Wa Yo Yogi

Leanne Kitteridge's adventures in Yoga

Time to Absorb June 30, 2008

Filed under: Japan,travel yoga,yoga — shibuiyoga @ 9:50 pm
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The last day of the immersion ended with John talking about taking time to absorb the teachings. It is part of the spanda, to pull back for a bit and just let it all soak in, so to speak. I ended my last night with the merry band over Indian food. John had given a marvelous talk on wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic, and had, as always, managed to weave the underlying principles of tantra into it. It was a very satisfying way to end the week.

I said goodnight to the merry band that night and spent the next morning sleeping in a bit and packing my bags. Madoka from Studio Yoggy had mentioned that there was a large temple in Tsurumi where I was staying. I hadn’t been able to see it in all the rain but apparently it was on a hill behind the station. I put my large bags in a locker at the station and started to walk up the hill. It was pouring so hard that the water was splashing up the back of my legs. My crazy orange buddha umbrella my sister got me was a life savour. Thanks Michelle!

I really don’t know how I could have missed this temple. It took up the entire hillside. It was acres of grounds. I found a set of stone steps and made my climb through dripping hydrangeas to the top of the hill. The graveyard was spread out before me. Rather than morbid or depressing, I find Japanese graveyards quite lovely and colourful. The bamboo buckets to wash the gravestones were all lined up with family names and the whole place was orderly and well kept.

I made my away around the graveyard to what had to be the biggest temple I have ever seen. I mean-this place was huge! Even the iron lanterns outside the entrance were at least 25 feet high. I took a quick peek in the doors but a funeral ceremony was going on and I didn’t want to attract too much attention, so I ventured back out into the rain. I wandered through the grounds to multiple smaller buildings and temples. A beautiful Kannon ( Bodhisattva) graced one of the temples. Her sweet face was so serene in the pouring rain- not minding the weather at all.

A young Buddhist monk hurried along beside me under an umbrella and I asked him quickly if there was a place to meditate. He nodded and asked me to follow him. We wound our way through a long corridor and then into another building that turned out to be the reception hall. He gestured to the entrance and scurried off again into the rain. I felt a little out of place- everyone there was Japanese and dressed in black for funerals or death rituals. Here I am in a t-shirt, pants and orange umbrella! Good grief Leanne- could you stand out more??

Another monk approached me and I asked once again about meditation. He looked a little puzzled and invited me in to the office. He explained that today was Sunday and they were very busy. He said there would be a zazen sitting at 12:30 to 2:30 for a fee. I explained that I was leaving Japan that day and just wanted some where quiet to sit and meditate and that I had to leave by 1:30 or so to catch my plane. The 12:30 sitting wouldn’t give me enough time but I thanked him for the information and went to excuse myself. He asked me to wait again and got on the phone. When he got off the phone he started to ask deeper questions about my interest in Buddhism and meditation and suddenly he became very friendly and animated. He made another phone call.

The next thing I knew there was a young monk named Yanagi by my side. He was to give me a personal tour of the entire facility and grounds and do a personal zazen meditation with me! They handed me a guide book in English and Japanese and suddenly I was on my way. Yanagi-san was about 22 years old. He had a very serious quality about him and he was very careful to make sure that I understood all the rules. “Walk left, don’t talk here, please follow my lead, etc.” He spoke no English.

We started in the long hallway again and he explained how the corridor had three gates- a morning gate, a mid-day gate and an evening gate. The wooden floor section of the corridor gleamed and Yanagi explained that it was part of the monks-in-training duties to polish it every morning by running up and down the corridor on their hands and knees with cloths. The corridor was used to seperate parts of the temple so there was less chance of a fire destroying the whole complex. Which is apparently what happened in the 1800’s when the temple was located in Ishikawa prefecture- only two structures survived the 1898 fire. The temple was relocated to it’s current location in Tsurumi Hills in 1911. 

Soji-ji temple is a soto zen monastery and today is one of the leading centers of SotoZen faith in the world. Yanagi-san led me to the zazen room or sodo. He carefully instructed me on the order of our movements and the preperation of the zaibuton, or pillow, we would sit on. We walked in- bowed- and then picked up the zaibuton and turned it on its side and carefully squished it around to make it more like a little ball. We then carefully turned the tag side away from us. We sat down on the ledge, placing the pillow underneath us. We then crossed our legs and carefully placed our slippers under the ledge. We then sat in full lotus (Yanagi-san was impressed that I didn’t find it painful!) and used our hands to spin us around to face the paper wall. We then placed our left hand in our right and joined the edges of our thumbs together to make an egg like shape. And so began zazen.

                            I remembered what John had been teaching all week and I just opened up my ears. The rain poured down harder and harder and the chanting of the monks mixed with the echos of bells and drums. All the sounds of ceremonies of death mixed with the sounds of nature. Birds, frogs, voices and the rain – the sounds of life echoed along with the sounds of death. The song of nature, the song of dark and light, the pulsation of Grace. The sounds just became clearer and clearer and suddenly I could hear Yanagi-san slipping on his geta. We had sat for over 30 minutes and it had felt like 5!

We continued on our tour and rather than walking through the rain, we quietly walked through beautiful passages underneath the complex. Pictures outlining the rituals and halls of worship were carefully hung and backlit and we moved through the old and the new. We passed the bell and drum tower, a tea ceremony room and garden, living quarters for the monks, and the head abbots official chamber for receiving guests. All the screens in that room were exquisitely painted and were all works of famous artists from the Taisho era ( 1912-1925).

