Several years ago when I lived in Japan, a yoga studio opened up near my work. I was pretty stressed out at the time and starting to get tension headaches, and I thought this would be a great way to help reduce my stress. I had done yoga a few years prior, so I wasn't a total beginner, and my Japanese was at a high enough level that I felt pretty confident I could handle a yoga class in Japanese. How hard could it be?
So I signed up — after assuring the very helpful yet slightly concerned staff that I could handle an all-Japanese language yoga class, no worries! — and started going twice a week. And I was right, it really wasn't too hard to understand what was happening and what I needed to do… but it also wasn't the immediately relaxing experience I had signed up for, at least at first.
All together, the series provides an excellent foundation for Japanese language yoga lessons, and includes information I wish I had known when I first started.
In this article, I'll share my experiences taking beginner and intermediate yoga classes in Japan so that you'll have a better idea of what to expect in a Japanese yoga class before you even unroll your mat. First I'll go through some of the things that I found challenging as a Japanese language learner, then recommend some Japanese yoga resources available online and introduce some of the vocabulary commonly used in lesson titles and descriptions. Whether you take in-person classes or do some online, I hope that this article helps you feel more prepared to give yoga lessons in Japanese a try.
This is also the first part of a series Learn by Doing! Vocab to Jumpstart Your Japanese Yoga Journey, which aims to be a guide for doing yoga classes in Japanese. The other articles in this series are more vocabulary-focused and will explore the types of words and phrases you can expect to hear in a Japanese yoga class. All together, the series provides an excellent foundation for Japanese language yoga lessons, and includes information I wish I had known when I first started. Be sure to check them out so that instead of worrying about building a linguistic footing, you can focus on your actual footing.
- Challenges of Taking Yoga Classes in Japanese
- Finding Your Footing: How to Get Started with Online Yoga Videos
- Choosing the Perfect Yoga Lesson
- One Step at a Time: Strategies for Learning
Challenges of Taking Yoga Classes in Japanese
There were a few challenges I hadn't taken into consideration when I decided that taking yoga classes in Japanese was definitely going to help me relax and in no way cause me any additional stress or anxiety. In the end, none of these challenges were unsurmountable, but knowing about them ahead of time would have definitely helped me avoid quite a bit of angst in my first few classes.
1. I Don't Even Know the Name of that Bone in English
First, while I knew the Japanese words for most of the parts of the body, I had not realized that I did not know the names for bones or joints, and it became apparent very quickly that yoga teachers use words like scapula, pelvis, tail bone, and hip joint rather a lot. And of course the very nature of yoga necessitates moving said body parts, and it turns out that there are way more ways to say twist and turn and bend and curve and curl than I had ever seen in any textbook.
In most cases, even if I didn't know some of the words she used, I could understand what I needed to do by also watching the instructor demonstrate the pose. However, at some point in every class I would end up in poses with my ear mashed on the mat facing away from the teacher, so definitely it's helpful to know some of the more specialized vocab that comes up in yoga classes.
In the second article in this series, Japanese Vocabulary for Yoga: Body Parts, I cover vocabulary for body parts (including those seemingly-obscure bones), and the third article, Japanese Vocabulary for Yoga: Movements, covers vocab to describe movements and more, so be sure to check them both out.
2. Can't Look Up, or Write Down During Classes
Next — and of course, this would have been obvious if I had just thought about the nature of yoga and yoga classes ahead of time — I was a little stymied by not being able to immediately look up words in a dictionary and write them down. It turns out that when you are in downward dog and trying to tilt your 骨盤 (pelvis) just right, it's very hard to also remember the word こつばん for another hour until you can write it down… so you can hopefully remember it for the next class.
I was a little stymied by not being able to immediately look up words in a dictionary and write them down.
And then there are slippery words like せすじ. I heard this one word all the time and thought it referred to spine, but was pretty sure that せぼね meant spine. So I assumed I was probably wrong, but when I finally remembered to look up this mysterious word that probably didn't mean spine, I couldn't remember exactly what I had heard. Wasn't it せっすじ or せっつじ…? Or maybe it was せすじ or せつじ? Or even せすじん? After many failed attempts, I eventually figured out it was せすじ, and yes, it also refers to the spine.
3. Words That Sound Exactly The Same But Mean Super Different Things
Third, I forgot that Japanese is famous for homonyms. It took me a rather long time to figure out that the word I was hearing in class, じょうたい, was almost never the じょうたい I was familiar with — 状態, meaning situation. Instead, the teacher was nearly always referring to 上体, or upper body.
