Venus in Japan

There is nothing quite like getting naked with a stranger.

Which is what I’m about to do in Sky Town, the heart of Nagoya Centrair Airport although I don’t know it yet.  I’ve arrived in Japan to join a small group travelling round rural Japan and we are meeting for the first time.  Our group leader, Andy has decided that our first introduction to Japanese culture will be the Miya-No-Yu Sento (Japanese public baths) overlooking the airport runway. The baths are segregated and the two men in our group have already disappeared through the blue noren whilst we three woman are to enter through the red noren. We have no idea what to expect.

Our instructions are uncompromising: having removed our shoes at the entrance of the baths,  we are told to undress fully and place our clothing in the lockers provided. We are then each given an extremely small towel,  what it is to be used for is not clear (it’s certainly not modesty; you can either cover your breasts or choose some other body part but not both at once) and told to proceed through to the bathing areas. There we are to wash ourselves thoroughly with the soap and shampoo provided at the seated shower stalls and only then are we permitted to submerge ourselves in the steaming hot waters.

In the locker room are several Japanese women of varying ages from teens to their seventies, walking around completely nude and I am impressed with the open artlessness with which they carry themselves. We three new companions eye each other reluctantly.

“Well come on girls, there’s nothing we haven’t seen before.” mutters the young American woman Anne as she begins to strip energetically.  These words turn out to be not quite true.

Feeling bold, I undress quickly too. The third woman in our group just can’t quite bring herself to join in and pleading a sudden migraine brought on by culture shock disappears to wait for us outside. I try to emulate the composure of the Japanese women around me.  Walking the distance from the locker room through to the bathing area is an exercise in faking a dignity I do not feel.   And washing myself in full view of the 50 or so other naked strangers – normally a relatively private ritual for me (let’s not count lovers or the kids) – takes even more of an effort in maintaining an air of cosmopolitan poise. I’m aware that unlike my very close Japanese neighbours who are vigorously scrubbing their backs, brushing teeth, shaving their legs and washing their every bodily crevice with meticulous care, I’m hardly doing a thorough job and hope there is no watching Sento wardress waiting to chastise me for inadequate hygiene practices. Finally I enter the bathing pools.

There are a variety of options to choose from; invigorating icy-cold baths, pools with jacuzzi spa-jets to loosen travel-tense muscles, even a pool zapping out electrical currents adding a mildly shocking zing to the heated water. The scenic bath is large and overlooks the airport runways where we can watch planes soar into the sky and disappear into the horizon.

Once our bodies are safely submerged under water, our initial shyness floats away and Anne and I discover how much easier it seems to share your life story with a stranger when you’re both stark naked in a hot water bath pretending not to study the other person’s body from the corner of your eye.  Scrutiny is slanted sideways.  Skinship is the apt term given to the cameraderie of communal bathing where the Japanese can shed the professional facades of hierachy which normally divides management from workers for a few hours.  In the warm fog of the spa-bath  there’s so much less to separate us from each other.

Anne is in her mid-30’s, pretty and fresh-faced and had been conventionally dressed in t-shirt and jeans. Now naked, it’s hard not to be surprised by the unsuspected nipple-ring and two tattoos – one an ominous looking skull on her shoulder, the other a Japanese kanji motif on her ankle.  And it isn’t long either, before we are noticed by the fully clothed Sento attendant who descends upon us with discreet haste bearing an official looking waterproofed notice.

“Please. You read.”  She says to us in halting English.

The notice informs us that tattoos are strictly forbidden in the public baths. Embarrassed,  we begin to make ready to leave. However, to save us the indignity of being evicted from the baths, the attendant now offers Anne thick plasters which bemuse us until we realise through her gestures, that she means her to cover over the offending tattoos. Later we find out that the ban against tattoos is due to the strong association with the Japanese Yakuza – the underworld gangs who declare their allegiances through heavy tattoos.

