Autumn 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 221-233.

Blanche M. Gallagher:
      A Yoga "Advance" on Mt. Hiei

An American artist discovers spiritual beauty and human warmth during a yoga workshop in a Zen Buddhist temple near the ancient capital of imperial Japan.

Widely known for her workshops and retreats, Sr. Blanche Gallagher, B. V.M., is professor of art at Mundelein College, Chicago. She has researched art and spirituality in the major centers of East and Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States, and has exhibited her paintings in America and Japan.


I realized that I must be very late for the beginning exercises when I saw three long rows of shoes carefully arranged with the toes pointing away from the step. I added my shoes to the fourth row. A smiling Japanese man held out his hand to help me jump over the procession of shoes onto the steps. He offered to introduce me to Sukhoda-san, the director of the yoga "advance." The Japanese refer to experiences of protracted meditation and prayer which compare to our retreats as "advances."

Sukhoda-san seemed a bit wary of this Western woman who wished to join his yoga group for four days.

"Do . . . you . . . meditate?" he asked, carefully considering each word in English.

I nodded. Sukhoda-san had recently returned from three year's study of yoga in India. I found him flanked by his wife who was collecting the modest fee (about $7.00) and the Buddhist priest of the temple.

After rising from the kneeling position in which we had conducted our business, I bowed from the waist and walked away to explore the monastery, one of the many belonging to the famous Enryaku-ji temple complex at the base of the sacred Mount Hiei, outside of Kyoto, Japan.

I had been residing in Kyoto for several months as the guest of American sisters who were working in Japan, while I pursued my research relating the art of Japan to its Shinto and Buddhist spiritual roots. My dream of entering a zendo to experience this tradition in my own body had been cut short by their policy of "View Declined" (the English signs posted outside the zendos).

Before the onslaught of American hippies in the sixties, the Buddhist monks, like their counterparts the Benedictine monks, maintained a policy of shelter for the pilgrim. By the time I had arrived, they had found this ideal untenable unless the pilgrim spoke fluent Japanese. My disappointment was evident, and a Japanese woman religious invited me to accompany her to a yoga "advance" which wouldn't require fluency in the language.

The wooden temple followed the classic plan of most ancient temples. This one, spacious and cool in its setting, was surrounded by sixty-foot virgin cryptomeria trees. Hiei had boasted three thousand temples in the height of its glory in the twelfth century. The remaining one-hundred fifty were scattered through this bastion which had protected the northeast corner of the sacred city of Kyoto for more than twelve hundred years.

I checked immediately to find the lotus pond and the rock garden -- I yearned for these serene places of prayer. I knew that the lectures would be given in Japanese and since I did not speak the language, I had brought a stack of books on yoga from the best Hindu sources. I expected to sit by the lotus pond to study and meditate.

But first, Mrs. Sukhoda proffered her services for a tour of the temple precincts. Her interest centered around the kitchen area. She showed me the clay-built stoves with storage areas for huge soup cauldrons. By some miracle of conversation in halting English and Japanese, she communicated the information that our meals would be catered. The Japanese masterfully interweave the ancient with the new.

She pointed out the all-important lavatory, the most primitive part of every establishment from my point of view. The Japanese place a high priority on cleanliness, but sewers are excluded. (Incense in the monasteries has a practical as well as symbolic function!) The public bath in the adjacent small town would be used for bathing in true Japanese fashion.

We returned to the huge main hall, an empty tatami-covered floor about one hundred feet by fifty feet enclosed by the usual shoji (sliding paper-covered doors), separating it from the exterior verandah. Straw tatami mats would be "home" for the next four days, since the flooring serves as chair, bed, table and prie-dieu. The two-finger-thick straw matting has a certain bounce which supports the body perfectly for the yoga positions. The faint smell of fresh fields and of incense came to me as I pressed my nose to the mat in a prone position and began to limber up on the "snake" posture. At last I felt a part of a true Eastern monastery!

About seventy persons had gathered in the great hall of the monastery. They ranged in age from ten to eighty, about two-thirds women.

