NEW YORK – Drenched in perspiration, Megan Miller Yoo and about a dozen other students were pushing themselves to new limits during a special Sunday yoga session at a Manhattan studio.
Stretching their muscles and testing their flexibility, they intently followed the instructor moving through 26 prescribed poses at Bikram Yoga Grand Central in a humid, 40-degree room.
From the outside it looked like an ordinary 90-minute Bikram class, but it wasn’t.
The hot yoga devotees were part of a “donation class” to raise money for victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Yoo, 33, said taking part in the special class took her practice to a new level, particularly because of her close ties to Japan, where she lived for two years.
“One instructor always says, ‘If you breathe through Bikram, you can breathe through anything,’ so I often think of that when I am in a tough situation, and it makes me realize I can get through anything if I just hang in there and don’t give up,” said Yoo, who was in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program and taught English in Hyogo Prefecture.
“I think that is the perfect message for the people in the affected regions of Japan,” she said
Before the March disaster, Kyoko Katsura, one of the two studio owners, and her business partner were mulling over ways to motivate students and hit on the idea of offering the weekly donation class to highlight various charities.
But when the deadly waves were sweeping away entire towns, the businesswoman had already committed to another cause.
After plans to help a local dance theater company were finalized, the Osaka native turned to one of her students, Shinko Tana, for input.
The Tokyo native, because of her work with an international aid organization that provided relief for Japanese victims, became indispensable.
“We had the idea to do the donation class well before the earthquake, but once we decided to do something for Japan, we decided on the International Rescue Committee because it was Shinko’s idea,” Katsura, 40, said at her studio.
She emphasized how Tana had spent two weeks in the hardest-hit disaster zones as the organization’s Japan adviser.
Traveling through damaged areas in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures she witnessed the shocking, scope of the destruction. The 30-year-old recalled how once thriving coastal areas were flattened in ways “far greater than pictures can convey.”
In Miyagi she spoke with victims in the city of Ishinomaki.
Among them was a woman whose family made it to the second floor of their home only to helplessly watch neighbors become engulfed in water.
While Tana was directly connected to the crisis through her work on the ground, Katsura, having spent 17 years away from her country, felt somewhat removed.
“Honestly I was so far away so it was difficult to connect,” she said, yet she felt driven to do something.
After completing graduate studies in dance at New York University, the former gymnast landed a variety of jobs, including as a performer in “Aladdin” at Disney’s California Adventure Park, but later shifted gears.
In 2005, Katsura received her Bikram instructor’s certificate and began working in various New York studios. Five years later she opened her own business with Denise Nann.
Despite carving out a life in the United States, the New York yoga champion didn’t let distance or time away from home deter her from lending a hand.
“It makes me happy to be a part of it (the donation class) because I am Japanese and I am able to do something,” Katsura said. “Even though our individual efforts must be small compared to others we are part of it, and that is beautiful.”
Because of the positive feedback they were getting, Katsura and Nann decided to continue the International Rescue Committee sessions.
Katsura said she was inspired to start the donation classes by Americans who readily gave money or volunteered for causes, and she decided it was time for her to “give back.”
The donation classes, in which the participants give what they can, are carried out as regular Bikram yoga classes. The form of yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury and has become increasingly popular since it was introduced in the U.S. in the early 1970s. The founder also has links to Japan, having set up his first studio in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in 1970.
One of the participants at Katsura’s studio, Chris Johnston, attended with his wife. He had given to relief efforts through other channels but felt the yoga session gave him a “double benefit.”