Sitting on the floor is a hard but unavoidable part of life in Japan. Persuading my legs to go cross-legged, useful for dinner parties, temple visits and traditional events, I find particularly difficult. While most Japanese can manage it comfortably, after eight years of embarrassment and pain my joints still do not respond. So in desperation, today I went to a first yoga class.
The class was held in a white two-storey building, near Zenpukuji temple in Nishiogi. A simple wooden structure, it matches the low-rise residences spread all over quiet Nishiogi.
The teacher was unusually tall for a Japanese. I shall call him Gangly. He started the 90 minute trial lesson with a brief reassuring word on the value of yoga:
“As you get older, you lose strength. But you can always become more supple.”
Less supple is not possible. I graze with the grace of a frozen rhino; defrosting my joints takes a long time – usually several days.
For 90 minutes, Gangly showed admirable patience and perseverance with me; I was not a normal student.
At one stage, when we were lying prone on the floor, Gangly asked us to move our foreheads to our ankles. This request challenged my understanding of the human body.
“Can I cut it off first?”, I wanted to ask.
When straining, my forehead could just about reach 5 cm of the required 1 metre.
“Chikara nuite, chikara nuite” – don`t force it, take the power out, he kept saying.
I struggled to comply – without straining or forcing anything, I would be horizontal and fast asleep.
Without a word, Gangly left the room. We heard rustling about upstairs. I became concerned, perhaps he was packing his bags, or perhaps he was rolling around the floor laughing.
He eventually returned with a towel.
“Loop this around your foot. Pull on the towel to lift your feet in the air”.
Gangly had developed a new teaching style. Instead of asking me to move my limbs, he began moving them for me. This helped a lot, especially when it came to sitting cross-legged.
As I was struggling to get my kneecaps below a 45 degree angle from the yoga mat, Gangly came and lay on the floor in front of me. with his legs bent and his feet pointing towards my buttocks. He then stretched his legs out, gently resting each of them on my taut inner thighs. The weight of his legs brought a tear to my eye, and my kneecaps a mere 5 degrees lower – only 40 more to go.
“You should do this exercise every night at home. Get somebody to push your thighs down for you.”
Finding a volunteer for that might take another eight years.
At the end of the class, we sat on cushions and shared a pot of tea. Gangly sat cross-legged, I kneeled on my ankles.
“You`re really good at breathing through your nose. It`s something most people struggle with”, he told me. The rare praise felt good – I`m proud to be good at breathing. Like yoga, I plan to keep it up.