I also got myself all in a tangle with inhaling and exhaling. Logically, I knew that the phrases 息を 吐いて meant to exhale, but 吐いて sounds similar to 入って, and even though 息を入って is not a phrase or close to being correct in any way, my brain switched the phrase that actually means "exhale" with a phrase it made up that, in an alternate universe, might have meant "enter breath" (= inhale??). And I somehow forever after confused myself and was constantly inhaling on the wrong breath and stressing myself out about it.
4. Even in Your Own Language, Yoga Is Not That Easy!
Lastly, I forgot that even yoga classes in English can be stressful — I definitely like looking like I know what I'm doing, and no matter how many times a yoga instructor says that you shouldn't compare yourself to what someone else is doing… I always do that! And so, while I certainly can't help anyone else not worry about what their downward dog looks like in comparison with their neighbor, or not be anxious that their top is riding up weird, or not be concerned they can't clear their mind in corpse pose — I can definitely help you bypass my months of frenzied anxiety from trying to keep half-remembered words in my head while also contorting my body into triangles and pigeon poses through this series of articles.
Finding Your Footing: How to Get Started with Online Yoga Videos
Given all these challenges, I recommend you begin your yoga journey by starting with online yoga videos. There's plenty of high-quality content available, and given that we're still in the middle of a global pandemic, trying YouTube videos or online classes in the comfort of your own home is a great way to ease yourself into the practice. And of course, online videos allow everyone, including people who aren't in Japan, to learn Japanese while doing yoga. Even if you're interested in taking in-person classes, trying a few online videos would be a good way to get a sense of what to expect.
When trying yoga online, I suggest you start with some shorter videos aimed at beginners, even if you're an experienced yogi, so you can get used to the language and flow of a yoga class in Japanese. Also, instructors in beginner classes often take extra time to explain poses, so if you miss a word or don't understand something, you'll have time to catch up.
Instructors in beginner classes often take extra time to explain poses, so if you miss a word or don't understand something, you'll have time to catch up.
I also recommend trying videos by a few different people so you can find someone who is easy for you to understand. Beyond the vocabulary or grammar they use, each instructor will have a different cadence, volume, and speed of talking. It can be tricky to find an instructor or video series that you like and can also understand easily, but try not to get discouraged. Over time, you may find that your comprehension will get better; one of my favorite instructors spoke really fast, but the more of her classes I went to and the more I heard her speak, the better I was able to understand.
One other point to note: in person and online, instructors often start classes with a short intro, often about what the focus of the lesson will be, or what effect the poses can have. These can often be the most difficult parts to understand, since there isn't much context yet and the vocabulary can be quite technical. I suggest just listening for what you can understand, and use the time to start getting settled.
Especially if you're just starting out, look for videos where the instructors don't do voice-overs, but give instructions while demonstrating the poses as your listening comprehension may increase if you can see the instructor's lips moving. To check, jump ahead past the instructor's introduction to the video, as the voice-over may only start when they begin the lesson.
Also look for videos where the sound quality is very high, with little background noise. You may be able to turn on Japanese captions for videos on YouTube, but these may have errors because they are often auto-generated. I find the captions distracting rather than helpful; I tend to use them only if I missed a new word and really want to go back and figure out what it is!
Here are a few of my favorite Japanese-language yoga resources that are available online.
B-life has over 500 yoga and fitness videos, so there are plenty of options to choose from. The videos are hosted by Mariko, and the catalog includes easier lessons specifically marked for beginners as well as lessons that focus on stretching out particular body parts, reducing stress, waking your body up for the day and calming down before bed. Many lessons are ten to fifteen minutes long, but there are plenty of videos that are forty to sixty minutes long as well.
The B-life website also has section with free, curated video lists called Calendar Program. Like a syllabus of yoga lessons, the downloadable programs specify one or two YouTube videos for each day of a fourteen- to thirty-day course. There are more than ten beginner- or intermediate-level programs to choose from.
Mariko has a strong voice with clear enunciation, and she speaks at a pretty steady pace. However, she does use voice-over for some of her videos, especially those filmed outside, so skip ahead past her introduction to double-check if you're trying to avoid voice-overs.