The main hall, or Daisodo,  is one of the largest in the world: 1000 tatami large! Most of the other temples I have been in would be about half the size of Daisodo. The pillars were of concrete and it was definitely built to last. The oldest structure on the property is the Butsuden or Buddha Hall. It is also referred to as the great treasure hall. The Kannon that graces the side of the hall is a fairly new addition. When you stand in the mid-day gate of the corridor you look straight at the Butsuden. It is like a framed picture. What thought went into all those details.

Yanagi-san and I finished up near the bathrooms. Apparently you pray before you enter there too- as the shrine at the entrance of the washrooms indicated. The guardian deity there cleanses impurities….

I had the most marvelous tour and I managed to make it back just in time to see the “official” zazen group of Japanese and tourists leave for their sitting. I was asked for no donation or payment and was cheerfully invited to come back anytime. The monk that made all the arrangements for me gave his card and encouraged me to continue my studies.

I went in to the gift shop of the temple that sells incense, beads, statues and other Buddhist paraphernalia. I spotted a plain wooden jizu, or japanese bracelet mala, in a case and was immediately attracted to it. It was made out of sandalwood and smelled of worship and time- just like the temple itself. It was the perfect momento of not just a perfect day- but a perfect trip.

Thank you to all of those that made this experience in Japan so special and to all of those that followed me vicariously through my writings. Om namah shavaya.


The Culmination of Your Efforts

Day Three of Immersion

This last day was one of those crazy days. As John starts to settle in to talk, in walks Carlos Pomeda. I have only seen Carlos on DVD so it had that little bit of “rock star” quality when I first saw him. John and Carlos began to give one of the most amazing talks- it was almost what I would call the Anusara pep rally.

John talked on the culmination of all our efforts. He said that nothing that has come before is ever wasted- no effort is ever forgotten. Every time you fall out of a pose you learn something-you gain something, ad then one day that pose suddenly comes. Why is that? It’s because all your previous efforts count. They are collected into the sky of the mind and one day when your right effort aligns you in harmony with Grace- there you are- in the pose. The smallness you felt when you fell out of the pose dozens of times before, all the time you doubted yourself- falls away and the light is revealed. This is the power of Grace.

Carlos had the most elgant way to explain Grace. He said, ” It is not a theory but something you can apply in your life. Grace is available. Grace is difficult to explain but unmistakable when you experience it. It is the power you feel when you are inspired and your heart opens up. The power of your experience of who you are expands.”

John added, ” When Grace descends and and fills us we feel expanded- we feel freedom. There is a revelation of what already is– we do not create something new- the light simply reveals what is already there.”

Carlos went on to say that some people think Grace will be easy, or perhaps should be easy, but it is a play of sun and shadow. It doesn’t mean that it will always be easy, but you will grow fuller and freer. Whether the path is easy or not is another question. But the result is guaranteed. Grace is always there.

The whole morning talk was so rich and so meaningful. They both talked on a few other subjects but if I start getting into them here I will be writing a book! I really could have listened to them both all day and never been bored for a second. I am really looking forward to Carlos coming to Vancouver next Spring.

We took on a rocking practice that day of backbends and arm balancing and just about anything that was challenging and fun. We walked on our hands to each other in urdva dhanurasana and collapsed into laughter. We celebrated each others accomplishments in poses and cheered and clapped. We supported each other in uttita hasta and then all put our legs around our heads. John gave me a helping hand in yogi dandasana- which actually felt amazingly good- I really wish I had a picture of that one! It really is a crazy pose.

It was a culmination of all our previous efforts. All the poses , whether we did them fully or not, counted towards a growing experience of ourselves. We filled that room full of light and everyone’s beauty was revealed. What joy to behold such an experience- the kula in it’s full glory!

John and Carlos summarized the day in one of the last teachings that morning: choice. We alone are responsible for our state. So let’s choose light and align with Grace- this is Anusara.

Powerful and simple. What a way to end!



Let Love Rule June 27, 2008

Filed under: Anusara,Japan,travel yoga,yoga — shibuiyoga @ 1:21 pm
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Day 2 Immersion

Are you ruled by your heart or your mind? Do you see difference in things or do you see the unity? John’s lecture today was a fusion of  a few key teachings. The “One” , the absolute becomes two. The heart and the mind. The mind sees difference- it categorizes, it is discriminating. The heart sees unity- it sees the connection between things.

I was trying to puzzle this out from John’s earlier lecture. He said the One was like light. The light shines through a prism ( maya) and becomes this group of colors.  It looks like different colours to us but really it is just one light. In the relative world though we see colours. We gives them names: Red, Blue, Green, Yellow, Purple. The mind sees red , green, yellow etc. The heart …I believe….sees a rainbow. I have to see if this analogy works but I kind of like it.

In Anusara we can get very analytical and live in our heads. We can get wrapped up in all the technical parts of the Universal Principles but then it no longer becomes Anusara. When you are in your mind you are are not truly in the flow. To remember the meaning you have to be in your heart. It is the big picture- to see that we are all from the same source and we are all connected. 

I think John was big on the heart and mind lecture because we all do tend to get wrapped up in the details- even in everyday life. We had to discuss and learn alignment detail today but he didn’t want us to lose the bigger picture. 

