was really looking forward to it and 4 1/2 -year old Ryu was particularly excited.  We took the JR LIne to this vast park, which is very similar to New York’s Central Park, in scale and for the presence of prominent museums.  Shortly after entering the zoo, we  saw the panda bears and then continued on to see an elephant, bears, a towering giraffe, penguins and a menagerie of variegated wildlife.  A powerful storm quickly moved in forcing us to run for cover and take a monorail through lush, green, treetops in search of an area to wait out the downpour.  The four of us had snacks under a pavilion overlooking a sweeping lake covered in waterlilies. Finally the rain stopped and we were able explore a bit longer until a classical melody played over the speakers indicating closing time.  Similarly, throughout Tokyo, a nursery rhyme is amplified at 5:00 p.m. each day, Tomoko Kawahara said that this is a signal “for all little children to go home because their parents are waiting for them.”  After leaving the zoo, Ryu wanted to see the bullet trains “Shinkansen” and we were able to get passes at the train station to go below and see them arrive and depart.  Ryu was so thrilled to be there with the trains–and so upset when we had to leave.  In all, it was great to spend the day experiencing life’s simple pleasures through the eyes of a child.

The Translators: Tomoko Kawahara

Tomoko Kawahara

Initially I wanted to begin the segments on “The Translators” with Tomoko Kawahara because she has the most demanding role. In addition, Tomoko is also the woman who all of the other translators look up to—Souffler, Yuri & Kosai.   But, it makes sense to highlight her towards the end of the training because over these weeks I’ve grown to view her as more than a translator, she is a co-teacher. Calm, authoritative and patient, her presence in the classroom is reassuring—-she is the “glue” that keeps things together.  Without her there simply would be no training.  Tomoko also brings balance to the intensity of the training, reminding us to take breaks and brings me chocolate from time to time.  I send her the schedule beforehand so that she knows what’s on the agenda and then she tirelessly speaks every word I say each Saturday & Sunday from the morning practice, throughout the lectures, and until the final closing circle at the end of the day.  She interprets each question the students ask me and my responses.  I’m amazed at how it works, we just get into a rhythm and the day flows without any conflict–its fascinating.  I’ve now learned that a translator has to have specific skills and talent to make it work–the love of language, extensive traveling experience and a healthy curiosity about other cultures.   Furthermore, the translation process is a collaborative effort.  I look to Tomoko for advice and strategies on presenting material or insight when communicating with the students. She’s also my cultural link which I feel has been instrumental in keeping this training flowing smoothly.   There are phrases, words or concepts in English that may not be present in Japanese and she has to find a comparable interpretation.

As a child, Tomoko lived in France for several years and has been intrigued by different cultures ever since. When she was in high school, she lived in the US as a year-long exchange student, and later went to college in the UK. Using her English skills, Tomoko built a career in planning, sales and marketing and soon gravitated toward yoga as a way to alleviate stress and rehabilitate a back injury.  It didn’t take long to realize that yoga worked not only on the body but also for the heart and mind which provided a major turning point in her life. Tomoko’s understanding and perceptions towards yoga completely changed after she started taking classes at “Sun & Moon Yoga” in Tokyo and soon began to  realize in a direct, experiential way that “yoga was not just what we do on the mat.”  Tomoko has been working as a professional interpreter/translator and teacher in the yoga industry for 3 1/2 years and sees interpreting as a ‘union’–of the speaker and herself and a “union of the speaker and the audience.” For her, yoga interpreting is another form of yoga ‘off the mat’. It has become one of her most important spiritual practices.

Tomoko feels she has been blessed to work with so many fabulous guest teachers from overseas including: Geshe Michael Roach (the founder of Tibetan Heart Yoga), Carlos Pomeda, MC YOGI, Daphne Tse, Ellen Watson, Ted Lafferty, Yvonne Jaques, Gina Sara, Caitlin Casella,  and many more.  Not to mention amazing teachers who are based in Tokyo including Leza Lowitz (the owner and the director of Sun & Moon Yoga, Tokyo), Miles Maeda and others.

