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Closing & Opening the Year with Mindfulness
Be in the Moment with Meditation and Yoga Practices in Kyoto

We're all aware of the phrase ''New Year, New You'' and the practice of making new year's resolutions after saying farewell to the bad habits of the old year, but how often do we stick to those promises? Maybe we just want to undo a few undesirable habits that have been picked up through previous years. Either way, humans are creatures of habit, even if some of those habits aren't necessarily good for us. Here's where ''mindfulness,'' the practice of paying more attention to the present moment, comes in.

Matsu Sho An, Photo by Russel Wong

Kyoto is Japan's wellspring of cultural and religious heritage. Coming to Kyoto offers a chance to explore the world’s new-found fascination with meditation and mindfulness and experience for yourself the proposed benefits it can have on one's mental and physical wellbeing. KVG visited two tourist-friendly sites in the city to see for ourselves what effects, if any, meditation had on us...

Meditative Morning at Shunko-in Temple
It's long been considered in Zen Buddhism that mindfulness helps us to develop an awareness of our internal state, allowing us to focus in on the present moment and deal with stress more effectively so helping us to keep our tricky resolutions, but it is also now being discussed amongst scholars and scientists too.

At Shunko-in Temple, Rev. Takafumi Kawakami leads daily meditation classes and temple tours. As soon as you enter the modest tatami room, set up with lines of small round floor cushions, overlooking a beautiful Zen garden, Kawakami-san tells you to forget any and all preconceptions or stereotypes that you have about meditation. He looks around the room, watching the participants sitting on the floor (of which we were around 30-40) telling us again to forget our stereotypes. No one moved. Was this a test?

After a few seconds, Kawakami-san laughs and asks why we were all sitting cross-legged. A quick glance around the room and we were. All of us. Every person had made the decision to take up that position. This is what Kawakami-san meant when he said to forget our stereotypes. He explains that our choice to sit in this position was determined subconsciously, programmed by images and ideas depicting meditative states that we have been shown across the years, resulting in a physical manifestation.

He draws upon this as his basis for the class, which starts with a discussion explaining the origins and importance of Zen (Buddhist) meditation for learning how to control one's attention so as to notice your own perspective toward reality and ultimately how we can challenge that perspective to move away from our own self-centered point of view and preconceived notions on various ideas.

Kawakami-san's level of English is exceptional but not surprising once you learn that he spent 8 years studying in the United States. He takes up the half-lotus position on his cushion (one leg at 90 degrees in front of you with the opposite foot resting on the thigh), the ''correct'' meditation position. He explains that humans are no longer used to sitting on the floor and that this position can be very uncomfortable and so, as beginners, it was completely acceptable to move to a chair. His approach to the class was thoroughly modern, even timing the length of the session on his iWatch, whilst discussing neuroscientific research on the capacity of human attention, information he'd ascertained from a peerreviewed paper written by the folks at Harvard University.

Eric Roberts (USA)
I chose to come to Shunko-in as I was really intrigued about what meditation can do for me, I wanted to be a more relaxed and open person.

What struck the participants the most was how lenient we were allowed to be on ourselves, an aspect that was totally different from any preconceived ideas on meditation. Many people might imagine that real monks are far stricter on their performances but Kawakami-san made the session very approachable, informative and easy to continue at home. Our posture was important, sitting with a straight back to allow for deep abdominal breathing, a fundamental part of Zazen (sitting) meditation, hence positioning yourself in a comfortable way that can be maintained throughout the twentyminute session was of key importance.

Head facing forward, eyes focused on a point on the floor around 90-cm in front of your feet is the ideal gaze. Once in position, Kawakami-san begins the meditation by striking a bell four times. Stillness settles over the room. The smell of incense wafts over us and we begin to breathe deep. Most manage a good few minutes before minds wander and before feet start shuffling from the needles beginning to form in the feet... Kawakamisan told us before initiating our meditative bout, ''don't chastise yourselves if you can't keep a clear mind; it is inevitable if you're not accustomed to it. Instead acknowledge your wandering mind and bring it back into focus; focus on your breathing, your posture, your gaze and begin again.'' Twenty minutes went by without so much as a hiccup, then Kawakami-san signaled the end of our session with another chime and a call to stretch our legs. We ended as we set out, with a discussion, this time on how we felt and what we had gained from the experience.

The class left everybody with a sense of calm and clarity. There was a feeling of relaxed alertness and clarity, positive and appreciative that this session had indeed allowed us all to take a pause from everyday stresses. When asked, Kawakami-san's advice on continuing to practice at home is ''Start slowly, the human brain hates adding new habits! Take 3-5 minutes meditating before eating a meal or starting a task. Then, work up to taking 10-20 minutes for your meditation practices in the morning or before you go to bed.''