We went through matching up the 5 elements with the 5 principles: Open to Grace- sky, Muscular Energy- earth, Inner Spiral- water, Outter Spiral – fire, Organic Energy- air. Each Principle then takes on the quality of the elements- ie. inner spiral is water- is it accommodating and accepting and it moves down. Therefore inner spiral helps move energy down the body- you feel more grounded. We then practiced this way using each of the elements in a pose. I have done this before but it was a great review and reminder. Much of what John says is not new material to me but it seems to go deeper every time. i pull new nuances out of the material and become clearer on the teachings. Being with John is like this big hit of energy , of shakti, and he takes you back to the basics in the best way. He helps take you back to the path of the heart.

I practiced with the merry band again at lunch and tried out ekapada rajakopatasana 4 . I am learning how to drop back into urdva dhanurasana. I am not afraid- just not so bendy! The rest of the group were doing sirsasana to dwi pada backbends and I played with that a bit but without an assist I chickened out! I mean- sometimes we are fearful for good reason. I am pretty sure my upper back isn’t ready for that….

I did a demo today which was fun- I don’t get so freaked out anymore. I am trying hard to “let go” a little more- I spent so long getting strong that now I need to soften a bit more. I had some great help this afternoon from Marc in pincha- balanced on my own in pincha and handstand too. He has the best vibe and I was so sad to see him leave this afternoon. I will miss him and I am looking forward to when our paths will cross again. Kelly gave me some geat tips in my drop back as well and I have hope that one day that will come naturally. Lots to work on when I get home. (You better get ready Lauren!)

Some members of the merry band had dinner together and I had a really nice chat with Yasushi Tanaka who is with Studio Yoggy, John’s translator, and only certified teacher in Japan. He has a lovely sense of humour and we have not really ever had the chance to chat. It was a great treat.

One last day to go. Practice all day and then a dharma talk with John on wabi-sabi after class tomorrow. I am still having the best time but I am feeling the pull to home and my family. When I am in my heart, I am with them.


The Map Maker June 26, 2008

Day one Immersion

Well I am the only non-Japanese in the immersion. Lara from Kyoto, Jenna from everywhere but is Canadian, Chops- once Canadian now Taiwanese, are observing. Man – so do I stand out in a crowd! Just look through the photos and you will see what I mean.

John taught one of his most brilliant classes to date this am as far as I’m concerned. He started with the what, why and how of the meaning of life. Yes-  the meaning of life folks. Talk about “immersion”! I am not going to go into all the details of all these things ,because after 6 hours of practice I do need some sleep, but I will give you the essence.

Within the world of Yoga there is path called Anusara Yoga. It takes you to a place where life is bright, where you bathe in your own light, where you want to dance and dance beautifully. You become a master of life and then everything in the relative world- even the not so nice things- become a gateway to the heart.

Three things make up the path: The Universal Principles of Alignment, specific Tantra philosophy and emphasis on community. You can use any of these things with practice and then use them as a way to the heart.

Anusara yoga is all contained on a map. A map that John made. He is the map maker. He could give you the map but if you can’t read the grid then it is useless. Practicing and learning from a teacher- or the map maker- will show you how to use the grid. So he doesn’t just give the map to just anyone- it is precious. Mika asked a great question. She said, ” But where am I on the map?” John replied that you need the map maker to tell you where you are. He then proceeded to take us through a whirlwind practice. He was the map maker- he knew all the best spots on the map- all the best sites and the funnest places. But we had to stay with him. It would be easy to get lost. He said we had to be like Japanese day care kids holding on to the rope as they walked around. He had the flag – he would lead us. Not everywhere on the map was pleasant. He was there to help us avoid those places.

Now this might not sound like much to you- but you have to remember where we were. We were in a country where people travel with guides all the time. They love maps! They relate completely to the flag waving tour guide. John taught them in a completely relevant cultural context. They didn’t have to think about the context- it wasn’t esoteric and confusing- it was simple and visual. It allowed the students to go fast and go deep- straight to the heart of the practice. It was amazing. The energy in the room buzzed. He made great jokes about going to the rest stop for green tea and a rice ball between backbends. He explained that some of the routes on the tour weren’t easy but man- when you got to the top..the view- amazing- totally worth it. He said that if you couldn’t do the journey without help he would get you a wheelchair and find all the elevators so you could come too- everybody goes. Some people needed a cane ( props) to make the journey more comfortable but everybody goes- we don’t lose anybody.  The map maker takes care of       

everybody. That’s his duty- his dharma. 

I just stared at him after class- it was brilliant and I told him so. I was so pumped up that I asked permission to practice at lunch too. Nothing earth shattering today but a nice hip opening practice to reduce the vata. We then hit the big time this afternoon with the elements and their relation to all the emotions,or rasas,  we experience. It was a deep teaching and Yasushi really had his work cut out for him in translating. I gained more clarity on how certain practices affect people. Then we did another hip opening practice. My injured hamstring was getting a little rebellious by the end of the day! Marc gave me a great adjust in triangamuka ekapada pachimatanasana- whew- say that three times fast!! Tomoko also wore her Live Yoga shirt today which looked fabulous on her!

I finished the night with sushi from the conveyor belt. Marc, Mark and I were all a little tired from the big download today and it was the perfect- eat now!- solution. My body is dying for vegetables and dahl though. I can’t wait to hop back on to the clean eating regime when I get home. Here it is “eat now and eat fast for there is more training to be done!” I made the mistake of turning my nose up at Marc’s scone the other day because it was white flour and I paid the price! I was starving. I think tomorrow a big salad and apples are called for!

BTW- don’t you love that picture of Yasushi at the top- he is the best guy!