Impressive in her own right, Tomoko completed her 300hr TT a year ago in Arizona at the Yoga Studies Institute and is an influential presence in Tokyo’s yoga community.  She teaches at a community center; for the staff of her former employer; subs at Sun & Moon Yoga; offers workshops and charity mediation and kirtan session at studios in Tokyo and beyond.   Furthermore, in an effort to share yoga with a wider range of people, she is the co-director of YCIP (Yoga Classic Input Project), Japan which has been saving sacred yogic scriptures and supporting Tibetan refugees.  She is also a Committee Member of YAM (Yoga and Music in Tohoku) a charity that she created in collaboration with other yoga teachers after 3/11 to bring yoga, music,  and bodywork to the lighten up the survivors in the areas affected by the earthquake. She too is a blogger for YOGAYOMU, a free popular magazine in Japan.

I’ve enjoyed hearing about Tomoko’s community involvement during our breaks and always admired the generosity she extends to all around her: me and the students in the training, her colleagues, seniors, and quake victims. I’ll never be able to thank her enough.

A Birthday Celebration at Yasai Ya Mei

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I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago and as usual,  I wasn’t going to celebrate it.  However, the students surprised me with a wonderful cake after class and later that evening, a festive dinner at a restaurant.  I was truly moved and surprised by the festivities—a cake made by one of Ahn Eunsun’s friends  (matcha, orange cream and chocolate) and then dinner at a nearby vegetarian restaurant–Yasai Ya Mei (vegetable house) at Gotanda Station.  I felt guilty because it was a tough weekend—back-bends—and I had just been hard on the students regarding their lackluster homework assignments.  I couldn’t believe that any of them would even want to talk to me after that lecture, yet alone celebrate my birthday!  However,  I did remember hearing Ahn announce to the students after the check in circle  a week ago, that they were all going to go out. I thought “that’s nice they’re going to be supportive of each other and do something socialable together.”

After we finished the cake,  I noticed people getting dressed up and as I was about to walk home, someone said, “Do you know where the place is?” I said,  ‘What?”  “You mean no one told you?”  Surprise!— and off we went about 26 of us!  Former 200hr graduates, Yumika Matsuo and Rysosuke Ishida also showed up (he generously assisted us one weekend).

We started off with drinks made of fresh ginger root and appetizers of raw root vegetables that were dipped in a heated mushroom sauce,  “Bagna Càuda” (vegetable dip).  On each table were “Shabushabu” (hot pots).  Large, colorful baskets–more like bushels–of assorted fresh vegetables were brought to the tables.  Shabushabu is a traditional dish in Japan that is usually meat based, but this was vegetable based.  We were instructed on how to make our own soup—first there were slivers of paper thin beef in the broth for seasoning (I’m not a rigid vegetarian), along with burdock root, mushrooms and leeks—we were then instructed to put greens and other vegetables from the basket in every five minutes.  As things stewed, we all took out what we wanted with “haishi” (chopsticks).  This went on throughout the evening until the baskets were empty and all of the vegetables created a flavorful broth which was then poured over bowls of rice called “zousui” (rice porridge) which is then sprinkled with seaweed.   Delicious!  What I liked most about the meal was the ritualistic process surrounding the preparation, communal aspect of sharing and resourceful use of ingredients—everything in the pot was utilized and consumed down to the last drop. “You have to give a speech” they said, “its the custom.”  I apologized for being so tough on them and they all laughed. Ryosuke got up and gave a toast, he’s a natural politician—the ladies love him!

This wasn’t just a party for me, it was for everyone.  Furthermore, I sincerely appreciated the students generosity.  That’s why I decided to post the photos because they want to see them. The Japanese like to celebrate—its very common to see groups of people out like this— very hard working as a culture, they go out together to de-tress and bond.  I noticed in class the next weekend that the small groups of students who usually sat together for lunch had grown into a larger circle.