Natsumi's Japanese YOGA channel, Japanese YOGA has over 450 videos, so there's a wide variety to choose from here as well. Many of her videos are focused on specific issues, and she has playlists organized by 症状 (symptom), 部位 (body part), or 目的 (objective) addressed. She also has lots of 朝ヨガ and 夜ヨガ videos that are not necessarily focused on a particular issue. Many of her lessons are less than fifteen minutes long, but there are some longer videos as well.
Natsumi's voice is a little soft, but very clear. I really love the personal quality of her videos, and you can tell she loves what she does! She might speak a little fast if you're just starting out, but especially in beginner videos she gives lots of instructions for how to do the poses correctly, so it's pretty easy to catch on.
Natsumi is the host on the vast majority of her channel's videos, though recently she has been posting videos with different guest instructors, too. To get a sense of their speaking styles, you can check out the instructors' video introductions posted on the Japanese YOGA website.
Wellness To Go by Arisu
Wellness To Go by Arisu has over 400 videos. Like Natsumi's Japanese YOGA channel, Arisu has curated playlists to help you choose videos. In particular, she has a playlist specifically for beginners, as well as playlists categorized by the length of the video, from less than ten minutes to more than thirty. She also has a playlist of videos focused on meditation and breathing techniques.
Arisa has a clear voice and a really dynamic way of speaking. Even though she can speak a little fast at times, her enunciation is pretty punchy. Many of her videos are filmed outside, but it seems she only uses voice-over occasionally. Her dog sometimes makes an appearance, which is always a bonus!
Cute Birds only has about sixty-five videos so far, but Yukari only began posting this year, and there's still a good variety. She has videos specifically for beginners, and many focused on releasing tension in different parts of the body. The majority of the videos are ten to fifteen minutes long.
Yukari has a clear, steady voice, and seems to speak a little louder and slower on average. If you are a beginner in yoga or Japanese, I would suggest trying her videos first. Almost all of her videos are filmed outside in Okinawa — often on the beach! — but this doesn't affect the sound quality, and if she uses voice-over, she does it very rarely.
Like I mentioned earlier, I do suggest you do some online yoga first to get familiar with Japanese yoga classes, but if you have the opportunity in the future, I definitely recommend trying in-person classes as well! Even though you can't pause and repeat what instructors say in group lessons like you can with online videos, many times when I was in an instructor's class for the first time, they would come over before class started and check with me to make sure that I was going to be able to understand Japanese. You can also ask the instructor before class starts to speak slightly more slowly and clearly if you think that would help. Especially in beginner classes, even native speakers of Japanese might have trouble figuring out how to do a pose, so it can be helpful to others as well.
Choosing the Perfect Yoga Lesson
Now to find the perfect video so you can actually get started doing yoga in Japanese! Even if you just look at videos listed on the channels I recommended above, you'll find an overwhelming number of options, so in this section I've included vocabulary that you can use to help you find videos that are right for you. Some videos include English translations along with the Japanese, but knowing some of the words commonly used in video titles and descriptions will make it easier to search and navigate online, and will also help when looking at what classes are offered at yoga studios.
Titles for online lessons may include a level and type of yoga, and often include information about the focus of the lesson. Use the list below for reference so you can find a yoga class that's appropriate for your ability and interest (and so you don't accidentally take an after-childbirth yoga class if you haven't just given birth!). Please note that Japanese names of body parts and poses are covered in Japanese Vocabulary for Yoga: Body Parts, so please cross-reference as necessary.
Levels and Common Types of Yoga
This list includes keywords that describe levels and names of common yoga types or styles. You may find these in yoga studios' schedules more often than in online yoga videos.
Another way online videos may indicate beginner-level lessons is with the Japanese symbol for beginner: 🔰. Known colloquially as the 初心者マーク (beginner's mark), new drivers in Japan have to display this sticker on their cars for the first year they have their license, but the symbol has been widely adopted to mean beginner-level in lots of other contexts, too.
Abilities and Qualities to Improve
These are words for abilities and qualities that many yogis hope to improve. They often get paired up with words like 改善 (improvement), アップ (literally "up," meaning "boost up") and 高める (to increase, enhance).
