Ashtanga in Tokyo: Vigorous Workouts with International Yoga Center

By Bonnie Waycott
January 11, 2016
Health & Beauty

Ready for some yoga? Contemplative, peaceful and serene are words we might use to describe this exercise, but a reality check awaits anyone who sits through an ashtanga yoga class at the International Yoga Center, or IYC. If you want to sweat like crazy over a physically demanding workout, this is the place for you.

Among the huge collection of hip and happening yoga studios across the capital, the yoga boom here can seem overwhelming, but a walk to IYC can quiet this cacophony. Nestled behind some backstreets and away from all the crowds, it’s a short five- to 10-minute walk from Omotesando station. 

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I’ve been an on-and-off yoga fiend for a few years and a fan of IYC. Its first studio opened in Ogikubo in 1994, followed by another in Kudanshita/Iidabashi. The Omotesando branch opened in September this year. Recently I tried this spanking-new studio, a warm friendly place with a basic homely atmosphere. It offers traditional Mysore-style yoga classes, as well as lessons to students of all levels searching for a deeper, more traditional practice. Based on ashtanga yoga taught in Mysore, South India, this long-established method is said to internally cleanse the body, align the bones and build strength, flexibility and stamina. The same poses are always done in the same order. It’s a vigorous, athletic style of yoga that may appeal most to those who enjoy a sense of order or who like to do things independently.

The Mysore classes allow students to explore the practice at their own pace and address their own needs. Quietly stepping onto the warm floor, the students unroll their mats and begin, going through a sequence of standing and sitting poses until the instructor quietly guides him or her to the next stage (IYC has a smaller studio in Jimbocho that opens at 10 a.m. for Mysore classes only).

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If you’re new to ashtanga yoga however, IYC offers a variety of taught lessons including hatha and yin yoga, geared toward maintaining inner heat, basic stretching and relaxation. The ashtanga classes are the hardest and most demanding, but fortunately the breezy and cheerful manner of the instructors makes them very approachable for the novice. Demonstrations are held for new students, after which everyone works through the series of standing and sitting poses for an hour and a half. Some instructors will stop everyone during the class and offer explanations, tips and advice on how to improve. There is also no pressure to do the positions that you might find difficult or impossible.

IYC was co-founded by Ken Harakuma, who has been practicing yoga for many years and studied at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India. “You can stretch everything: toes, bones, even your hair. But mostly you stretch the spirit,” he says. On his business card he describes IYC as “Japan’s sanctuary for maintaining a healthy body, a beautiful mind and fiery spirit.”

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Classes are only conducted in Japanese, although some of the instructors speak basic English and a hatha yoga class has recently begun at the Omotesando studio on Sunday afternoons with an English-speaking instructor. A drop-in class costs ¥3,000, or you can purchase a set of four tickets for ¥10,800, 10 tickets for ¥21,600 or 20 tickets for ¥34,500. There is no need to book in advance—simply look at the studio timetable on the website and show up to the class of your choice 15 minutes beforehand. Yoga mats are available to rent for ¥300.

At IYC, the individual is the student, the teacher and the practice itself. No need to set goals of mastering a headstand or placing your feed behind your head. With ashtanga, your heart will guide you! 

The Deets

Address: Omotesando Studio, 5-47-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Tel: None available (please email shop@iyc.jp for inquiries)

Open: Classes usually begin around 9 a.m., with the last classes just after 9 p.m.

Bonnie is a freelance translator and narrator who was born in the UK and lived in Japan for five years as a child. Her interest in marine life began when her father taught her how to snorkel on Sado Island near her mother's hometown in Niigata. She became a certified diver four years ago in New Caledonia, and has been exploring Japan's waters ever since. Her blog, Rising Bubbles, is a comprehensive guide to scuba diving in Japan and also contains articles on marine-related news and events. When she's out of the water she loves running, yoga and the odd yakitori or three!

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