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A chat with Tomo Okabe, visiting Jivamukti teacher from Japan

Tomo Okabe is here in London finishing his European Tour. He stopped in to the hospital to say hello last night and made my day. Don’t miss his inspiring, heartfelt teachings while he’s in London; I will definitely be there in spirit!

Sat Oct 26th, 19-22pm Black Light Yoga: A Jivamukti Class and Dance Event (location and directions found thru link above) Sun Oct 27th, 1.30-4.30pm Indaba Yoga Studio: Jivamukti workshop with Tomo Okabe!


ME: Tell me a little bit about how you came to find your yoga path/practice?

TOMO: Well, it was 2004 , and at that time I was an actor in Korea. For the role I had to start working out and putting weight on. So what happened was I started working out at a gym, and every evening they had yoga classes. I would always peak in on the classes, but I was a little intimidated, it seemed so…feminine…but I was interested. My trainer actually told me it would help to tone my muscles and be good with the weight training, it would lengthen my muscles whereas weight training would shorten them. I was super stiff, couldn’t touch toes. It was very difficult. I got a little frustrated with myself and I thought , you know what, I’m gonna prove something. I started practicing every day. Then the gym closed had to find a yoga studio. That’s how it took off.

ME: So you were living in Korea?

TOMO: My dad’s Japanese, my mom’s Korean. I was born in Japan, then moved to Korea for a bit and went to an American School since 3rd grade when we moved to Korea.

ME: Why did you attend the American School?

TOMO: Well, it’s a funny thing. In Japan you have to go to school on Saturdays, and my brother had started going to American School before me; he had Saturdays off. So he started coming into my room on Saturdays and reading my comics and going through my stuff; I was annoyed.

I told my mom that the world was becoming international and I really needed to know how to speak English. I was in second grade, would you believe that? By halfway through third grade I also switched to American School. That really opened up a lot of doors for me.

ME: That’s a pretty smart little boy to get Saturdays off. And did you find a yoga studio after your gym closed?

TOMO: It was around 2004. there were 2 yoga studios in Korea at that time. The first studio didn’t click with me even though they had a teacher training and lots of classes. It just didn’t feel right.

ME: What kind of yoga was it?

TOMO: Well, it was a slow kind of hatha. Korea has an interesting mix of hatha, or ‘so called’ hatha with meditation, no ujjayi, no vinyasa. But learning this at the gym was such a good foundation, my teacher at the gym did a lot with the breath and encouraged the out breath and extension.

The second studio was much more for me. I decided to go every day, morning and night. The first class was at 7am, the last class, 8pm. Sometimes I had to miss because i was filming all day long, but I went as often as I could.

ME: You were acting at that point?

TOMO: I was doing soap operas and sitcoms. In Korea the soap operas aren’t in the daytime, they show them at night, primetime. So I’d film during the day, and sometimes I didn’t have time, but whenever I had time I went to yoga class.

ME: How old were you?

TOMO: I started acting when I was 19, but by this time i was 24.

ME: Wow, that’s impressive, you were doing a lot of television work for a young guy. So what happened after that?

TOMO: I was really hooked, and my yoga teacher encouraged teacher training. I wasn’t interested…to me yoga was a lifestyle and I didn’t want someone to teach me how to live, but then they gave it to me for free. They were trying to promote their teacher training with my name since people knew me from tv.

ME: What kind of teacher training was it?

TOMO : It was a lot like JIvamukti, but less on the asana side and  very heavy on philosphy and kriya. it really helped me when i did my Jivamukti teacher training in 2009.

ME: So you did do the Korean Teacher Training it in the end? What year was it?

TOMO: It was 2005. So then in 2006 I went to Tokyo wanted to experience some yoga in Japan. There was a very popular studio called Lotus 8 and Jules Febre from Jivamukti was teaching  an assists workshop. The ad read “Jules Febre, from New York, the Magician of Assists.” It was limited to 8 people and I decided to go. It sounds kinda corny now in retrospect, but they got me with it, and that’s how i got into Jivamukti. I was already a vegan (one of the kriyas is about fasting and after the I did the kriya fast during the first teacher training I didn’t eat meat again. Then I started to learn to eat macrobiotically and went to Japan to receive these macrobiotic teachings. Jules connected veganism and yoga for me. We became friends, I invited Jules back and every 6 months he would come back and teach. Jules kept trying to invite me to teacher training but i couldn’t due to all the work. After 3 years i finally did it. In 2009 I went to New York to do the Jivamukti teacher training.

ME: Where do you consider ‘home’?

TOMO: Wherever I am is home. Everywhere that I go people care. The satsang of Jivamukti is so compassionate and caring i feel like I’m home whenever I’m with the satsang. Japan is where I hang my hat.

ME: Are you finished your days of soap operas?

