Yoga teacher finds creative voice — and success — in ‘surreal’ Tokyo

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

While hammering nails and cutting planks in the prop department at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Metropolitan Opera in the early 2000s, Barry Silver never dreamed of a life in Japan.

After halting his youthful downward spiral with the help of meditation and yoga, Silver took a series of odd jobs in order to dedicate himself fully to his yoga practice.

As a trained actor in off-Broadway productions, Silver had imagined himself on stage more than backstage. “I always wondered why I was swinging a hammer,” he recalls. “Yet it connected me to building Hindu temples for my yoga teacher in New York, and it’s indirectly the reason I became a teacher myself. Many of the great blessings that happened in my life had nothing to do with me planning them, so I’ve gained a great deal of trust in what is coming.”

For the 49-year-old yoga teacher and artist, it works.

“I definitely don’t have a five-year plan; I barely have a five-month plan. But my work and creativity have become holistic in Japan. Everything falls under the same umbrella with my teaching, my art, my T-shirt designs.

“Everything connects now, and my life did not used to be like that — it used to be very compartmentalized and fractured,” he says. “Moving to Japan has been very powerful for me personally. I teach my own yoga classes now; I found my own creative voice. My Japanese friends or students think I showed up here being the person I am today, but it’s not true at all — I really have found myself in Japan.”

Part of finding himself meant losing his comfort zone, a native New Yorker leaving his hometown after 40 years. Typical to Silver, it happened without intention. “I don’t think I would ever have moved here knowingly,” he admits. “It would have been too big an idea to leave New York for Tokyo. I am very fortunate it happened accidentally, or it would never have happened.”

Seven years ago, Silver’s life was in a comfortable cycle. For eight years, Silver taught yoga in Manhattan, saving up enough money for nine months out of the year in return for three months in India, practicing with his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of a yoga style known as Ashtanga Yoga, in Mysore.

Unexpectedly, right before one of his trips to Mysore, a colleague in New York offered him a chance to teach in Japan for two months. A student in Japan then casually offered him a way to stay more permanently — if he could take over her corporate yoga class.

Silver agreed, never really believing the visa would go through, and continued on to India. When he received word that his visa was approved, it seemed like fate had called him to Japan. “I was never a samurai fan. Yet from the moment I arrived here, the outward aesthetic, the presentation, the food, even the first time I went to a convenience store and I saw how they counted back the money and laid out the change, all of that had a lot of appeal for me. It was as if I had decided to make room in my life for something new with my two-month adventure in Japan, not yet aware that living in Japan would be my future.”

Ironically, the teaching position at the company did not work out, and after a month Silver made the decision to stay in Tokyo as a freelance instructor. He quickly established his own practice and now teaches six days a week in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood, from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., renting out a local meditation center. “It fits me perfectly,” he says. “I have no desire to be a yoga studio owner and organize schedules for other teachers or worry about paying rent. I just want to focus on teaching my students.”

His freelance status also gives Silver time to pursue his art, a mixed-media expression he associates with his yoga. “On my first trip to India, over 15 years ago, I brought a blank Moleskine book to keep notes on the trip. I ended up saving different mementos — matchbooks, napkins, drawings — and when I returned to New York I began creating these collage journals. It started as a hobby and then transformed into my main form of visual expression.”

He showcased his journals with a few exhibitions in New York before moving to Japan. In 2008 his work was shown in Shibuya. That exhibition eventually paved the way to the creation of his own design company, GBSK.

A friend at the Shibuya exhibition introduced Silver to a silk screen artist, as he had dabbled in making his own shirts or tote bag designs earlier. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” he says, laughing. “Everything was in Japanese, so everything was double or triple work because of the language or because I had no idea what I was doing. Friends introduced me all around and I learned how to create my own online shop from a template.

“Then there was a big yoga event in Yokohama, and I took out a booth and suddenly it established my work as a true yoga brand in Japan. I do everything, from making the design to picking the color; every promotional picture I take personally, the shirts are even stored in my house.”

After living in Tokyo nearly seven years, Silver still sometimes finds his life “a bit surreal,” although he believes “that surreal aspect of Japan” mostly fits his world view. “I am comfortable in the surreal. I realized New York is a little too comfortable to me. It’s got too much history for me. Every building, every street has a story and some past or an ex-girlfriend.

“In Tokyo everything has an anonymity that I enjoy. It comes with a price too, of course: foreign loneliness. There is something about big crowded cities, going back to your own place alone at night after being surrounded by so many people. I think it is more intense in Tokyo. I have forfeited my huge social circle in New York for a much smaller social circle here.

“It’s a delicate balance,” he continues. “I don’t make lists or anything, but there are definite pros and cons for living in Japan and they seem to be quite dramatic. The good stuff can be so good and the challenges really challenging. Still, anywhere I go, there I am. Any dissatisfactions I have in Japan may have nothing to do with Japan. If I go to Timbuktu or Sydney, I’ll wake up and look in the mirror: It’s still me.” For now, Silver plans to take a few months off this summer to practice in India; beyond that, the future’s wide open.

For more information, see barrysilver.net .

  • Jeffrey Frith

    What a wonderful journey you are on , living life to the full, alive to the moment and finding joy in what you do and share with others.

    • Barry Silver

      Thanks Jeffrey, I have been fortunate and do feel blessed.

  • Moni Peace

    Yogi Samurai with the world at your feet ;) …at least you’re enjoying the ride!