Too Old For Yoga Pants? Depends.

I knew I must be showing my age when I opened my goody bag for this year’s Yoga Journal Live in NY conference and found a box of Depends Undergarments.

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A yogi for more than 15 years, I don’t feel the same zing when I attend these conferences, which seem to be giving way to festivals and social media. The yoga-lebrity doesn’t shine as bright as in years past, when teachers like Rodney Yee could create buzz just by walking through the hallway.

Although I’ve grown weary of yoga marketing and practicing in hotel conference rooms, I’m sad to see Yoga Journal Live go out of style. Materialism can be fun.

Even though I’ve grown weary of all the yoga stuff, including jeweled malas and $80 tops sold in the market place, I do acknowledge that the yoga I once knew is getting wrinkly. When I walked around the Midtown Hilton today, I felt like a step aerobics teacher hanging on to the last scrunchie. We conference-goers aren’t as perky as we used to be, or maybe there are just fewer of us. The millennials certainly aren’t hip to this scene, which may explain the adult pull-up diapers in our goody bags. While yoga is just as wanted and needed as it ever was, the accoutrements have become as passé as the leotard and as run-down as an un-toned pelvic floor.

My personal practice feels more authentic than ever, even though I’ve given up jump backs and headstands. These days, my regime looks like lying around on the floor. I’m still not ready for Depends.

But I’ll let you know for sure after I give them a whirl. I am an open-minded yogi, after all.

Your Local Samurai Guy

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

 “I have a wife,” Yoshi Amao, the instructor of Samurai Sword Fighting, says quietly the other day at Peridance Capezio Center in the East Village. “But the sword is the partner with my hand and soul.”

With his acrobatic frame and thick black bangs, the Osaka, Japan native resembles an anime character, especially in his hakama, voluminous black skirt-like pants. “People ask how I look so young because I forget my age always,” jokes Amao, who claims he can’t remember the year of his birth.

Amao, also an actor, banks on teaching the way of the Samurai as an unorthodox day job. Aside from his class, a 90-minute workout fusing martial arts with kabuki, he offers New Yorkers private lessons and hires himself out to corporations that want to convey the values of the Japanese warriors to employees, through physical instruction and storytelling with his troupe of 10 fighter-dancers.

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble…I almost think it’s the opposite of American”—Yoshi Amao

“Sometimes workers need to experience another world and forget everything what they do, what they feel and who they are,” Amao explains. “They may be able to feel parts of themselves through meditation at the beginning and end of the class, swinging swords for many times with a big kiai [yell] and acting in the fighting scenes, eventually.”

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble,” he continues, speaking slowly and considering each word. “I almost think it’s the opposite of American. Sometimes I think Americans are like this”—he throws open his arms wide and flashes a game-show-host grin. “Japanese more inner.”

In his class, beginner and advanced students (many are dancers and quick studies) perform choreographed scenes, what Amao calls “Samurai Showtime.” Newer pupils rehearse a kata that approximates movement patterns of ballet. They nimbly dart forward and back, while striking and blocking with wooden swords called bokens, as loud drumming served as the soundtrack. Next, seasoned fighters rehearse a scene with one man defending himself against multiple attackers. As the samurai twirl to face each opponent, his hair and pants flow like that of a matinée idol. Staged deaths follow realistic-looking slashes through the stomach.

“In class, Yoshi is serious,” says one of his lieutenants, actor Saori Goda, 31, who trained for five years and fights like she’s in Kill Bill. “He really thinks of the way of the samurai: You have to respect your seniors, your teachers. In New York, it’s rare to learn this style.”

Yoshi Amao.

Yoshi Amao. Emily Assiran for Observer.

Also from Osaka, Goda stands by Amao in the lobby, her raven hair in a high bun. Having changed into jeans, Amao perches on a stool, his left leg stretched to display a floral-printed sneaker. As fighters and ballerinas mingle in the hallway, he maintains a panther’s posture, bokens sticking out of his bag.

Amao moved to New York in 1990 to become a full-time actor. With his deep voice and heavy accent, he gets consistent voice-over work, providing narration to video games (Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories) and commercials. His athleticism frequently lands him TV and film roles like Disney’s Japanizi: Going, Going, Gong! and the USA series White Collar. “Mostly, I am the face of the Cherry Blossom Festival,” he says, referring to the annual event at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

Every spring, Amao choreographs a 45-minute play for the festival. This year’s theme was “Dragon Fire,” featuring Samurai Sword Soul, his troupe.