We’ve observed that it’s expected to keep the small white towels we’ve been given on our person. Literally. They are used for mopping one’s face and neck in the heat and later for drying oneself, but in the meantime, leaving them on the side of whichever pool one happens to be in is hazardous – for of course they are all identical.  We watch with covert amusement as a pair of Japanese matrons conduct a conversation whilst lolling decorously in the hot water, towels neatly folded and carefully balanced on their heads.  Until we notice that every woman is bearing a white folded square of towel on her head.  A simple and ingenious way to avoid misplacing your towel.  We follow suit and after a time somehow manage to stop looking ridiculous to each other;  but not before  we both have to submerge ourselves, snorting with laughter underwater as we clutch our towels above our heads.

I am struck by the lack of inhibition in the baths.  As much as the Japanese value privacy and seem so formal and reserved when meeting them in everyday life, here they display a carefree ease with nakedness I don’t see in the eye-averting  self-consciousness of South African changing rooms.

No matter what their age or shape, these women are completely at home in the aesthetic of their bodies in a way Western women are not. This is not the flaunting pride of believing yourself to have a perfectly shaped body.   This is something altogether different – a natural self-acceptance not bought by comparing yourself favourably with some magazine model.

In the hazy mist I see so many curves and forms, some solidly sensual, others elegant and angular, some voluptuously rounded and smooth, others delicately boned and fragile.  And all beautiful.  A woman sinks slowly down deeper into liquid warmth, eyes closing with contentment, another surfaces, then bends gracefully to scoop up cool water over her body.   So many Venuses rising from the steamy waters.

The Meltdown of Hot Bikram

The room is in dim twilight, it’s 40 degrees and silent and I’m here because everything in my life is telling me I should be.

From enthusiastic devotees I meet,  blog posts in my inbox, to my daughter’s declaration that she needs this and so do I, the message is the same. Do it. So I’ve finally succumbed,  pushed through my resistance and I’m lying here on a mat next to her waiting for the class to begin: hot, sticky, uncertain.  Resistance?  You bet.  I already know it’s going to be a miserable experience. Why would I want to subject what feels like my very unfit, aging body to ninety minutes of overheated Bikram Yoga which I’ve never done in my life before?

Something other than my conscious self knew why, but it wasn’t going to tell me until much later.

Within minutes I am sweating profusely, more than I ever thought possible, as if I’m drenched from the inside out. Out of the 26 postures, some held for 60 seconds (read that as 60 aeons and when I say “held” I mean endured until the agony is over) Shavasana  is my favourite.   Sanskrit’s not my forte but I’m quick to learn that Shavasana – a formal pose in itself lying on one’s back, eyes open and palms facing upwards also known as Corpse Pose – means lying down oh thank you God AT LAST!  It is not so much the relief of being able to play dead so much as the sheer incredulity of discovering I have survived and am still alive.   Let’s say it’s the horizontal answer to the vertical question I pose to myself during the gruelling standing sequences:  “why am I doing this?”

It’s the balancing-on-one-leg poses which baffle me the most. Guradasana (Eagle pose) – has me more like penguin caught in mid-waddle – elbows and knees sticking out at ungainly angles. Yoga is nothing if not utterly humbling. You are in service to the pose – contrary to our western way of needing to win and achieve at all costs  –  not to get it right, but to be in the practice of it to the best of your ability on this day. As they say:  this is about yoga practice, not yoga perfect. Well yes, I get all that of course but hell, a penguin!

And this is where the beauty of paradox lies, that you simultaneously have to accept the reality of what you can achieve in this moment whilst at the same time striving your best to go beyond your furthest limit, to your outer edge. Sure, as with anything, you can abuse yoga too. Use it to beat yourself up over why you can’t do Standing Bow Pose today when you managed it perfectly well two days ago. If you must.  But yoga doesn’t cater to the ego. You may well look at yourself in the mirror and despair of your generous butternut curves, but even in the midst of the most intense physical focus, yoga teaches you to look beyond your body, towards strengthening the spirit which inhabits it.

What happens on the mat is about what’s happening in your life. It’s facing the truth – about who you are in this moment, what you look like, what you’re feeling, what thoughts come into your head, what you can and cannot do. The story you tell about yourself. There is no other. And there’s no escape.

It’s the uncompromising practice of acute inner and outer self-observation.

