The first time you come to Japan, you might pass by a yoga studio in the street, and think okay, that looks like fun. One common mistake that many tourists and ex-pats make is expecting Japanese yoga to be the same as the traditional Western yoga they’re accustomed to. But that’s not quite the case.
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What is Japanese Yoga?
Japanese yoga, also known as shin-shin-toitsu-do (心身統一道, which literally translates to “unification of the mind and body”), is an ancient meditative practice. It is a yoga practice that focuses on self-healing through the power of auto-suggestion, on top of the stretches, meditation, and breathing techniques commonly associated with yoga.
Rather than serving as a fitness or weight loss program, Japanese yoga’s core focus is reaching a stronger, more peaceful state of being. Also, rather than being a stand-alone sport that you practice, Japanese yoga stretches out into the other areas of one’s day-to-day life. One of the main ideas in Japanese Yoga is to tap into these specific practices to influence our daily life and our routines.
Alternatively, you could arrive in Aomori by plane. The journey from Haneda International Airport, Tokyo, takes roughly an hour. The airport at Aomori also connects with several Eastern Asian countries.
If you wish to travel by car, Japan has numerous state-of-the-art highways which make the journey quite pleasant, though bear in mind you’ll still need to drive for 8-10 hours. A bus from Tokyo to Aomori will take roughly the same.
How is Japanese Yoga Different from Traditional Yoga?
So naturally, you’re wondering what the difference is between traditional yoga and the Japanese version. Whereas the yoga we’re used to tends to remain more or less the same, as time progresses, with the yogi just getting better at it, Japanese yoga is changing.
In Japanese-style yoga, the yogi will actually practice different movements and poses, changing with the season. So the yoga you’re doing at Christmas won’t mean the same stretches you do in the summer, and vice-versa. Depending on which season you’re in, you’ll follow a different yoga practice, with each season focusing on specific areas of the body.
In some ways, Japanese yoga has been likened to traditional Chinese acupuncture, in the sense that it focuses on the meridians in the body, to heal different parts. In total, there are twelve meridians in the body, divided as follows:
- Yin meridians of the arm — focused on the heart, lungs, and pericardium;
- Yang meridians of the arm — focused on the small and large intestines, and the san jiao (in traditional Chinese medicine, this translates as the sixth organ of Fu, and refers to the hollow space inside the trunk of the body);
- Yin meridians of the leg – targeting the liver, kidney, and spleen;
- Yang meridians of the leg – focus on the urinary bladder, stomach, and gallbladder.
The focus may differ, depending on where you go to practice Japanese yoga, but a common seasonal division of the meridians is:
- For autumn, the focus can be on eliminatory organs, like the lungs, and the large intestine;
- For winter, the focus is around a water element, with common approaches to Japanese yoga targeting the kidney, and bladder;
- In spring, we move on to the liver and gall bladder, with the liver playing a crucial role in traditional oriental medicine;
- Lastly, in summer, we focus on elements of fire, with much of our yoga practices focusing on the heart, and small intestine.
What is the best time to practice Japanese Yoga?
Of course, every yoga practice will be a little different, but the main thing that sets Japanese yoga apart is that it’s specifically focused on healing and nourishing the different parts of the body through mindfulness. The idea behind this seasonal healing is that our bodies aren’t linear, but rather that they follow the same patterns as the seasons. Spring, for instance, is a time traditionally associated with rebirth and new beginnings. Because of this, in Japanese yoga, spring practices will focus heavily on detoxing (which starts in the liver), and on letting go of what no longer serves the yogi.
By contrast, winter is a time of taking stock, of physical and perhaps spiritual hibernation, so the focus is inward, on the kidney, which is such a vital part of the body, as a whole.
People who have practiced both traditional and Japanese yoga have noted that Japanese yoga classes tend to vary a lot more than traditional yoga. This works to make the practice more exciting since it’s not just a repetition of the same stretches from the previous class.
