Tokyo, city of narcoleptics: Trains shuttle to and fro, every third or fifth person slack-jawed and unconscious, either slumped over on their seat or suspended on their feet by fellow passengers and force of habit. Chin-chested hunchbacks have taken over the corner seats in coffee shops. The coffee remains untouched until waking.
Yesterday on the train, the woman next to me slumped over onto my shoulder. Four women sat across from our unlikely coupling. Three of them nodded out during the ride, heads all bowed in the same direction and gently rocking in time with the train’s rhythms.
Mind you, this is mid-day, not early morning or late night.
Tokyo is a raw rush of the most intense stimulus on the planet---visual, auditory, sensory. Its inhabitants work ungodly hours, say 10 or 11 in the morning to 10 at night. Their long work days are often book-ended by hour-and-a-half commutes.
When they don’t work, they play. The karaoke houses are 10-story neon citadels. My daily 4:30 a.m. bike ride to yoga takes me past a karaoke center, and every morning, without fail, I pass drunk clusters of people emerging and heading home … doubtless to catch an hour or two of sleep before heading back to work.
The city seems in the grips of a sleeping sickness epidemic, a story from Calvino: People fall asleep in greater and greater numbers, on the trains and in the coffee shops, to be sure, but also in cars and in supermarkets, at their desks and on street corners, in plazas and skyscraper elevators, in parks and building foyers, until one is stepping over gently snoring bodies as one walks down the sidewalk. The three-story video displays, flashing neon signs and lambent window displays go unseen and unheard, their messages blinking and echoing down silent streets. One navigates once-busy train stations on tiptoes, careful not to wake those slumbering. The city’s ever-present background noise, its dull din, becomes the drone of millions of people, gently snoring.
Tokyo is the same as anywhere else. People struggle to fit a practice into their daily lives, juggling jobs, families, commutes, traffic, and winter weather. The yoga explosion in Japan, specifically the ashtanga explosion, mirrored its counterpart in the west, and there are many yoga students. They are passionate, driven, and hungry for information; in typical Japanese fashion, they adopted and adapted at hyper-speed.
There is a glut of yoga teachers, too, many foreigners here as well as budding Japanese teachers who have come to the yoga in the last two or three years. Smelling the money, corporations stepped in and sewed their dollars like dragon-teeth, from which have sprouted across Japan fully formed and ultra-modern yoga studio franchises.
Rents are hideous in Tokyo, so studio maximize all hours of the day. Yoga teachers are on the grind as they are in every big city, many traveling to different yoga studios throughout the day in order to teach two or three people. My flatmate Chama owns and runs his own studio. For a while, he was teaching 25 classes a week. He’s since cut back to 15. His studio opens its doors at 6:30 a.m. and has classes throughout the entire day, sometimes until 10:30 at night. I usually only see Chama in the mid-afternoon when he stops by the flat to eat a bowl of noodles. He then passes out until it’s time to teach the evening’s class.
It would be more unsettling---"the yoga trend," like all trends or fads, will end---if ashtanga weren't so difficult to undertake and so powerful in its results. It will never be too popular because it's simply too fucking hard. It doesn't rely on star teachers to encourage the opening of one's heart chakra. Its effects are immediate and bone-deep; you just have to do it.