Unlimited Potential June 25, 2008

Well today was the final day of teacher training. John packed into 3 days what most trainings do in five. 

We spent a lot of time writing today. John was really onto the idea that if this was your last class, your last day- what would you teach? What would be your message? What would you want your students to know. Well I can tell you it sure as heck isn’t “tuck your tailbone more!”. I really received a lot out of this training- I am better able to see where I really need to refine my practice and my teaching. Rather than feeling discouraged by the long road ahead of me still I am excited. I can get better- I will be better.

I wrote down my motto and last teaching. It was on the concept that we all have unlimited potential. The only thing that limits us is our mind. If we live in our hearts- the place where potential lives- we can live so much more fully. I really took that to heart today- I have unlimited potential- to love, to live, to serve, to be happy. I truly believe that.

The students did lots of small group teaching exercises today trying to teach a pose while being timed and doing all the heart theme as well. We also did some group exercises where we picked out the one main point to adjust. I mean really folks- it was fast and intense. I think John was trying to get the group to tighten up their language and how long they were keeping people in the poses. He said we had a problem as beginning teachers that we were trying to download all our knowledge in each pose. That is just too much for the students to take. Yes, I thought, I have been guilty of that- but at least I have the knowledge so I just need to keep refining my technique. It’s not all bad.

It was “me and the boys” today at practice during break. Marc, Mark, John, Patrick, Yasushi and me. These guys are advanced- they rock. John looked at me and said – ” backbend practice today”. Rather than being scared or nervous I just thought- “Hell- I am strong, maybe I will just let go and see what happens”. And  something happened all right. I did full eka pada rajakopatasana and eka pada rajakopatasana 2 all by myself! I did the first one and thought “WOW!” and then did it on both sides twice. Then when every body went to eprk 2 i thought ” Oh- I’ll try that too!” and sure enough – bang did that one too! I was so amazed- I just wanted to keep doing them all day! John took us through a great warm up to get there though- basic surya A, then lunges , handstand, handstand further away from the wall, pincha, pincha further away from the wall, thigh stretches such as virasana and bekasana leg in lunge, then tons of urdva dhanurasana, dwi pada urdva dhanurasana, drop backs and then into pigeon prep and then the full variation. I am proud to say that I couldn’t do it all, or as well as the boys, but I held my own!

It was Marc’s birthday today and we all sang happy birthday too him while he held a handstand. Great fun. The afternoon continued to have an afterglow about it since I was still high from all the backbending but there were great things I observed and will take into my teaching. I am so excited to get back and teach and yet I still have three days of immersion training!







                                                                                                                                                                     Marc, Mark and I all went out for dinner. The boys were sick of being   underground mall rats so we decided to explore the other side of the station. We had no idea where we going but I just trusted we would fall into something nice and we did. We came out on the other side of the station to the water. This heavenly breeze came up and the salt water smell was so refreashing after three days of being in a stuffy office building. We found a beautiful spot that looked over the tall towers of Yokohama and proceed to share pizza and laughter all evening. They really are two of the nicest people- the more time I spend with them the more I laugh. How can you not like people that make you laugh so hard you can’t breath? We had a little celebration for Marc’s birthday and we all felt very satisfied with our meal and good conversation. What a blessed day- it’s amazing what can happen when you are open to it.


Shall We Dance? June 24, 2008

Day two of teacher training was glorious. It is the rainy season here in Yokohama and in most of Japan and just whet I thought I would never dry out, the sun came out today and with it a lovely breeze. I felt so happy.

Of course , John used the weather to teach his theme. He said that “wasn’t it nice to wake up and open the curtains today to sunshine after all that rain? ” But would you appreciate the sun if it was sunny everyday? The fact that we have opposites creates more joy in us. You can go back to my old blog from last year on the bathtub story if you want to go deeper on that.

Sun/rain, night/day, male/female, strength/sensitivity- all these seemingly opposing things can be used to teach us. By teaching contrary compliments  ie.effort and surrender  – you find the place of the middle. Why is the middle important? Because the middle is where the grey is- where the place between opposites becomes fuzzy- and this is where we have revelations- awakenings. For example- if I try too hard in backbend I get all tight and then my shoulders lock up more. If I surrender – with no effort- I can’t get my arms straight. But if I play the place of the middle- work hard to get up and then soften a little, bend my elbows a bit and then again put effort into my shoulders- I start open up more. More than if I had just done one or the other. Its a dance between the two.

Raising kids is kind of like that. If I push them too hard they rebel- if I don’t push them at all they think I don’t care. I have to learn when to push and when to back off to stay in a balanced relationship with them. What’s interesting is that what needs effort and what needs surrender will change as they grow from young children, to pre teens, to teenagers- nothing stays exactly the same. It is a constantly changing dynamic. So it is the same in our bodies. That’s why we need both- the place of the middle- what is optimal in the relationship- can change. That is why it is a dance- it flows and moves. 

The students did a lot of demo teaching today. Very hard on the spot stuff. I tried to go over in my head what I would have said or done and wonder how I would react to the pressure of being on the spot in front of John like that. I think Neely from Hong Kong did a brilliant job. Props to Neely!

The Japanese students seemed a little stuck today- I honestly think they did better last year. I think what has happened is that their technical knowledge has gone up in a year and so now they are a bit stuck in their heads. I can relate to that. I have been working on that more this year and I am still trying to do it with consistency. My poor girlfriend Tomoko got very flustered and start to tear up- I felt so awful for her. It really can be difficult- huge pressure.