The Translators: Mayumi Yamashita “Souffler”

Mayumi Yamashita “Souffler”

Mayumi “Souffler” Yamashita translates for my Friday afternoon Vinayasa/Mediation class at the YogaPlus studio in  Sangenjaya.  A seasoned world traveler, Souffler first studied at the  Sivananda Vendana Yoga Center  in India and then later completed  the 200hr  Yoga Works Teacher Training in Tokyo with Caitlin Casella.  Her experiences during this training inspired her to become a translator.  She currently teaches for YogaPlus  and the Sivananda Center in Tokyo, and has taught yoga in the Bahamas, United Kingdom and India.  She was motivated to teach yoga teacher as a means to maintain her connection with her friends all over the word, but mostly because of her late father, Sadayuki Yamashita, who taught Japanese and was a translator as well.  Souffler said that her parents  were so proud of her choice to become a yoga teacher and the potential he had to have a positive influence on people’s lives.  Gregarious and always upbeat, you really do feel the positive energy that Souffler emits in her presence, she is the true embodiment of  “sattva”–luminous and light.

What I also like about Souffler is that she keeps on top of me to get my sequences in to her on time.  Each translator requests my sequence prior to class so that they can prepare and research poses or anatomical terms—I  just can’t show up and teach there’s a collaborative process involved.  Another fact that I appreciate about Souffler is that she is always willing to offer to show me around Tokyo or suggest  a store, neighborhood, or site  that I should visit.  Japanese women in general are very fashionable, especially Souffler, and I’m always commenting on her great outfits. During one of our conversations after class,  she said:

“Have you been to Shimokitazawa?

“What? …Where is that.”  I said

“Shimokitazawa…you’ll love it!  I’ts near Shibuya, take the Inokashria Line to the Shimokitazawa train station. They have lots of good deals there on clothes.”

She wrote out the directions for me and I did take her advice go there the other day and she was right–it was a terrific community–sort of like the East Village in Manhattan with lots of thrift shops and boutiques with fashionable clothes at prices far more affordable than in other areas of Tokyo.

One day she wanted me to meet her take a yoga class in Meguro, I was late so she decided we should have lunch in Ebisu instead.  We went to a quaint French restaurant (Les Lions) that she likes which has a prix-fixe meal–I marvel at how the smallest of spaces can be a restaurant or cafe in Tokyo.  I’ve also noticed that French food is very popular in Tokyo.  Souffler said that there are a number of French restaurants in Tokyo better than those in Paris.   It was a nice sunny day so after lunch she thought I’d might like the shopping center at Ebisu Gardens and took me there.  As we rode on the lengthy “skywalk” for about a mile through a massive subway station, we saw a small building with a red gate nestled between two tall buildings outside. I asked her why a temple would be there of all places, and she said “because its an Inari temple and years ago, someone designated the spot as sacred and nothing can ever be built on the land and the temple will never be moved.”  How interesting I thought,   that a piece of ground could be so sacred and respected today especially in Tokyo where land is so scarce and real-estate is so valuable. I was very impressed,  these influences go back for centuries and decades and I have seen  this  respect for tradition throughout my trip here which is evident in the food, objects, clothing and customs.