But how did it all begin? Where does Japanese yoga have its roots?
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History of Japanese Yoga
Shin-shin-toitsu-do originated in the early 1900s with a martial artist by the name of Tempu Nakamura (中村天風) who, as a young man, served with the Imperial Japanese Army. Until misfortune struck. Aged 30, Tempu suffered an intense tuberculosis attack that left him baffled and angry. Determined to find a cure for his affliction, Nakamura became a student at Columbia University, where he learned about autonomic nerves. He traveled all over Europe, in the hope that someone out there might be able to help him, but to no avail. Exhausted in his search, he resolved to return to Japan. But on his way back, he met an Indian yogi named Kaliapa, who agreed to take Nakamura under his wing. It was Kaliapa that took his pupil with him to the Nepalese region, where it’s said Nakamura was first introduced to yoga and its benefits. Nakamura spent two and a half years in Nepal, practicing yoga, by the end of which, his illness was cured.
Under the watchful eye of Kaliapa, Nakamura practiced a blend of traditional Indian practices Raja yoga (which was more meditative and encompassed both the practice itself and the unification goal of the practice) and Karma yoga (literally “yoga of action”).
After returning to Japan, Tempu Nakamura established the first school of yoga in the country. It combined the classical Indian principles of meditation, and moves, but also took from ancient Japanese knowledge of the body, and became this unique practice.
The birth of Tempukai 天風会
Here, he founded his very own philosophical and medical organization, which he named after him, Tempukai (天風会), and where he first began teaching this self-healing, seasonal version of yoga. Many students passed the doors of the Tempukai, including Koichi Tohei (藤平光), founder of the Ki Society, and his own unique brand of aikido. After Tohei began studying under Sensei Nakamura, he started incorporating key shin-shin-toitsu-do concepts in his aikido practice and teaching. Eventually, he would share his understanding of Japanese yoga with the world, through the immensely successful 1966 book “Aikido in Daily Life”, and the founding of his own Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido (心身統一合氣道), known more simply as Ki Aikido.
From 1919 (the year he began teaching in Japan), it’s said Nakamura never stopped growing and refining shin-shin-toitsu-do, all the way up to his death, in 1968, at the commendable age of 92.
Benefits of Japanese Yoga
There are numerous reasons to start practicing Japanese yoga. Obviously, it will help each yogi in a different way, with some, no doubt, finding more value and healing than others. But here are some universal reasons why Japanese yoga might be right for you.
1. It helps you deal with physical discomfort.
Even if you are not suffering from an obvious affliction, there are still many reasons why you might try Japanese yoga. Oftentimes, we don’t really realize how stuck we are, physically, until we do something different. By following the same routines and patterns each day, some muscles will get a workout, while others will go ignored. This may result in neck strains, spine pain, and other physical ailments that, while by no means fatal, can still be very uncomfortable.
A regular yoga practice can, first of all, alleviate these pains by stretching out “dormant” muscles, and secondly, will in time strengthen your muscles, so that you won’t get tired or feel pain as easily.
2. It creates a workout routine.
One of the benefits of engaging in a regular yoga practice is that it keeps you grounded. By committing to a regular yoga class, you are showing up for yourself, which in turn means you’re becoming more reliant and gaining better control over your life.
The mere act of saying “This is something I choose to do twice a week (or even, every day)”, and actually doing it puts you in the driver’s seat in your own life.
3. It can alleviate illness.
As is the case with every alternative medicine practice, claims that Japanese yoga can actually heal an illness have been met with skepticism. However, whether or not you believe this to be possible isn’t really the question here. One important way in which Japanese yoga can help heal is by strengthening your body, as a whole. So say, your liver is diseased, but through regular yoga practice, you are tending to and strengthening the liver itself, but also all of the other surrounding organs. This creates a strong whole, which diminishes the suffering of the individual.