Shunko-in Temple
Zen meditation and temple tour: 2,500 yen (90 min.)
Every day: 9:30-11:00 (no reservation required)
Zen meditation only: 1,500 yen (60 min.)
Every day: 9:30-10:30
*A bowl of matcha green tea and Japanese sweet will be served at the end of the session.

Nourish the Soul and Revitalize the Body at studio BiNDU
If you'd rather try your hand at something more familiar for your first attempt at mindful meditation, then head to see Mark at studio BiNDU. Combining both yoga practice, an exercise with which most of us are already aware even if we haven't practiced personally, and meditation, the studio is a sanctuary of tranquility where a feeling of comfort washes over you as soon as you enter.

Mark is tall and slim, he has a quiet conviction and a warmth that oozes forth like an old friend you haven’t seen in a while. He tells us that he wanted BiNDU, whose meaning in Sanskrit is the point from which all of reality arises and into which all of reality coalesces and is reabsorbed, to be a place where visiting yogis or those that wish to experience yoga for the first time, can experience this feeling. BiNDU is where people get together for practice and to receive teachings of all kinds; from formal classes and workshops to teachings that can be observed about one's own habits and patterns. The things we can learn from random meeting and the serendipitous converging that can occur between two people, eventually leaving them feeling energized and in tune with the world around them.

Mark explained that, similarly to most people, he initially started practicing yoga for the physical benefits. He was inspired to take it up as a strength and flexibility aid to his study of Okinawan Kempo, a type of Japanese martial arts. Living in Philadelphia in the United States (where he hails from) in a time where there were very few yoga classes being taught, Mark decided to study on his own. Three years later, he attended his first class, where upon finishing the lesson, the teacher asked him, ''Have you ever thought about teaching?'' This set into motion his subsequent journey to fully immerse himself into yogic philosophies and embark upon a path to sharing his experiences through teaching.

Mark was incredibly modest, describing himself as a perpetual student who has been and will continue to learn about his chosen practices; Shaiva Tantra, Indian philosophy and Neelakantha meditation, for which he is one of only 34 teachers in the world qualified to initiate at the first level of this school of meditation. Mark's passion for his lifestyle is undeniable, having been practicing yoga for over twenty years he explains that yoga invites us to bring the usually separate experiences of our body, our breath and our mind into a unity of attention and focus which can disrupt pain, diminish stress and improve self-awareness. All further enhanced by meditation. This transformation opens us up to new and much more efficient and effective ways of meeting our life challenges, enabling us to do so from a place of compassion and contentment.

studio BiNDU
Travelers Pass: 3 Classes for 7,500 yen
Single Drop-in: 3,000 yen (2,000 yen for the first time)
Classes Taught in English by Mark
Monday 14:00-15:15 (Active Restorative)
Thursday 19:00-20:30 (Restorative Vinyasa)
Saturday 10:15-11:30 (Align to Heal)
Sunday 10:30-12:15 (Hatha Yoga + Meditation)

After speaking with Mark and Kawakami-san, even though coming from differing meditative backgrounds, both could not emphasize enough how powerfully transformative meditation can be on one's wellbeing. Each spoke separately of using it as a tool to become more compassionate towards others but also more internally focused and resilient, even after just a flutter of mindful meditation every day. As with most of you, we are not searching for enlightenment but after feeling a true experiential enjoyment from dipping our toe in the vast waters of meditation, we know that it's a practice that will be placed at the top of resolution list. One that we'll definitely be sticking to.

Artisanal exceptional products for meditation and yoga

Shoyeido has produced high quality natural incense in Kyoto for over 300 years. ''Xiang Do Lotus'' is an easy-to-use incense that just made its debut in July 2017. It captures the graceful scent of a lotus flower blooming on an early summer morning. Shokun Misho uses premium Jinko (agarwood) to express celestial purity. It is often the choice of many temples. Available at Shoyeido: Open: 9:00-19:00; www.shoyeido.co.jp

Left: Xiang Do Lotus: 864 yen for 20 incense sticks with a holder

Right: Shokun Misho: 1,620 yen for 20 sticks

Ojami Cushion
The unique shape of an Ojami cushion is inspired by the ancient Japanese beanbag toy called ''otedama'', or ''ojami'' in Kyoto dialect. Handcrafted by skilled Kyoto artisans, Ojami cushions are amazingly comfortable and of a unique geometrical shape. Functionally, these cushions are designed for posture support and correction, as well as to be a beautiful decorative object suitable for any living or working space. Available at Takaokaya: Open: 9:30-18:00 (closed weekends); www.takaoka-kyoto.jp/en/