Graham Stewart on Teaching English Yoga in Japan
Tara: Hi Graham. I understand that you left Canada 9 years ago to travel to Japan as part of a spiritual journey. Can you tell us how you arrived in your current role as an English yoga teacher?
Graham: It all started when I left a job as a Branch Manager for an International Freight Forwarder in Toronto. I gave up my apartment, sold my new mustang sports car and headed to the mountains in Quebec where my yoga teacher trained. I spent the summer living in my tent studying yoga intensely. It was a change of a life time! I gave up meat, alcohol, caffeine and material thinking. It was the start of my spiritual path! I returned to Toronto teaching yoga in the Toronto Centre and prepared to go to Japan. It was just after the big Sept. 11th tragedy. I arrived in Tokyo with my plane ticket, a little bit of money and a one year working holiday visa. I had no place to live, no job, no language and virtually nothing to eat because I was vegetarian and it was difficult to find food that I could eat. For the first time in my life I ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches! I quickly ran out of money and had to work in an Irish pub as a waiter. Even though I was the only Irish looking person it was hard because there are no tips in Japan.
Tara: So is that when you decided to try teaching English. Or did you go straight to teaching yoga?
Graham: Before I left Canada I found a yoga studio in Tokyo through the internet. When I arrived I visited the studio and arranged to teach regular asana classes and meditation/chanting classes. At one time I was up to over 10 students, but the class was based on donation and the student donations didn’t even cover my train fare. After one year the studio cancelled the class. Usually classes are 3000 yen (USD$30) per person. I learned my lesson to charge money for my services or students take advantage of your kindness. Some students would only give a penny! After the year I focused on teaching English because it was my main source of income and it was really easy to find work.
Tara: When did you start thinking about combining yoga with English?
Graham: Well, I kept my personal practice going and returned to the yoga camp in Quebec many times to do my Advanced Yoga Teacher and Intensive Courses. I have always taught friends privately and I tried many times to start up regular classes again on my own but with no success. I had even done a photo shoot with a Japanese yoga teacher to publish a book, but the publisher went bankrupt. One time over 6 years ago I tried “Yoga in the Park” and posted ads all over the area I was living, but the city official tore down all my ads. Last year some friends asked me to open a regular yoga class because they thought they could get a lot of friends to join, so we started to rent a community room. The class has been successful for over 1.5 years and we have now moved to a yoga studio.
Tara: That’s excellent. What do you think made the difference this time?
Graham: Last year I finally made it to India. A 9 year dream! 3 months to see and experience “Incredible India”. After the trip I felt that it was my time to focus on teaching yoga, so I decided to go to Community and Culture Centres to start classes. I wanted to tap into the market of people instead of starting and building from nothing. Now this fall I have over 10 classes starting throughout Tokyo thanks to the advertising and networking with the Centres and the help of my students.
Tara: It’s great to hear the story of someone taking a chance and achieving a dream, especially when it means combining two passions in a foreign country.
Graham: Yes, it has been a long journey! Over the past 9 years I have taught almost every kind of English class in various schools. I’ve taught university, high school, junior high school, juku (night school for kids), handicapped schools, daycare/nursery, language schools, company classes, private lessons, TOEIC, Tokyo Tax Department, the head of the Bank of Japan, CEOs, actors/actresses, doctors, lawyers, politicians and the list goes on. I really enjoy teaching and I wanted to share my passion of Yoga, so I decided to combine the two.
Tara: Do you really believe that yoga can help people learn English?
Graham: Yoga is a great way to develop focus and concentration which are key tools in learning.
Tara: Do you and your students speak English-only during yoga class, or do you speak Japanese as well? I know you mentioned you were learning Japanese.
Graham: Only I speak. The students listen and follow the instructions in English. I also do the movements with them, so if they do not understand the English they can watch and copy. ESL Yoga is essentially a regular yoga class with easy to follow English using key words and phrases. We also have conversation time before and after the class.
Tara: On twitter I’ve noticed that many of the young Japanese users (practising #twinglish) list yoga as a main interest. Is English yoga a unique program that you offer in Tokyo, or is this a popular class offered around the world?
Graham: When I first came to Japan I only used English because I couldn’t speak Japanese. In time I would mix English and Japanese. Now there are so many Japanese Yoga Teachers that I find Yoga in English to be a niche. There are other foreign teachers living in Japan also teaching yoga in English. Some are very successful with their own studios and communities.
Tara: Are there different levels of English Yoga classes that progress in a series or course, or do you teach a general drop-in class that any level of learner can join?
Graham: At the moment I am teaching classes for the average person, but it would be nice to have the students advance to high levels.
Tara: Do students bring writing tools, such as a notebook and pen?
Graham: Not really. Students may write in their diary at home if they did a new pose that they wanted to remember. Most students come for the yoga and the English is a bonus to the lesson.
Tara: Do you know of any other types of specialty courses that combine English and exercise, such as Hiking in English or Aerobics in English?
Graham: There is an international hiking club and many other clubs around Tokyo and Japan. Some schools in Japan combine drama, cooking, arts and crafts, etc.. with English.
Tara: Have you thought about trying to teach English Yoga online, or is this something that has to be taught face-to-face?
Graham: Yoga is a feeling and that is what I want to give to society. Yoga online would miss this feeling. It would be the same as a student learning from a DVD. There is something special about having a group together and connecting on various levels. There is more to Yoga than you can see!
Tara: Well if anyone ever videotapes your class live, I hope you’ll publish it online for the English learners of our sister site, English Club. MyEC has a video gallery, and there are probably thousands of learners who would love to see a yoga demo in English. Best of luck with your unique career.
Contact Graham or learn more about English Yoga classes in Tokyo:
Yoga in English on Facebook
September 2010 | Filed under Interviews
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.
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