Japanese yoga also has a preventive aspect to it. Far too often, people only think to do good things for a specific part of their body when that part if ailing, or even seriously ill. By practicing these strengthening exercises, you are empowering your core, and your individual organs, which may, in the future, diminish the risk of disease.
4. It helps you become more present.
As we saw, Japanese yoga is derived from the practices of Raja yoga and Karma yoga. And while Karma yoga proposes physical action to grow strong and succeed, Raja yoga is built around cultivating a meditative practice. An important part of any yoga practice is breathing, and by focusing on the breath, you are forced to also focus on the present moment.
Because technology has given us so many opportunities to “space out”, and distance ourselves from our present physical space, the message of yoga seems to be particularly relevant today.
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5. It can provide mental relief.
Stress is, essentially, the feeling of not having enough time, or of being pulled in too many directions at once. Ironically, this creates the impression that you lack control, and are helpless, which then creates chaos.
Taking part in a Japanese yoga class, or even engaging in your own solo practice is something that you are in control of, however, It’s a set period of time where the things pulling you in a million directions are collectively forced to stop, while you practice. In other words, a consistent yoga practice can stave off chaos, and provide you with much-needed mental clarity.
Difficulties of Japanese Yoga
It’s also worth exploring common difficulties that foreign yogies might encounter when beginning their Japanese yoga practice. If you are looking to join a Japanese yoga class while actually in Japan, bear in mind the following:
- Look for an English-speaking class. Unless you are fluent in Japanese, there’s a good chance you won’t be familiar with the names of bones and muscles in Japanese. So constantly having to work out which part of the body the yoga teacher is talking about might take away from the relaxing experience. And if you don’t speak Japanese at all, then an English class is a must, since many poses won’t allow you to watch what the teacher is doing.
- Beware of homonyms. Japanese is famous for its homonyms (words that sound practically the same, yet mean something different). These might stump you in everyday life, and especially when you’re upside down, trying to figure out whether to inhale or exhale.
On the bright side, if you are a student, or just an expat looking to broaden your knowledge of the Japanese language, joining a yoga class might be just the thing for teaching you new words! Just be prepared not to get it right on the first try.
How to choose the Perfect Japanese Yoga Class
While we’ve by now grasped the definition of Japanese yoga, there are still many variables to navigate both at a yoga studio, and even when doing online classes. Even in Japan, there will be different types of yoga practices available, and it might be smart figuring out which is for you beforehand.
- Yin Yoga (陰ヨガ) is a slow-paced yoga practice, that targets the deep tissues in our body. Most yoga we’re familiar with is yang yoga (muscle-focused) and generally involves a quicker flow. In yin yoga, you’re staying in poses longer (up to five minutes!) and targeting the connective tissue. Yin yoga also gives you more chance to meditate.
- Hatha Yoga (ハタヨガ) is what we generally think of when we think of yoga. It is the practice that combines asanas (アーサナ), with breathing techniques to create a more fast-paced flow aimed at honoring and preserving one’s sacred energy.
- Vinyasa Yoga (ヴィンヤサ) refers to the smooth transition between asanas, and is generally fast-paced. Vinyasa yoga flows tend to work up more of a sweat than hatha yoga, for instance.
Determining what kind of yoga flow would most enhance your experience is important when picking out your first Japanese yoga class.
You’ll also need to decide if you qualify for a beginner (初級) level, an intermediate (中級) level, or even an advanced (上級) one. Our advice would be, even if you’ve taken some yoga classes in the past, if this is your first Japanese yoga class, that you start with a beginner level, and see how you accommodate from there. Your experience with yoga in the West might not be the same as the one with Japanese yoga, so it pays to take it slow.
Yet another aspect to consider when choosing a Japanese yoga class is what your main purpose is here. Perhaps you’re looking to target a specific area of your body that is ill, tired, or needs healing. In that case, you might wish to know some yoga-specific terms in Japanese:
mind and body
血行 (kekkō) / 血流 (chiryū)
Stiffness in shoulders
If you’re not actually interested in targeting any one specific area of the body, don’t fret. You can practice Japanese yoga, and reap all its benefits even if you don’t have a specific purpose in mind.