Body Parts, Systems, and Positions
Here are some keywords related to body parts, systems, or positions that you'll often see in titles of yoga lessons. These often get paired up with words like ほぐす (to soften), 強化 (strengthening), リラックス (relax), ストレッチ (stretch), and 改善 (improvement). 促進 (promotion) is also used with リンパ (lymph) or 血流 (blood flow) to mean "promoting blood/lymph circulation" in this context.
|心身||しんしん||mind and body|
|血行 / 血流||けっこう / けつりゅう||blood flow|
Wanting to lose weight or get slim is one of the most common motivations for Japanese yogis. Of all keywords related to weight loss, ダイエット is probably used most commonly. It's a katakana word that's based on the English word "diet," but note that unlike in English, ダイエット refers to all sorts of activities related to weight loss and body toning, including exercise, not just one's literal "diet." So you'll likely spot the word in yoga lesson titles (and other fitness/workout classes), but it doesn't necessarily mean it's about food and nutrition!
|ダイエット||だいえっと||diet, losing weight|
|美脚||びきゃく||beautiful legs, toned legs|
|美尻||びじり||beautiful butt, toned butt|
Ailments and Issues
Certain physical problems are common keywords used in titles for yoga lessons. These are often used with words like 回復 (recovery), 解消 (elimination), or なくす (to remove).
|疲れ / 疲労||つかれ / ひろう||exhausion|
|冷え||ひえ||chilliness, coldness (because of bad blood circulation, etc.)|
|浮腫||むくみ||swelling, getting puffy|
|歪み||ゆがみ||distortion, being warped|
Yoga is not only about physical health, but also mental health! Here are a few keywords that are related to mental health.
|自律神経||じりつしんけい||autonomic nervous system|
Morning and Night
Many yoga videos are targeted to help you wake up or fall asleep. Here are some vocabulary words related to doing yoga in the morning and night.
|寝落ち||ねおち||falling asleep (while doing something)|
Here is a miscellaneous list of vocabulary that didn't fit into other categories, but are still useful! Note that there are a few words that end with 〜 活, which is an abbreviation of 〜 活動 (activities for …). People have recently started using this abbreviation as a way to talk about different activities for self-improvement. So combined with 腸 (intestine/stomach) as in 腸活, it means "activities for better gut health." With the kanji 温 (warm) as in 温活, it means "activities for warming up the body."
|腸活||ちょうかつ||activities for better gut health|
|温活||おんかつ||activities for warming up body|
|産後||さんご||postpartum / after childbirth|
One Step at a Time: Strategies for Learning
My goal in this article and series is not to give you required word lists, but to provide a guide to doing yoga in Japanese. Use this series like you would use a travel guidebook — before you embark on your journey, you would read about what to expect, pay attention to sections you think might be useful later, and maybe make notes about a few things you want to try and remember before you start. Just like using a guidebook to decide what to do on a trip, use the vocab in this first article to help you select which online videos or classes to try first.
I loved that I was learning Japanese not by studying Japanese, but by doing something completely different in Japanese.
When you decide which lesson to start with, you can just dive right in and see what it's like! Or, if you're feeling a little nervous, you can review your notes before you get started. Either way, it'll probably be a little difficult, but like the culture shock you get when you visit a new country, you'll start to learn new words and get used to the flow of things as you try more lessons. The vocabulary lists in the second and third articles will be here to use as references and will help you find your footing more quickly.
If you feel comfortable with a backpacker-style approach — using context, picking up words organically, and looking up words only when necessary — go for it! Let your intuition guide you; use the vocab lists if you're in a pinch.
If your motto is "always be prepared" and you prefer an itemized itinerary-style approach — learning some vocab ahead of time, noting new words when you encounter them, reviewing in between lessons — then this guide will be the perfect friend! During lessons, keep an ear out for new words, but don't worry if you can't remember them exactly when you're finished. Use the vocab lists to jog your memory and add those words to your study list. If you can't remember any, simply choose new words you think would be helpful and keep practicing.
I initially started taking yoga classes in Japan because I thought it would help me relax and not feel so stressed. And while my Japanese yoga journey started off a little bumpier than I expected, once I picked up some of the vocabulary and got a hang of the flow of classes, it was a really fabulous experience. I loved that I was learning Japanese not by studying Japanese, but by doing something completely different in Japanese. And after a while, I was not only less stressed, but gained more confidence in my Japanese skills.
I hope that now you're feeling ready to get started on your own Japanese yoga journey! Good luck, and don't forget to read the next two articles in the series — Japanese Vocabulary for Yoga: Body Parts and Japanese Vocabulary for Yoga: Movements — they'll be a big help as you take your first lessons and first steps. がんばってね！