A young woman smiled shyly at me. I returned the smile, certain of the exquisite courtesy of these lovely people.

A middle-aged business man arrived for the beginning exercises. He casually dropped his black attaché case on one of the mats, slipped off his coat, tie, shirt, and trousers, folded them into a neat pile beside him and, clad in a white muslin stetico, took up the first position. The women wore Western slacks and shirts.

Sukhoda-san appeared before the hushed group in Western shorts and tee shirt. The priest, clad in kimono, wore a large Buddhist rosary around his neck.

We began by separating the adepts from those with no previous experience. The first exercises emphasized relaxation after the pressures of the day. Since I didn't understand the language, I managed very well by watching the woman next to me and doing the postures one count behind her. We became a team as she sensed that she was my English interpreter; she smiled and nodded her encouragement. The extremely simple postures began in dreadfully slow motion to this quick-moving American. The discipline of the slowest kind of physical movement echoes the Japanese dance and Noh drama.

After the second hour we began to gear up with more difficult positions. The asanas, or postures, achieve body suppleness, which is important for maintaining the meditation posture. The triangle which brings maximum stability to the body enables the proficient yogi to sit in meditation for long periods of time without fatigue. It frees the internal organs for maximum play and control. Thus, the "lotus posture" and the "hero posture" of meditation make it possible for attention to be focused exclusively on the states of consciousness.

As I was trying to maintain the "plough" (lying on my back slowly moving my legs upward till my toes touched the floor behind), Sukhoda-san appeared. I found that he knew three more words of English. With much emphasis and great kindness he stood over me and said, "Please . . . be . . . CAREFUL!" I felt that he had visions of this Western woman collapsing in a dead faint. It is commonly assumed, usually correctly, that Westerners do not possess as great a capacity for protracted discipline as the Japanese.

Because the exercise period was prolonged, some groups began to sit together and chat quietly while others continued to assume the postures. Finally I heard the wooden Buddhist bell, its hollow sound beginning with a slow rhythm, then building to a fast tempo. The women rose and walked out to the verandah, the long wooden corridors which connect the various parts of the temple. Beautiful vermillion lacquered boxes were piled on carts. This was dinner.

I offered to help set the boxes precisely in place along the ribboned edge of the mats so that thirty-five people faced thirty-five people down the length of the room. Sukhoda-san and the priest took their places at the head of the group. As they assumed the Japanese position of sitting on their heels, the group waited for the blessing of the food by the Buddhist priest.

As I took my place, I admired the painted brush-work top of the vermillion lacquered box and removed the cover. The inside reminded me of an expensive box of candy; gold lacquered sections separated the bits of steamed fish, sculptured vegetables, and arrangements of pickles. Each bite of food was arranged as a beautiful thing to view. The Japanese are fond of saying that they "eat with their eyes." I pulled out the bottom drawer of the box and found it full of hot rice. Hot tea was served in handleless cups. My companions complimented my ability to use the chopsticks. (I had become quite adept through sheer hunger!) They watched to see which things I ate, then replenished this morsel from their boxes. They were truly concerned about my ability to sustain myself with their food.

A touch of autumn was in the breeze as we walked around the monastery grounds after dinner before the introductory lecture. Then everyone seemed ready for bed after the short session.

The 'beds' were piled on the verandah outside another large meeting room adjacent to ours. The men, quick to take command of the operation of bringing in the mats, placed them on the tatami rectangles in rows. The heavy firm mat, rather like a gymnastic mat used for tumbling in the West, was covered with a highly decorative silk futon or quilt. The pillow was a hard cylindrical silk-covered roll stuffed with rice chaff.

As some of the men placed the mats in rows across the room, others made their night preparations by inconspicuously slipping into their yucatas or sleeping kimonos. These stiffly starched cotton kimonos furnished by the temple carried the emblems of the temple block-printed on them in tasteful designs. The night ensemble included a short wool jacket, two disposable paper slippers, and a plastic toothbrush with the toothpaste already applied. Hospitality is very important in a Buddhist temple. The guest is highly respected, and the inn provides for all needs.