Amao adapts excerpts from the production for up to 20 performances throughout the country. While most of his performers are male, females provide nuance. “People get bored of men fighting,” notes Amao, deferring to Goda. “In Dragon Fire, Saori’s boyfriend is totally weaker than she is. He proposes to her. She refuses.

“Say the line,” Amao requests.

“I don’t want to marry someone who is not as strong as I am,” replies Goda, smiling.

“That always gets laughs,” he says. “In the U.S., men say, ‘Ladies first.’ Macho. I think women are stronger than men.”

Then Amao reveals a secret. “She is my wife,” he says, pointing to Goda. The couple burst into giggles. Married one year after seven years of dating, Amao and Goda met in New York when they were both emcees at a social event for JaNet, a nonprofit formed after 9/11 with a mission to “cheer up and unite” the Japanese expat community.

Today, the couple lives on the Upper East Side and occasionally collaborates on fight scenes, a difficult task in their small apartment.

Amao envisions taking his samurai show on the road, ideally in Las Vegas and California. “Then I will feel like I have made it in in America.”

Why dance tango?

by Ann Votaw, C.H.E.S.

After my fabulous LivingSocial purchase, $49 for eight tango classes and four social dances, I am entangled with Argentinian tango. I feel my love affair was ordained by Al Pacino, the high priest of tango scenes, who recently sat near me at Café Luxembourg in Manhattan. No joke!

Tango brings out the Pacino in me, and step names – gancho, parada, sacada — trip off the tongue, a glorious vocalization of tango’s smooth and quick steps. As a former musical theater dancer, I am particularly drawn to tango’s wine-like qualities: Rather than becoming rancid, tango dancers get better with age, as suggested by Pacino’s scene in Scent of a Woman!

Recent studies note that tango may relieve certain neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s. Explanations include tango’s use of dynamic balance, walking backwards, and movement at various speeds. As part of a healthcare movement to integrate arts and wellness, tango – like other forms of dance – could be a useful way to coordinate mental, social, and physical well-being.

A Royal Northern College of Music study went further, surveying 110 tango dancers in the Netherlands and Germany. The researcher, Gunter Kreutz, sought answers to several questions, including “Why do people dance tango Argentino?” Reasons included: (1) stress reduction, (2) fitness, (3) emotions, and (4) intimacy.

I feel all these components when I tango. Had I been more on my toes, I would have asked Al for a dance, assuming he doesn’t mind towering women.

Fitness Finesse: Q & A with Peggy Levine



by Ann Votaw, C.H.E.S.

At the end of her modern dance career, Peggy Levine rode the aerobics craze into the developing field of fitness. While colleagues emphasized “sweat,” Peggy concentrated on body alignment. She opened her own studio in 1983. When the business closed in 2004, students demanded her return. “They wouldn’t let me retire,” Peggy said.

Today, Peggy teaches at Bridge for Dance Studio, Columbia University, and as a Master Trainer through Pilates Institute of America. Her style reflects shifts in her own life: Peggy has stayed fit through college years, the birth of her daughter, and menopause.

Ann Votaw: What is your philosophy on teaching fitness?

Peggy Levine: I think my philosophy on fitness is that it makes you a stronger person, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. A lot of women think they can’t do something, and it can be can’t lift their arms or can’t make enough money. I think my class teaches people to be comfortable in their bodies, so they can feel like they can. My philosophy is to make women stronger, so they can get through the next phase of their lives, not just physically, but to give them the feeling that they can conquer their fears. It’s empowering.

AV: In addition to instructing senior and pre-natal populations, you teach at the university level. What is that like?

PL: I’m tickled pink when I get positive evaluations from the kids. It validates me.  I love it when I get returning students. When you teach the same classes over and over, you wonder if you have any value. I learn from the students.

AV: What recommendations do you have for people entering the field of fitness?

PL: You have to really want this because the competition is fierce. There’s more than just being good at it yourself. You have to really want to impart knowledge to other people. You have to really want to help other people learn how to take care of themselves.