I spent the break with the merry band doing a delicious hip opener practice. Thank God. I was expecting dwi pada back-bends and all sorts of crazy stuff. I feel the advice on my shins John has given me starting to work and my ardha chandrasana on my left side, that is usually weak, feels more stable. Marc did some therapeutic work on my psoas during the break- OUCH- painful. Apparently mine is tight. He did one side and then we went back to lecture so I sat for two hours before he did the other side and it felt so weird- I could feel more circulation on the side he had worked on. I am going to have to beg Carol for a once a week psoas adjustment!







I finished up today with laundry and dinner at my computer. Glamorous isn’t it? I sat at the laundry mat dreaming up opposites: clean/dirty, wet/dry, whites/darks- and then watched all my clothes dance together in the dryer. I think I should have had dinner before I did laundry……


The Meaning in, and of, Yoga

Filed under: yoga — shibuiyoga @ 12:53 pm
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Day one of teacher training started today. There is a fairly small group compared to TT’s in the US so we are very lucky. Mark, Marc, myself and Patrick from Hong Kong- Pure Yoga– are all observing. All of us are intensively writing notes from all that John teaches. That makes me feel good that even though these guys are high level and certified teachers they are still totally rooted in the seat of the student. We are all constantly refining our teaching and our practice- not one of us sat there going, “yeah- I know all this already- whatever…”. We all were intense and focused. Great company to keep.

John’s theme was “meaning”. He began by talking about energy- shakti- and how the energy follows meaning. For example- when I make dinner for just myself it is a scrambled egg and toast. But if I am making dinner for an old friend I haven’t seen and I love dearly it becomes the gourmet extravaganza. Still both dinner yet radically different. Why? Because I put more meaning on the dinner I make for my friend- I want them to be impressed and I want to show them that I care.

Yoga works in this same way. You can do the physical practice of yoga and just run through the poses but then that is just a work out- it’s not yoga. Yoga is when we come to the mat to get answers to the bigger questions- “why am I here?” “what do I want out of life?” “What makes me happy?” If you start with that intention then you put meaning into the practice. John was saying, ” why does a student not keep their leg straight? It’s not because they are not strong enough- it’s because it doesn’t have meaning to them”. If I lose mental focus teaching , it’s because I have not put meaning into it.  That’s big. I try to teach from my own experiences so that my teaching is infused with meaning. If I do that consistently than the energy comes and supports me- even if I am tired. It does the same for you as a student. If you think of something important to you- something that has a deep meaning in your heart- your practice will become more than physical- it will become yoga- union. Meaning is a way in which we build a pathway to our heart.

I have been sick for a few days now with a sinus thing but have I told John, “I’m sick- I am not going to practice.” No. I invested a lot of money, studied many hours, sacrificed time with my children and husband- I am going to practice and practice well- because this time I have now is infused with meaning.

I came to yoga because of my dad. He never practiced yoga- he would probably would scratch his head in disbelief if I told hm the money and time I had spent on it. But I can’t tell him- he’s dead. When he died my world went upside down- I lost the person I most admired in the world. He was my guide- and now I was alone. He left some money to all of us and I put most on the house and in my kids RESP’s but I kept a little nest egg for myself- for something special. I had no idea what for  but I knew it would come. A bad asthma attack took me away from running and so I turned more fully to my yoga practice. I began to want to learn more and so I took my nest egg and bought private yoga lessons. It changed my life.

Every time I practice now I remember my father, my teacher. I remember his love and sacrifice that brought me to Japan and how his death brought me to yoga. I remember his teachings- to be good, honest, work hard and love your family. I learn from those things that he did not do- I share my feelings, I take time to do things for myself, and I never put off life’s opportunities. My father spent most of his life wanting to travel- especially to New Zealand where most of his family was. He kept putting it off- not because he didn’t have the time or money- but because he was too busy taking care of everyone else and ignoring himself. He never made it.   

I practice for him. I practice to learn how to be a better parent, a better spouse, a better friend. That has meaning. My physical practice, when practiced with meaning, is transformational- it takes me to my heart.

During the lunch break today, John invited me to practice with the merry band- that is what he calls the entourage of assisting teachers. I was right beside my teacher. Every bad habit, every misalignment was right out there to see. It was exciting and terrifying at the same time. John noticed something in my legs and gave me a great tip right off the bat- a way to work my shins more. He does that- he will give you one thing and then watch to see if you integrate it and then he will give you something else. He can always find someway to help you refine your pose- even if you are the most advanced student. He’s also nice enough not to tell you everything that is wrong and overwhelm you!

We ended the training at 6pm- we had gone non-stop since 9 am and I wasn’t even that tired. The merry band proceeded to wander the underground of Yokohama station in search of a restaurant that Mark had been to but couldn’t quite remember where it was. We did manage to find it and all had some good conversation and laughs over lovely organic food. Except for the pudding- Kelly and Marc called it ” soy cream with apple sauce”- I went for the spinach custard myself. John didn’t touch either and was going to go look for a real dessert.

I bought a little bouquet of flowers after I said goodnight to the merry band and made my way back to my hotel. I plopped them in my bathroom cup and made myself something pretty for my tiny room. I had a very full day but it didn’t seem long or hard- because it had meaning.


Have you ever seen the movie… June 23, 2008

Day Three- The longest day

Day three started out bright and early at Myogetsu-bo Studio with John for a guided meditation. Like the previous day with Pranayama, John gave us a sampling and brief account of the methods of meditation. He categorized them into three main types.