Following the example of my peers, I chose a bed on the end of a row and slid under the quilt to slip into my yucata. Then Sukhoda-san began to call the yoga postures over again. We stretched and relaxed on top of the quilts until ten o'clock. In the dark I listened to the buzzing of the insects on the lotus pond.

The morning exercises began at 5:30. I dressed under the cover of the quilt and felt that my experiences gained from dressing in the upper berth of a U.S. pullman were bearing fruit.

We learned the series of postures called "salute to the sun," which seemed like a ritualistic dance at dawn in this mountain temple. After an hour of stretching and inversion postures, we lined up on the verandah. My curiosity was evident. A young man held his hands in the Western form of prayer. Then I realized that I was on my way to pray in the Buddhist temple.

We climbed a steep set of stairs to the anteroom of the temple dedicated to AnĚda Buddha. I dropped back to the end of the line; I was not eager to chant the sutras in the first row.

The priest, clad in ornate vestments, received the faithful. They filed onto the tatami in rows, and sat on their heels while the priest pounded the wooden drum. Its curiously hollow sound was paced very slowly at first, then increasingly faster. The priest intoned the sutras while the group took up the refrain. A quiet rain fell outside the paper shoji; the sounds, the incense, the intense concentration of the devotees created an awesome sense of sacred space.

The sutras finished, meditation proper began. We sat, relaxed but unmoving for an hour. The priest moved through the group carrying a stick which seemed menacing, but used it only as a device to encourage the initiates to straighten their backs. The pranya (vital breath) only travels through a spinal cord that is totally straight. This motionless sitting, called zazen, is necessary for contemplation. I watched the feet of the man in front of me turn purple from lack of circulation. The total discipline was very impressive.

The temple complex was of the Tantric Tendai sect, dedicated to Fudo Myo-o. His statue on the middle altar reminded the visitor that this "king of light" subjugates evil and evildoers through the sheer force of his wrath. Fudo was presented in the midst of flames "trembling not." Discipline is of primary importance. The initiate sits immobile in contemplation "trembling not" in order to achieve the unification of consciousness.

We filed downstairs in silence after the meditation. It was 8:30 and the breakfast boxes were lined up on the floor. My smaller but no less elaborate box contained an egg roll, a bit of cold fish, some cabbage pickles and bits of ginger. The bottom drawer was filled with cold rice. Steaming bowls of fish soup were passed around, and hot tea was served.

The group stayed in the main room for the lecture. I watched Sukhoda-san put breathing diagrams on the board, and realized that he would talk about raising Kundalini, a method of unblocking the spinal centers through rhythmic breathing exercises and concentration. Walking out to the heavily-eaved area around the lotus pool, I began my own research on the breathing methods peculiar to the practice of yoga. I had been a yoga enthusiast for ten years, since the beginning of my interest in Asian art. Although I had practiced many of the breathing methods described in the books translated into English, I wished to learn more about the ancient physical experiences which date back to prehistoric India.

The exquisitely melancholy rain continued to fall on the lotus pool. It was a typical Japanese day -- the type of lingering sweet sadness that is cherished. The natives assure you that Japan is most beautiful in the rain. Their desire for rain on a special occasion is another of the opposite concepts that Westerners find puzzling. But it is true -- the lush green foliage is particularly beautiful when washed by quiet rain, and all the fascinating sounds of nature are magnified in the serene stillness. Japan is truly a country which must be experienced with all the senses.

Sukhoda-san appeared and knelt beside me. I asked him if my breathing technique was correct. He took great pains to demonstrate and watch until I was assured that I was practicing the breathing exercises correctly. Hatha (ha-sun; tha-moon) yoga is basically a practice of exercising the torso; the asanas are positions taken in order to massage different organs within the torso through breath control. In this way yoga is totally different from Western exercises, which usually stretch the muscles. We practiced alternate nostril breathing, different "rounds" of breathing, "purifying breaths" and many other variations.