TOMO: No more soap operas or sitcoms, but there is one movie I’m working with a writer. We’ll see, I thought I’d do a movie and then really stop.

ME: Who are your primary teachers?

TOMO: I consider myself to have four or actually five main teachers: Sharon-ji and David-ji; Jules, who shows me the path of yoga by living by example; my first Korean yoga teacher; and Lady Ruth, my apprenticeship mentor of 800 hrs. She is soft and hard, that blew me away. It’s kind of a nice story, how she became my mentor.

After teacher training, in 2009, I was staying with a friend in New York. She invited me to Ananda Ashram, where Ruth was doing a retreat with her husband. We asked Lady Ruth if we could join for a class, and she said yes, just to make a donation to ashram. Jessica Perry was the assistant during the retreat, and she did the dharma talk for the class. There was a story about a little bird and a mother bird. The story went that the mother bird makes the right environment for the little bird, but doesn’t ‘make’ the little bird fly. The mother bird builds the nest and feeds the little bird, and creates the right environment. the mother bird can’t help the little bird fly out of the nest, but she can prepare and encourage the little bird. After the class I asked Lady Ruth to be my nest.

She said it would take a little while, but yes, she would be my mentor. So after waiting a year, I moved to new York to do the apprenticeship for 3 months with Lady Ruth. It was transformational. She sees the beauty in everything. Anything I did, even the mistakes I made, she saw the beauty in all of it and knows how to overcome judgement. I saw the path of yoga. Technically I learned a lot from Jules, but the ease of living, the ease of teaching a class, even the natural way of sharing a story I feel I learned from Lady Ruth.

ME: Any teachers or practices outside of Jivamukti that you follow regularly?

TOMO: I go to Mysore to take classes with Saraswati Jois. Lady Ruth’s guru. Any guru of my guru is also my guru. I have a relationship with her now, I invited her to Japan, and students become the bridge for us to keep in touch.

ME: What is it like to practice in Japan?

TOMO: In japan yoga existed already 40 years ago, combined with zen and pilates and meditation. It took a big hit when in 1993 there was a terrorist cult named AUM that hit several locations with gas attacks. A lot of people died and were very badly permanently injured. The scene went dead for a large part of the 1990s.

The American scene and Hollywood started to catch on, Duncan Wong came out to Asia with his martial arts, vinyasa-style yoga, and it caught on because it was very trendy. The vinyasa scene came with the IT boom. and a growing expat scene. Around 2004-2005 a lot of yoga studios opened. Even today, the scene isn’t as large, but there is such an influx of teachers and people teaching from their homes. There are some studios that have classes in English, and a wide variety of styles. So far there is no Jivamukti school, but there is an affiliate outside of the city, and we are trying to set up a second in Tokyo.

ME: Tell me a little bit about how you frame your classes?

TOMO: I always look to the Jivamukti Focus of the Month. I get ideas about some themes I could talk about. I play the harmonium and chant, I choose the chants, make the playlist, then I visualize how the songs will shift the energy of the class. At the end of the day, all the teaching and framing sometimes thrown out of the window and I just go with the flow. Being able to attend my teachers’ classes as often as possible ultimately becomes my foundation for classes I teach.

ME: When you are not practicing yoga, what are you doing?

TOMO: Well, I own a company making custom earphones for musicians. They have kind of taken off and now it ‘s mainstream thing, not just for musicians. I’m not so dependent on the teaching, it’s good because it makes me less stressed about money.  Sometimes teachers get dependent on privates, or teaching fifteen or sixteen classes a week, but then there is no time to practice or really enjoy teaching.

ME: Tell me a little bit about your European tour…

TOMO; I get a lot of invites from people who believe and trust in word of mouth. It started with a 2 week private I had schedule in London. The grace of other people who care to share these teachings brought everything together. I decided to visit Petros in Munich and took on some of his classes when he went away, and then Bern, Switzerland extended an invitation as did Paris. One thing built upon another. Charlie Kelly told me about his concept of Black and Light Yoga, incorporating yoga and dance.

My dear friend Emma Henry connected me to Ellen from Indaba Yoga studio, and I was invited to teach there. Emma promoted me in her classes around London and also opened up her home to me. Nothing would be possible without opening up and trusting enough of teachers and studios to send an invitation; and nothing is as powerful as having the voice of another teacher.  With the grace of the teachers, to be able to take the time to learn the teachings together. So many people are open. With an invite it is an open offer, like visiting friends. It’s different, to say I’m going to be there, in your town, versus, a friend or fellow teacher’s request to come. It’s what Sharon-ji talks about when she says dare to care. Be welcome. Share.

Sign up now for Tomo’s Jivamukti Workshop at Indaba Yoga Studio and the evening yoga and dance event, Black and Light Yoga, and avoid missing your chance to meet Tomo!

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