Over the past few months, I have had the great pleasure and honor to teach Harakuma Sensei‘s Ashtanga Yoga Mysore class at the International Yoga Center in Tokyo. A Mysore style (Wikipedia link) class is a supervised self-practice class in the tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. It is the fundamental way that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is taught. Typically, a Mysore style class is taught in the early mornings.
Each morning I wake up around 3 AM and ride my bicycle to the yoga studio through the quiet and empty streets of Tokyo. It is such a beautiful time of the day, as there is a peacefulness and a stillness that one does not often get to experience in this intense and crowded city during the busier times of the day.
I practice for a few hours before the class begins, enjoying the deep silence that comes from practicing alone in the early morning hours. Around 6 AM, the room quickly begins to fill up with students, each one filled with intense concentration as they begin their daily practice.
Over the past 10 years or so, I have taught in many different places in the world, primarily in North America (New York City and San Francisco) and in Europe. Teaching in these different locales has given me the opportunity to observe how different cultural settings affect the general â€œpersonalityâ€ of different student groups.
I have been impressed with the yoga students here in Japan. More than anywhere else I have taught, there is a natural humility and a deep respect for whoever is teaching. This obviously is an integral part of the culture here in Japan. This quality makes the process of learning very special, both for the student and for the teacher. This point cannot be emphasized enough. A combination of humility and respect makes it possible for a student to invest him/herself deeply into the practice, making it possible to learn more and progress quickly.
Additionally, I have been impressed by the level of dedication, passion and work ethic that is present in a large number of Japanese yoga students. These qualities are essential in creating Tapas (meaning heat or austerity in Sanskrit and considered to be one of the essential elements of an authentic yoga practice – Wikipedia link). It is clear to me that the deepest levels of yearning for the fruits of yoga practice (truth, expansion and liberation) are very high. This kind of spiritual hunger is very important to the development of a strong yoga practice.
Additionally, there is a great deal of mutual respect and caring present among those who practice together on a regular basis. Kindness and compassion for one another are other qualities that are vital to the development of a truly powerful yoga practice. These particular qualities also seem to be a part of the culture in Japan. The orientation towards community that I have found in this country are a great benefit to the practice of yoga.
Because the ideas and beliefs of Shintoism (Wikipedia link) and Buddhism (Wikipedia link) are so interwoven into its cultural fabric, Japan is an ideal place for the practice of yoga to become established and grow especially strong. The elements of respect, devotion, surrender, kindness and compassion are all vital to the authentic understanding of this great practice. Also, there is already a general understanding of such spiritual principles as Karma, Dharma and Satori. I have found many people in Japan to be naturally very strongly spiritual and soulful.
Yoga is first and foremost a spiritual practice. Through the process of yoga, we turn our attention inwards and begin to know ourselves in very clear and deep ways. We face fears and feelings that we never knew we had. We familiarize ourselves with aspects of ourselves that would never otherwise come to light. We consciously become students of our breath as a vehicle to developing a more and more sensitive level of awareness of ourselves and of the true nature of our reality. Knowing ourselves more deeply and realistically, we then can begin to let go of our pre-conceived limitations and step into our higher and truer nature. We begin to act less from fear and more from courage, compassion, kindness and love.
It is because of these reasons and more that the practice of yoga has been so warmly and deeply embraced here in Japan. I truly believe that there is the great possibility that the authentic practice of yoga has the chance to profoundly affect Japan and its people in increasingly more and more powerful ways. It is important that great care is taken to ensure that we stay true to the original and authentic intentions of this great practice. This means staying as true as possible to the roots of traditional yoga practice. It is important that we follow the teachings of the great yoga teachers and texts of the past. We must also resist the temptation to utilize the practice purely for personal or commercial gains.
The practice of yoga is still very young in Japan. As such, every effort must be made to preserve the sanctity and purity of the original teachings. Always seek to practice at the highest level possible. Seek the best teachers, who have remained connected to the authentic roots of the practice. And above all else, make sure that your heart is in the right place.