Lunch consisted of ten diminutive rice balls filled with vegetables, a cup of seaweed soup and a cup of tea. The ritual was the same, the boxes equally beautiful in arrangement. I began to realize that I was going to have to find an excuse to walk to the village to find some food.

The afternoon lecture continued as Sukhoda-san discussed the method of raising Kundalini, awakening the life force conceived as the female energy of the god Shiva. This is achieved through methods of breathing and concentration on the seven chakras, or vital centers of the body.

I retired to my private lotus pond. The young assistant sought me and asked permission to speak with me. With three formal bows I assured him that I was delighted to talk with him. His question was formulated slowly while he wrestled with the English syntax: "Do . . . you . . . eat . . . meat?"

I nodded an affirmative.

"You . . . have . . . fat . . . knees."

Thus he explained to himself the reason for my inability to maintain the Japanese posture of sitting on my heels for endless hours. I smiled. This was as good a reason as any for my arthritic knees. It might be a medical breakthrough.

There were more adventures. The women came out to claim me; Mrs. Sukhoda had suggested that they take me to the public bath.

The bath is a pleasant, ancient ritual. Public baths are provided by the cities within each several square blocks. All, even the wealthy, prefer them to a private bath at home. They are open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Neighbors meet at the bath before the evening meal to discuss the events of the day. The clip-clop of wooden clogs down the street announces the arrival of the whole family: mother, father, grandparents and children in blue and white cotton kimonos carrying small wooden pails and abbreviated towels.

Slipping out of their shoes on the verandah, men and women separate and use different entrances. Inside, a woman at a high desk collects a small fee. I followed my friends, undressed, placed my clothes in a basket, put the basket into a locker and slipped the key around my neck. The small towel was draped around my neck.

The interior of the bath was beyond the sliding glass doors, a sparkling clean white tile room about twenty-four by thirty feet. One wall had a row of low faucets, a foot above the floor, each with a shower head just above it. I assumed the kneeling Japanese posture, filled the bucket with warm water from the faucets, and soaped my body completely, rinsing with fresh water from the bucket sprayed across my shoulders. The shower heads were used only for shampoos.

Then I stepped into one of the four pools to soak and relax. The pools, six feet square and about five feet deep, have fresh water pouring into the drain. Fresh water was constantly replaced and replenished. The women turned cold water into the bath when I appeared, for they knew that Westerners can't tolerate the exceedingly hot water which they prefer. A small ledge was built into the side, so that the bather could sit in the water at shoulder height and enjoy contemplating the arrangements of large plants and the aquarium of tropical fish. I learned from subsequent visits, after my initiation in and addiction to the Japanese bath, that these are a government design, and are identical throughout the country.

Everyone was thoughtful of my convenience. The Japanese, while still very young, learn never to look at another person, for modesty is a necessary attribute in this overcrowded country. One also learns that they see everything, however, for they are very curious about foreigners. I heard snatches of shiro (white), Gaijin (outsider, foreigner), and ooki des ne! (isn't she huge!).

The luxury of floating in the warm water made the conversation seem far away. Total relaxation. My flushed face concerned my companion -- she motioned for me to follow her. Gracefully walking over to the faucets she filled the wooden bucket with cold water and splashed it over my shoulders. After I cooled off, we went back to the pool. The small towel around her neck was dripping; I had carefully stored mine in a safe dry corner of the room. After the half hour of soaking and relaxing, my companion climbed out of the pool, squeezed her towel and began drying her body. She replaced the towel around her neck, for the nape of the neck is the erotic part of the female body to the Japanese -- it is this that they keep covered even in the bath.

We dressed and I emerged onto the street, unbelievably refreshed, relaxed -- and famished! I motioned that I had some business in a store, waved the others on, and gorged myself with two tiny candy bars.

This was cheating, for I knew that we'd be exercising with a vengeance when we returned to the temple. One is never to practice the breathing exercises of hathayoga until three hours after eating; the exercise of the abdominal muscles can induce vomiting. I promised myself that I would eat all the rice at each meal the next day.