1) Concentrating or focusing on one object  i.e. staring at a candle flame, watching your breath,chanting a mantra

2) Being open i.e. opening up your mind and thinking of something vast and unlimited like the sky, trying to send your senses so far out you can hear every little sound and nuance

3) A combination of the first two i.e. focusing on  one thing and staying open at the same time

We started out with a loving kindness meditation. I have never done it in the way that John has described but I found it interesting. He broke the meditation into four parts: meditating on your teacher, meditating on your student, meditating on your friend, meditating on your enemy. The teacher doesn’t have to be your teacher as in your yoga teacher ( all my students now let out a sigh of relief) but someone who has guided you and made a profound difference in your life like a parent or grandparent- someone you love deeply. The student is one who you have compassion for- your child, your friend who needs compassion at this time in their life- the love of compassion. The friend is someone who has a wonderful event in their life that you are celebrating with them. A marriage a birth- the love of joy. You enemy is someone who has wronged you. You meditate with on them with the love of detachment. John described this as standing from a high vantage point and just overlooking a vast space below you.

I have done something similar with my mediation teacher but it focused more on just the meditation of compassion for someone we knew who was hurting- building light inside our selves and then sending to them. Nun Ann (Anila) MacNeil of the Zuru Ling Buddhist Temple in Vancouver is our in house meditation teacher at our yoga studio in White Rock where she lives. We are blessed to have her as a teacher and guide.

I was in tears during the first part of the meditation. I thought of my father as my teacher and how his death gave me the practice of yoga which had now brought me to this place today. I thought of my son as my student and all the love he needs to grow into a man. I thought of my friend Jennifer as my friend and her celebration of finding a loving husband and hopefully a family. I thought of a nasty flight attendant i worked with last month that was so hurtful to all the crew and passengers. I was definitely not crying by the last one….

The second method was chanting mantra. We chant “om nama shivaya” for three minutes continuously and then sat in silence for I believe it was a minute. You could hear everything so clearly afterwards. The rain and frogs and a distant bell- very effective.

We all then wandered out of this enchanting studio in the Japanese forest to find… what else?..Well An Illy coffee truck OF COURSE!! Really it was too hilarious. I am so grateful to Fran Kuzui for setting up this wonderful time in Nikko and I know I will return.

Well we all packed up and headed to the train and I met up with the Merry band to ride into Yokohama together. We had Marc St.Pierre from Maui, Mark Shveima from San Fran, Yuki- John’s translator this trip, and Stacey- a delightful yogi from Kamakura. I have never been in such a casual setting with my teacher so I found I was a little unsure what was considered “appropriate behaviour”- until John started doing Dustin Hoffman impressions from Rainman. Marc settled in with a book and nursed a cold ( which I seem to have come down with as well), Mark – a icon of studentship- transcribed one of Paul Muller-Ortega’s talks, Stacey and Yuki chatted and I worked on my blog. Later in the trip John started to ask us about spirituality in Japan. He had some great questions and I felt that great old pull of what it felt like to be in university again and having deep discourses on Japanese sociology and history. My degree from UVIC centered around this stuff so I started pulling 20 year old information out of my head and hoping that I was still clear on it. ( John later confirmed – after doing research himself- that I was.) It felt a little strange to be teaching your teacher! Yipes! Very humbling.  

Everyone asked if I was coming to practice that night and I was suddenly presented with the information that there was a mini workshop that night. I had been up since 4:30 and already tired but John said ” Yea- your coming aren’t you?” and of course if my teacher says that how could I say no? So I checked into my cubicle of a hotel room which is very tiny and very perfect and is so small you “don’t have room to change your mind” as one the pilots once said and dragged my tired ass back out the door. I felt like I should be going to bed and resting my sore ears and throat but no- out the door I went. It was raining cats and dogs- grey and ugly- and I was in a daze. Have you ever seen the movie “Lost in Translation”?- well just like that. I made it Yokohama station and found the studio. This studio is apparently bigger than the one in Shinjuku but I found the light in there a bit darker and starker. Maybe it just matched my mood. At least the picture in the entrance was cheery!

I said a little prayer for Grace to help me through the night-I felt sweaty and shaky and worried I might have a fever. Just please don’t let me fall on my head…that was my mantra. Well just as I thought, anugraha, the grace that binds- came up and helped me through practice. I actually felt amazingly good by the halfway point. John was in a funny giddy mood as were the rest of the merry band and the practice started in fits of laughter from the “gaijin corner”. Marc got me to balance on my own in pincha for the first time by moving my arm bones more forward- Thank you Marc! and Mark and John took turns “Breaking me open and molding me out” as John said everytime he worked on my upper back. My backbends were a little weak from fatigue and my low back felt strange so I had a feeling my cycle was coming as that tends to the first indicator- but all in all it was a decent practice. John came to me during one of the last poses where we were resting on our backs and cracked all my toes!! Just like my husband Chris does at home! I didn’t know if I was more shocked or mortified! I was sooooo not expecting that! I gasped and then laughed- “That takes the cake!” I said. I mean really it was one of those nights.

John came back in one of the last poses and I asked him how he knew my toes would crack. “Vata”- he said, ” Even your eyes in meditation and pranayama go up”. Hmm. Vata- I have to ask him more about that. I always feel so heavy- maybe he means my inner body is Vata- that might make sense. Vata is the wind dosha and it always goes up- you are always in you head. Great for writing- not so great for yoga.