For more specific information, speak to a Japanese yoga instructor at a local studio. They will be able to instruct you on what yoga practice best suits your needs, and may even be able to explore health conditions that need to be addressed.
How often should you practice Japanese yoga?
Many newcomers to the practice wonder how much time they should put in to see results. The answer to that depends on the type of yoga you’ve chosen, and the type of results you’re looking for.
If you’ve opted for a more fast-paced yoga practice like vinyasa or power yoga, this will burn more calories, so you will see a toning effect more quickly than with slower practices, like Hatha or yin yoga. For self-healing a specific affliction/area of the body, it’s impossible to say. It took Tempu Nakamura two and a half years of dedicated, assiduous practice to heal his tuberculosis. The result you see will depend on your own level of commitment and belief, and on the quality, and frequency of your practice.
A good rule of thumb for yoga beginners is to try and practice at least 2-3 times a week, eventually growing their practice. Experienced yogis practice every day, or at the very least, 5-6 times a week. If you choose to practice Japanese yoga at a dedicated yoga studio, you can still set up a daily or semi-daily practice for yourself at home. As you familiarize yourself with the poses and breathing techniques required in Japanese yoga, you will eventually be able to practice these at home, by yourself.
How long should individual yoga practices be?
Opinions on the matter seem to be mixed, with some insisting that daily consistency is more important than the actual length of the practice, and others arguing the contrary. Undoubtedly, the longer a practice is, the more it achieves. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the time for an hour-long practice every day, and this may put them off yoga, in the long run.
What’s important to remember, if you’re just getting into Japanese yoga, is that yoga is all about the individual. Your practice should be about what works best for you, and as such, has no set rhythm or schedule. If your schedule doesn’t allow you to spend an hour doing Japanese yoga each day, don’t let that discourage you, but instead work to find a schedule that suits your existing commitments. Maybe your weekly schedule allows you to spend 15-20 minutes every day on a quick yoga practice, and a full hour once or twice a week for a longer, more intense yoga session.
Maybe you don’t follow a fixed schedule, and some weeks, you’ll fit in hour-long practices daily, while others, you’ll barely be able to stick to those daily 20 minutes.
Remember that the key to a sustainable yoga practice is adaptability. Even with 20 minutes, you are building flexibility, and strengthening your muscles.
Best Places for Japanese Yoga in Tokyo
If you’re visiting Tokyo, you’ll want to make time in your busy sightseeing schedule to take a yoga class. But where? Here are our favorite yoga studios in the busy Japanese capital:
- Nami Yoga Studio has a very central location, near Akasaka-mitsuke station (赤坂見附駅), and is great for foreigners, as it offers classes both in Japanese and English. A single class costs roughly 3,500 yen, but package deals may be cheaper.
- Akira Studio is a dedicated bikram yoga studio (hot yoga, with a focus on sweat and detox) with classes in English and Japanese. Bear in mind it’s not too big, so you’ll want to make an appointment beforehand. Drop-in individual classes start at 3,500 yen.
- Yoga Jaya is one of the most popular studios in Tokyo, and is located in the busy Ebisu district. However, at the moment, all in-person classes have been suspended due to Covid-19 (but do check the website!).
- YogaTree offers classes from beginner to advanced, both in English and Japanese, and is located near Hiroo Station. Pricing begins at 3,000 yen for a drop-in session.
- Bikram Yoga also specializes in bikram yoga, and is located within 5 minutes of Shinjuku Station.
All in all, yoga continues to be a popular practice in Japan, more than 100 years after Tempu Nakamura introduced it into the culture. And there are plenty of wonderful studios where you might practice it in Tokyo, as well as in other parts of Japan. If you're spending some time around Tokyo, why not check out our recommendations for the Top 20 Things to Do in Shibuya!
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