With this relaxing bath behind us, we all worked on individual postures and tried some of the advanced twists. I wished to learn the head stand. While struggling to get my body in the air, I felt my feet being lifted and held perpendicular to the floor.

A tiny Japanese woman smiled into my upside-down face.

"How many kilo?" she asked.

It was difficult to transpose my weight into kilos with the blood running to my head, but I gasped, "Sixty, I guess."

She laughed as she supported me in mid-air. "Me, forty kilo."

Eighty-eight pounds supporting me. I learned later that she had been tubercular most of her adult life, and had found the yoga exercises a strengthening cure.

Dinner followed just before dark. I was beginning to enjoy the rhythm of this experience: bath, yoga, dinner, lecture, yoga, bed.

On the third day I awoke to Sukhoda-sans voice calling the positions; this time I came alive without any tension in my body. I had spent a totally relaxed night on the floor. The morning sun was rising brilliantly; we greeted it as a group of seventy-two, each of us sharing the glory of creation in our own way in this land of the rising sun.

Dressed, we again proceeded to the temple, sat in zazen and spent Sunday morning in contemplation "trembling not." Christ was very near in the stillness of this Buddhist temple deep in the side of the mountain which had been sacred to the Japanese since the eighth century after Jesus' appearance on earth.

The Hindu tradition, of which Buddhism is a protestant sect, considers Jesus to be an avatar of Vishnu. The Christian is welcomed and respected in the monastery. I joined my "Jesus' mantra to the others that were being chanted in the heart of each participant. I felt deep strength in this planetary praise of God.

Sunday was an intense day of exercise and concentration. We were all well into the spirit of the "advance," each finding the body answering with more relaxed flexibility as this sinuousness entered into the spirit and mind. The day progressed with the same horarium, but with many vibrations growing within the group.

Suddenly there was a call for everyone to report at the gate. The ubiquitous photographer had arrived. It is most important for the Japanese to keep mementoes of experiences through group pictures. We were marshalled out to the front steps of the Shiga-in, lined up, and shot. Orders were immediately taken for the pictures which would be delivered the same evening.

I was eager to participate in the bath ritual again that afternoon, for I viewed it as part of the purification ceremony of yoga. The ancient books contain many practices of purification to promote the health of different parts of the body; we had concentrated on the breathing purifications. The bath was followed by dinner with no variation in menu or ceremony.

The variation was obvious after dinner. We formed a large circle around the perimeter of the room. A group session began. Each person shared his reasons for wishing to become adept at yoga, a difficult ceremony for the participants. The Japanese are comfortable performing in a group, but are reluctant to be singled out for individual attention.

Because I was not able to understand the testimonials, I retired to my lotus pond to ask myself the same questions and to ponder them in the dark stillness. My answer was three-fold: the correctness of eliciting the body's aid before and during prayer which brings a positive aspect to "mortification" as it is known in the West; the vitality that flows from the asanas, with the flexibility and suppleness of body and mind which results from this control; and the increased ability at contemplation (samadhi), the union achieved at the center of oneself when raised to a higher form of consciousness. I have practiced the Western monastic versions of prayer for many years; the insights of the East are most energizing and valuable.

We retired early this last night, for many would leave the temple to return to work the next day. I was fortunate, for I was able to remain for another day as part of a smaller group. We had Sukhoda-san all to ourselves. It was rewarding to watch the shy Japanese women grow with his kindliness. They infrequently received this kind of individual attention.

Sukhoda-san had one last piece of excellent advice for me which concerned my face. The face of the true adept shows no strain, either in the practice of the asanas or in the practice of life. This was a pertinent comment for me; I resolved thereafter to wear a serene countenance.

By mid-afternoon Sukhoda-san was to leave. I gathered my things into my small bag, waved my fellow initiates farewell, and walked back down the aisle of lanterns away from Enryaku-ji, the sacred mountain, towards Kyoto.