It was an amazing night/day/night. As Marc said to John when we went to start asana practice that night, “Hey John- that was a great mediation practice yesterday!”That morning meditation practice seemed very far away in both time and place. St. Pierre wins the prize for summing it all up.


A Celebration of the Summer Solstice June 22, 2008

Day Two- A celebration of the Solstice

No matter when I study with John, he finds something significant about the time we are studying together. Today was no exception- it was the Summer Solstice- the longest day of the year.  After a lovely breakfast at our inn, Norika, Yukihito and Sumika- my new friends from Ibaraki-ken- headed over to find the mornings venue. We were all a little lost. Our ryokan is in the middle of Nikko National Park- we are surrounded by huge trees and shrines on every corner. It is so quiet and green here that you can’t imagine you are in a World Heritage site. Yukihito had done some calling around and found directions to the venue so we packed up our stuff for the day and headed out- to walk about 50 meters to the venue!! It was right behind our inn a little more up the hill. It was a huge new modern building but done with a sensitivity to the ancient buildings around it. As we came up to the doors, John came around the door with his entourage. He said a big cheery hello to all of us and then looked and me and pointed to my necklace. “Nice- did you have that before?”

“Yes- the last two times we met” I responded.

“Hmm.” John paused, “I am seeing it differently now.”

What a way to phrase it.  Not “I didn’t notice it before” but “I am seeing it differently now”.  It struck me as exactly how I felt about Nikko. I mean I had been there twice before but it was like I was seeing everything with new eyes. Everything was more beautiful, more colourful, and more precious. 

We entered the venue room and I swear I almost fell over. It was the most amazing room I have ever seen. It was floor to ceiling windows overlooking a beautiful old temple and grounds surrounded by towering cedars.  I felt like I was in a magical tree house suspended lightly from the sky. My pictures just do not do it justice. I was so excited about the room and seeing old friends that I was wondering if I could settle my mind to practice!

John took us on a very basic lecture and practice of Anusara yoga.  He went through and touched on the main points of the practice, the first being Universal spirit. The Japanese are great at relating to this because of the Shinto religion which sees spirit in everything and John skilfully played on this to present the teachings.  He explained that Yoga is a practice of awakening to this universal spirit and that is not just a practice on the mat but a practice of life. Everything you say and do becomes part of that universal spirit so you should know why you say something and why you do it. He talked a lot about stepping back to see ourselves better.

He went on to say that many of us do these things naturally, but if we step back we can better refine them- become more skilful.  He told some great stories of buying goods in the US versus Japan and had the students in fits of laughter. He can be quite the comedian.








The day we were practicing was the summer solstice and he wanted us to think of that day’s practice as a celebration. You could feel the light in the room change as he spoke. A day that was predicted to be 80% chance of rain turned into the most beautiful light filled day. Everything around us was so green and bright. As Yukihito put it later, “I could feel the spirit of the trees in me as I practiced- their breathing, their age. I felt as one with them- like I was in the trees and not the room.” This was coming from a guy who started practicing Anusara a few short months ago. He totally got it.

John kept the poses simple and didn’t fill our heads with tons of alignment but really emphasized the heart theme. I realize that I get way to technical sometimes and maybe I need to back away from that and learn how to make the student move the way that is optimal using the heart language instead. That is why it takes so long in this method to get good- it is always a constant challenge to refine yourself more and more. It is never boring!

We finished which a few assisted urdva danurasana backbends which I have to say felt better than it had in weeks. Even John commented on how much I had softened. My achy hamstring stayed at bay and overall it was a great “Welcome back to practicing with John” practice.

We moved for the afternoon to Myogetsubyo studio which is just the most perfect japanese studio I have ever seen. It was part of the old structures of the surrounding temples and homes of the shogun families and Fran Kuzui had the foresight to turn the unused building into a yoga studio. We were to start the afternoon with Pranayama and then follow it with tea ceremony “sado”. We were told to bring white socks for tea ceremony so I thought I would go a little further and brought a kimono coat “haori” and sash “obi” and paired it with some black dress pants and white Japanese socks “tabi”. I thought that I might feel a little ridiculous until I walked in to the studio and saw John in full regalia! Kelly was also dressed in a beautiful kimono. I suddenly felt like it really was day of celebration- it was so fun! We so often don’t do what we want to because we are afraid of what others might think. I don’t know if its yoga or age but I am starting to get over that.

John took us through what he so appropriately called “a bento box of pranayama” – a little bit of everything. Ujjayi, viloma, nadi shodhana and kapalabhati. I think I have straightened out my collapsing left side but my eyelids need some work. Whatever John corrected you on last time you better have straight by the next time he sees you!

After pranayama we all made our way over to the tea house. The gardens were serene and refined. Individual stones lined the pathways and the sound of running water echoed softly as we rounded the corner.  A little bamboo pipe was suspended over a massive stone with a small bowl-like indentation carved out of it. Two bamboo ladles lay across the water nestled in a bed of moss. It was exquisite. This type of stone wash basin is called “tsukubai”. The teacher of the tea house carefully showed us how to use the tsukubai before we went into tea ceremony.  It was a highly ritualized practice just as all parts of the tea ceremony are.  We learned how to kneel and sit and then get up again. I know that sounds like nothing to difficult but each foot was placed a certain way and in a certain order. John commented that the whole thing was like a moving meditation.  It really did have that flavour. The sound of the tabi on the tatami even had a certain quality that added to the feeling of an underlying rhythm to the ceremony. It was a very contemplative experience.

