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.”

Grammar Check: Why Celebrities Should Read ‘Elements Of Style’

madonnablowjob-640x480

I know this presidential election gets people emotional, but that’s no excuse for bad grammar, especially if your name is Madonna. Take a look at Madge’s recent Facebook post promoting Hillary:

I love that the Material Girl has no shame, but her first sentence makes me squirm. Here’s a breakdown of her misdeeds, according to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: 1) Bitches is a name or title that deserves parenthetic treatment when used in direct address. The Blonde One is talking to we bitches as if we were right there beside her. Therefore, “bitches” needs a comma. Ex. Bitches, are you in my gang??? 2) Because her statement is a sentence and not a title, Madonna really should ease up on the capitalization. If she wanted to pen a book, like The Catcher in the Rye or A Tale of Two Cities, she would have to italicize and use lower case letters for prepositions like “in.” Ex. Bitches, Are You in My Gang??? 3) Finally, no need for three question marks when one would do. With the way Madge zips through time zones, I recommend simplicity, especially when thumb typing on tiny keys.

As you can see, 29,000 people liked her shabbily written post. More than 2,000 fans actually shared it, which means Madonna is a person of influence. We have free speech in this country. I support her right to be offensive. She can continue to offer free fellatio to Hillary voters, but first, she has to polish her communication skills.

Bitches, are you in my gang?

 

Review: J. Brown’s Tough Yoga

workshopcover-3mb

Gentle is the New Advanced,” an online tutorial series, is J. Brown’s love note to any instructor who has ever felt like a fraud with a jacked-up neck and broken heart. His students, fellow instructors, nod and share their own views while sipping tea in a cozy Massachusetts studio. With creaky floor boards and snow falling against a picture window, this setting presents itself as an affordable retreat, a chance to earn Yoga Alliance credits without leaving home. Brown’s philosophy lands on all of us who pushed through the power vinyasa years only to collapse in a wasted sweaty heap, the only way we could experience savasana.

Through four practice sessions interspersed with four lecture/conversations, Brown admits to sacroiliac instability, possibly from all the full splits he forced upon himself in his twenties. “Man, why did I do all those hanamanasanas?” he laughs in Part 6 — Lecture: Practice Technique. His illustrated workbook highlights a 1997 photo of Brown in an impressive bow pose, toes pointed and chest lifted to the heavens. His practice looks much different today, due to chronic inflammation and a growing maturity that informs his methodology.

In his “radically transparent” style, Brown talks about his mother’s death, an event he sought to understand while simultaneously pushing away his emotions. Despite his advanced asana practice and travels to India, he couldn’t answer a simple question: How does this feel? Numbed out, Brown confesses to practicing and teaching so much that Mark Whitwell encouraged him to get a girlfriend. He did. Today, Brown lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

His methodology now focuses on breathing through core moves — including leg lifts, sun salutes, and bridging — that are building blocks for what are considered flashier Instagram moves like titibasana and side crow. When combined with ujjayi breath, each “easy” asana develops its own personality and level of difficulty. Perhaps I can let go of my flying crane pose with less risk of injury and more room for growth. 

In one of my favorite discussions, a teacher mentions the death of her father. His illness and passing presented itself as physical and emotional pain. She desperately needed to stop “performing” in her classes. Rather, she wanted to offer authentic techniques, something she could do by herself in private. Yet with pressure to maintain large class sizes, some instructors call out intricate sequences they don’t have the energy to do on their own. “If you don’t have the discipline to do this practice at home, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on,” Brown remarks.

Examples of exhaustive, repetitive asanas include headstand and shoulderstand. After a student injured his neck and never wanted to go back to yoga, Brown stopped teaching these poses. “They’re the king and queen of asanas, but I don’t care,” he laughs. Jump backs with percussive donkey kicks fall into the category of compromising behavior. While he doesn’t want to impede on anyone’s fun, he encourages jump backs for those who have first found their “floaty cloud” capabilities. In forward bends, knees can bend. In bridges, he invites full wheels, only if they feel right.

After all that breathing, “feeling right” is easier to judge, which is really the point of it all.

 

I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.

Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.

This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.

“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”

As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.

After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.

I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”

After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”

Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.

A Non-Catholic Salutes Hometown Bishop, Hero of ‘Spotlight’

640

This letter to editor appeared in my Indiana hometown paper, The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel on Feb. 28, 2016.

Fort Wayne audiences may recognize the name “John D’Arcy” in one of the most pivotal scenes of “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.

A Summit City native who lives in New York, I felt soaring pride that former Bishop D’Arcy fought against sexual abuse in his beloved Catholic Church. When visiting my hometown, I often attended D’Arcy’s Christmas Eve mass at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. Raised Methodist, I respected him, even though I disagreed with his conservative politics. During the Oscars, I celebrated D’Arcy and his brief mention in “Spotlight,” the story of a Boston Globe reporting team. Gently paced, the film exploded when Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) opened sealed documents containing damning evidence against the church. Breathless, Rezendes read to fellow reporters a 1984 letter recommending the removal of a predatory priest with a “history of homosexual involvement with young boys.”

D’Arcy, then Auxiliary Bishop of Boston, was the concerned author. In this spectacular scene, Ruffalo finally lost impartiality and shouted to his editor: “We gotta nail these scum bags! We gotta to show people that nobody can get away with this. Not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope!”In real life, D’Arcy’s correspondence helped fuel the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of a corrupt system.

In the first piece on the scandal, which appeared in 2002, Rezendes asked a provocative question about Father Geoghan, accused of molesting more than 130 boys in the Boston area. Rezendes inquired: “Why did it take a succession of three cardinals and many bishops 34 years to place children out of Geoghan’s reach?”

After the article, more victims came forward. Secondary victims often included clergy, parents, and even lawyers stuck with the unimaginable weight of staying silent in fear of the Catholic Church.

I’m not here to single out religious organizations as tyrants. In Michigan, state officials knew that changing Flint’s water source from Lake Heron to the Flint River could be dangerous. But they did it anyway. After 9/11, the Environmental Protection Agency swore New York air was safe. Yet thousands of Ground Zero responders and others continue to be diagnosed with cancer. In such cases, it’s easy to wonder why no one took action. My guess is many of us have worked in similar demoralizing situations. In fear-based regimes, which are as numerous as the stars, shame is an art form of highly skilled leaders.That’s why D’Arcy is a hero in the movie and in real life.

But back in 1984, I imagine D’Arcy didn’t feel bold when his letters were buried. In fact, D’Arcy found himself transferred to the Midwest, where he was promoted to Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Far from his home in Massachusetts, he remained in Indiana until his death in 2013.His obituary appeared in The New York Times, hailing him as a whistleblower, unusual for an authority in his prestigious position. After viewing “Spotlight” two more times, I wondered why none of my Fort Wayne friends noticed D’Arcy’s role in the film.

One of the movie’s themes is that it takes an outsider to see the obvious. Now 41, I spent my first two decades in Fort Wayne and the last 20 years in big cities. From my distant Manhattan apartment, I am in awe of D’Arcy, Fort Wayne’s adopted son. You should be, too.