Lunch at Les Lions

The Teacher Training: Weeks 5 & 6

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We just passed the halfway point of the Teacher Training and its at this junction that so many elements come together.  In the past few weeks there has been a steady  but rapid progression of:  lectures, practicing, learning new poses, Sanskrit, philosophy, anatomy, practice teaching and written homework assignments.  It’s a rigorous program and as a teacher, I have to keep everyone motivated, engaged and work hard to present all of the topics in an organized manner.  It’s also at this junction, that I know everyone’s name–all twenty-eight of them–their personalities and who may need a little encouragement.   At week five we had the emotional “Check-in Circle” –it’s when everyone either expresses their fears, insecurities or how they feel inspired.  “Check-in-Circles” are always tough–lots of tears.  Afterwards, shaken and ‘teary” myself,  I said everyone was going to make it through, “those of you who are worried about completing the program will go on to be great teachers and those of you who are already teachers, will be better teachers.”  I then had us recite the “Sarvesham Chant”….”Loka Samastha Sukinoh Bhavantu.”   I was surprised that the words had just tumbled out of my mouth–instinct told me it was the right thing to say at the moment.  The thing I realized as I walked home that evening is that I’m not just a teacher trainer, I have to lead, help them understand and encourage them to grow–and the pressure of that responsibility can be overwhelming.  However, these students motivate me to work throughout the week preparing the lessons and show up on Saturday and Sunday to teach.  I’m seeing a lot of progress:  they are getting stronger in their asana practice, have more confidence with their practice teaching sessions and are improving with their written homework assignments.  We’ve also made it through  some tough assignments: Samadhi Pada & Sadhana Padha of the Yoga Sutras; a number of anatomy topics (the pelvis and planes of movement, shoulder girdle, spine );  subtle body and the dreaded  Surya Namaskar A & B,  Standing Twists and Urdhva Dhanurasana practice sessions.  We have four more weeks and still lots of material to cover, but we’re having a good time together and will support each other until the end.

The Third Workshop: “How to Address Common Injuries in the Classroom”

YogaPlus Teachers

The third and final workshop on the agenda was held on May 29 at the Gotanda studio for all of the YogaPlus teachers.  To my surprise there were at least 30 in attendance that morning and when I sat down in front of the room, I broke out into a serious case of nervous perspiration!  In the days leading up to the workshop,  I struggled with how to present this broad topic, “How to Address Common Injuries in the Classroom.”   I had previously asked some of the teachers at the studio what they would like to focus on, some said, “How to use props“,  “How to do chair yoga” or “Back pain.”   Finally, I  decided that it would be best to ask the participants questions at the beginning of the workshop and then work out a sequence based on the most common injuries that came up.  After a brief discussion, questions regarding a common assortment of injuries arose: back pain, shoulder, wrists, etc.  Since most of these injuries are associated with repetitive motions from vinyasa classes, misalignment in standing poses, transitioning in and out of poses or improper set-up for inversions,  I thought it would be best to teach a general sequence to address most if these issues.

The class just flowed as  I wove injuries related to categories of poses into a seamless practice, stopping only to demonstrate or to reiterate a point:  Surya Namaskar A & B, Standing Poses, Inversions, Forward Bends, Twists—all the years of practicing, teaching and now leading a teacher training, seemed to provide an unexpected a wealth of knowledge.  I knew more than I realized—a three hour workshop quickly turned into four followed by an engaging question and answer… “How do you deal with….”What if you don’t have props“…”I have a student“….  we could have gone on at length for a considerable amount of time.  In fact, I thought this could be a series organized into separate topics.  I addressed the issue of class levels, modifications, sequencing, additional study outside of the classroom (anatomy, kinesiology ) and the importance of  a “self-practice.”  As teachers  all of this relates to the niyama svadhaya  “self-study” which is the ongoing process of examining yourself, the body, and literature that helps you to find the answers.  As our discussion was winding down I was starting to feel a strong  emotional connection with these young teachers who have such passion towards learning—it comes through in so many ways.  They embrace each person that visits them in Tokyo and just being with them makes me feel so appreciated. I love this photo of the YogaPlus teachers—it literally seems to vibrate with energy.