“If this posture is not available to you right now, then that’s ok. It’s perfectly fine if all you can do right now is stand with your arms at your sides.” The  instructor is speaking. She’s softly spoken and lovely in a serenely muscled steely kind of way. This addressed apparently at random to the class, although it’s actually aimed just at me. Of the 55 people in the room, there is no other person who is not otherwise engaged.  I look around and see graceful postures that are birdlike in their lightness and poise – a flock of flamingos about to take wing as bodies pivot effortlessly on one leg into flight. Balancing stick. Right now this pose is as unavailable to me as the married man I once had a fling with. I try to catch my runaway breath. My heart is pounding fiercely and my skin iridescent with sweat. Did I tell you it’s intensely cardio-vascular?

There is a firm kindliness in the encouragement towards inner discipline.   We’re urged not to fiddle with our hair, wipe sweat from our faces but to accept what is in the moment.  “Sweat stinging in your eyes?” Welcome to Bikram.  “Feeling overwhelmed by the heat and a desperate thirst as you scrabble for your water bottle?”  Hey, welcome to Bikram.  But there’s a bracing sense of accomplishment as you overcome each small niggling discomfort and learn to set it aside in favour of a far larger achievement: entering into an individual practice within the context of the community practicing around you.  Mindfulness of other people’s space, concentration and privacy is encouraged as much as focussing on one’s own personal practice. What is so wonderful about Bikram yoga is that you can be a complete novice or an experienced practitioner of many years and still do the same class and get as much out of it.  It is as is commonly understood in yoga circles:  it’s not nailing each posture that is the thing, it’s getting onto the mat that is the true accomplishment. Maintaining dedication and honouring of your practice.

After class, the mood is sober and inward, there is no jolly jostling and high-spirited whoops of the aerobics class here, but more of a quiet reflective mood as people prepare to enter back into their lives. I feel utterly finished. I catch another woman’s eye and manage to smile as we exchange an identical mad look that says “I never want to do anything like that ever again. Can’t wait for my next class.” The changing room is charged with the satisfied air of addicts secretly trading their hits.

After 3 months of practicing 3 times a week, I’ve found there are some key phrases which have offered me insights into life beyond the realm of Hot Bikram:

  1. Keep your eyes open and stay in the room. In other words, remain present and alive to the moment, whether it happens to be the unglamorous reflection of your puce-coloured face plastered with damp hair, or the triumph of for once maintaining an elegantly fine balance in Standing Tree. Don’t judge it either way.  In between the energetic concentration and focus needed to perform each pose and the inevitable segue into the next, there is no opportunity to escape into your analytic head. This is oddly restful and brain-clearing.
  2. This is a moving meditation. Which at its best passes seamlessly from one state to another, from movement into stillness and back again.  We spend so much time in our lives efforting hard to achieve our various tasks of the day, that we get all caught up in go-go-go neglecting to counterbalance this with the relaxation of remaining quiet and doing nothing.  There is a lot to be said for the practice of interspersing regular tiny breaks between bouts of hard work –  Standing Mountain during the standing poses and of course my treasured Shavasana during the floor sequences. I should know.  Can’t see why the odd Shavasana wouldn’t work on the office floor, either.  God knows stuff arrives in one’s inbox that makes one want to adopt Corpse pose immediately.
  3. Open Your Heartspace.   So many of the poses call for this. That, along with push your pubic bone up to your belly button and pull your chest through your raised arms.  I so want to believe they are speaking metaphorically. But no.  Camel pose has me trembling with breathlessness and fear like a sacrificial offering, baring my heart to what feels like a cruel indifferent sky. They do warn you this might happen.  And I won’t even begin to tell you what I can’t do with my pubic bone.
  4. Just because something isn’t pleasurable, doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.  Huh? Yup. That took me a while to get my head around too. 

Returning to my first class, though.  As I lay in final Shavasana, feeling wrung out, drenched and seething sweat, I added tears to my already wet face – not that anyone would have noticed.  In the purged clarity of mind I felt, I wondered what these might be about.   A deep sense of coming home to my body welled up within me, this was my body’s gratitude.  And with it, came the oxygen rush of falling newly in love.  With something entirely out of character, I might add.  I can’t say this is my usual thing, ask any of my friends, but it seems to have something to do with opening my heartspace. It’s a love affair that sure knows how to hold my attention and keep me coming back for more. Makes the rebellious part of me that insists this is the last damn thing I need, melt.