Many hours later I dragged my aching knees – I forgot how hard it was to sit oseiza (Japanese style) for that long- back to the ryokan. It was heaven to soak in the tub at the end of the night. What a full day! It was a day of celebration- a day of fullness.  It reminded me of one of the Anusara teachings from John and Christina – the purnamukti.  A feast of resplendent fullness.   Gochisou sama deshita!   


Enjoying The Journey

Filed under: Anusara,Japan,travel yoga,yoga — shibuiyoga @ 6:49 am
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Well I made it to Japan! That is not always the way when you fly standby. I plopped myself down in my business class seat and was so happy and blessed to be there. Many of my friends were working the flight so that was a real treat.  My girlfriend, Bethany, whom I went to university with and who also speaks Japanese, was kind enough to suggest sharing her room to save me some money. We had a fun night out eating sushi and catching up. Both of us are busy moms of two kids and having intense hobbies (hers are running and music) we never really get a chance to visit. It was a really nice to spend time with her.

I left Bethany and Narita after my yoga practice and breakfast. I am feeling nervous about tomorrow’s practice as 1) I am not in as good shape as I hoped   2) I am jet lagged  3)It is so bloody humid here- I break into a sweat just walking around!

I used my handy JORUDAN time tables to make my way up to the mountains in Tochigi prefecture where Nikko is located. I managed to hit every connection within 5 minutes and just seamlessly went from rice paddies and flat land to endless rows of cedar.  I had my face plastered to the window most of the trip. What struck me most on the train ride was how green everything was.  The rice paddies had been planted recently and the bright green tops of the rice plants reflected in the little square ponds. It brought back so many strong memories of when I lived in Japan that it caught me a little off guard. I suddenly felt terribly guilty for not contacting my friends in Gunma where I used to live to arrange a visit. Realistically it would have been difficult to make time to do that and not exhaust myself, but it still bothered me.

At Tochigi station the mountains suddenly appeared- so green and such a distinctive shape. The mountains here really look like the ones in old scrolls and paintings.  Between Tochigi station and my final station the sides of the rail line were suddenly lined in cedars. They said something quickly in Japanese about it on the train- they were all planted there many years ago. It was so cool and quiet. It reminded me of one of my favourite Japanese animated movies “My Neighbour Totoro” (隣のトトロ). I could just see the totoro spirits snoozing away in one of those old trees.

I made it to the station, rode the bus for 5 minutes, and made my way to my hotel- a Tokanso Ryokan to be exact. It’s so perfect- so Japanese. I mean as I am typing I am sitting at my little table in my yukata (robe) with the sliding doors open to the Japanese garden and listening to the crickets.  I mean- really – this is one of those quintessential Japanese experiences. The only thing missing is my husband- he would love this. I had a lovely soak in the HUGE bath (it fits about 15 people) all by myself. Heaven. I have to say that practicing arm balancing in a Japanese bath can be quite fun- you’re very buoyant and the water is hot – think the water version of Bikram!- And no one to see me be silly. Perfect!

I needed the soak after my three hours of wandering Toshogu Shrine. I forgot how inspiring this place is. It was built in the 1600’s and the trees are hundreds of years old. It was overcast and kept threatening to rain but never did. The whole darker, humid atmosphere added a sense of mystery to the whole place- cloaked in a misty veil. I bought a combination ticket for 1000 yen which let me in to most of the major sites on the shrine and saved me about 1000 yen if I had visited each shrine and temple separately.  Toshogu main shrine is what most people think of when they think of Nikko but I have to say that my favourite place today was Taiyuin Temple. Of course just before I got there my camera battery died. I might go back there tomorrow if I have time.

The whole temple is nestled into this grove of cedars and a little stream rushes though the main entrance. You climb up flight after flight of stone steps to pass through multiple gates with evil looking demons staring at you. Each one is slightly bigger than life size and they vary in colour- mostly red or white. There must have been at least 500 lanterns of stone and iron that line the walkways of the temple-each one standing 8 feet high. The whole area has the feel that you just wandered into it during a mountain hike. It was quiet and still- yet there was heaviness to the stillness. You could feel the weight of history there. It was a place of reverence.  When I finally got to the main temple hall I threw my money in the box and proceeded to pray.

 T  This temple had Japanese bowl bells. You struck the small bowl three times with a wooden striker- first time to alleviate your past karma, second time to pray for your present and third time for your future. Rather than clapping twice like you do at a shrine you just place your hands together once and bow. The ceiling was painted with panels of about 200 dragons- one going one direction with a ball clasped in a claw and one going the other with no ball. Most people would just walk in- pray- and walk out, but I sat and looked around. I actually sat on the floor trying to pondering the meaning of the dragons.  I was trying enjoy the journey and the present moment of being in that place rather than rushing to the next “site”. One of the priests noticed me and started to chat. I asked him about the dragons and the significance of the ball. He explained that one was a dragon going up to heaven with our wishes in his claw –represented by the ball- and as he descended back down his claw was now empty.  We had a great little talk.

I spent the rest of the evening having dinner with 3 of the other students that are attending the retreat. We had a beautiful dinner- need pictures of that too! – and chat. They were patient enough to put up with my broken Japanese- I wound up talking about difficult subjects and was beyond my vocabulary.  We all discovered that none of us know where the venue is tomorrow. That should prove interesting! Off to bed in my futon. I returned to find it all laid out for me. I found delight and wonder in every moment today. I just hope we find our way tomorrow!