Re:gendo with Keiko Okuno

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About a two weeks ago, I met up with Keiko Okuno, a former Yoga Works  colleague of mine who  moved back to Tokyo with her husband after spending five years in Los Angles. She is now a very popular yoga teacher in Tokyo.  A few months after the 2011 earthquake & tsunami in north-east Japan, Keiko made a brief visit to Los Angeles and the women from our  2007 Yoga Works Professional Program gathered to welcome her with a small reunion.  Now it’s almost a year later and the two of us are going to meet in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo, which would be for me, an adventurous journey by train.  The directions…  “from Sangejaya (platform 2) take the De-ontoshi Line to Shibuya, then the JR line (platform 1) to Shinjuku (platform 12) then take the JR Chou-ow (kaisoku) to Nishiogikubo and then walk to the south exit…”   Somehow I made it there and I would soon find the trip to be well worth it.  Keiko thought it would be nice to have “sweets” at a place nearby.  After a short walk  through a quiet residential  neighborhood we came upon a wooden house that she said had been relocated from somewhere in Japan.   To my surprise we entered the most delightful place— “Re:gendo”—rustic, simple and serene with airy rooms  featuring a  small boutique and cafe surrounding an enclosed garden.  We sat down at a wooden table covered with a faded patterned design and ordered the most wonderful “sweets” with exotic and colorful ingredients such as; honey green tea ice cream, black sesame paste, matcha mouse, black bean jam, and mango.   Coincidentally, while we were eating there was a small tremor putting everyone on alert but it soon passed and we all relaxed—everything was okay…

Later we  browsed the tiny store highlighting  handcrafted leather shoes made by the owner, clothing made from flax handwoven into linen fabrics in deep indigo, eggplant, and other natural tones. I was told that this type of fabric was traditionally used for casual kimonos. Glazed pottery, glassware, assorted kitchenware and haishi (chopsticks) rounded out the assortment of items.  The late afternoon sun began to cast a golden glow on the surroundings, adding another element to the spectrum of sensory appeal that is so prominent in the experience of Japan.

The Translators: Kosai Kato

Kosai Kato has been translating for my Tuesday morning Level 1/2  class in Gotanda and for the teacher’s  workshop, “How to Address Common Injuries in the Classroom.”   Always radiant, chic and stylish, she walked into our first  staff meeting  wearing frosted eyeshadow and a fuzzy yellow vest trimmed in black–and looked great!   Not only do I like her personal style, she’s brave and daring as well.  Would you believe that she studied aviation at the University of North Dakota and that she also worked as a member of an international flight crew based in Singapore from 2009-2011?  Kato has been teaching yoga since 2006 and completed her 200HR Yogaworks Teacher Training in Tokyo with Eka Ekong.  She currently teaches at YogaPlus in Yokohama, Tokyo.

Romy & Kosai at the Gotanda Studio

The Infamous Yellow Vest

Eating in Tokyo: Mame-Maru

A week ago, few of my students, Ahn Eunsun, Yoshiko Okamoto, & Yuka Matsuo, took me to lunch in downtown Tokyo.  Ahn said that we were going to a “Kyoto Japanese Style” restaraunt, called Mame-Maru.  We entered a small place and after taking off our shoes, were guided into our own private room.  The floor was covered in tatami mats and we sat on cushions with our legs placed in a pit under the table which appeared to be hovering above the floor.  This soothing setting overlooked a tranquil garden on a rainy day.   A waitress wearing a warm yellow colored kimono served  us the most beautiful meal and numerous cups of tea.  The meal, “cha-kaiseki” would be considered a more casual form of “Kaiseki” which has its roots in Kyoto.  Visually appealing, kaiseki  is “an art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food.” That is certainly true indeed as evidenced from the images taken of the meal.

Sightseeing: Omotesando

One of my students suggested that I go to Omotesando, Harajuko and Yoyogi Park to look around. I had time after the workshop on Sunday, May 13 to do some sightseeing. The weather was great–no rain—and there was no teacher training that weekend. I spent the entire afternoon there and was pleasantly surprised—Omotesando and its surroundings reminded me of Soho, Tribeca and Paris infused with a distinct Japanese aesthetic. Omotesando is a fashionable neighborhood, with numerous boutiques and cafes highlighting unique architecture, design, clothing,  food and pastries.  I ventured down numerous streets and  never made it to Harajuku or Yoyogi Park that day. But the pictures tell the story–I think my favorite  image of that day would be of the young woman quietly strolling down chic Aoyama wearing a traditional kimono…

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