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So You Wanna Makko-ho?

With this Japanese exercise form, you can improve your flexibility without breaking a sweat.
Friday Jun 27, 2008.     By Sharon Hoyer
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Life in the big city can be stressful—navigating through mobs in the Loop, squashing into overcrowded busses, shaking your fist (or parts thereof) at reckless taxis—and one of the best ways to release that pressure is by working up a good sweat. But sometimes the very idea of going to the gym, dojo or yoga studio only adds to your anxieties instead of easing them.

The Japanese exercise form called makko-ho makes these workout woes melt away; it's a no-impact series of stretches that helps you build limberness and strength, all the while seated on a comfy blanket spread across the floor. I took my first makko-ho class a couple weeks ago and was immediately hooked. The series of playful movements elongated my computer-crunched back and refreshed me to face the trails of urban living with confidence and calm.

The Skinny: Makko-ho ("facing forward" in Japanese) was conceived in the mid-20th century by a businessman named Nagai, who suffered an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Stuck in a hospital and unable to work, Mr. Nagai studied Buddhist teachings and, as result, cultivated a profound sense of gratitude. To express this gratitude, he began a routine of bowing in various seated positions. Through regular practice of these bowing exercises, he eventually regained the ability to walk.

There are only three makko-ho instructors outside of Japan: one in New York, one in L.A. (who also overcame paralysis via the practice) and one in Chicago—Tomoko Horikawa, who teaches a weekly class at purepeace spa in Edgewater. Tomoko is a yoga instructor as well and brings an extensive knowledge of Chinese medicine and bodywork to the class.

The Get Up: Any comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely will do. Take off your shoes, kneel down on the blanket and get ready to get relaxed.

Wear and Tear: This is the opposite of wear and tear; makko-ho promotes physical and mental rejuvenation. At the beginning of class, we established deep, even breathing that was sustained the entire hour. By the time I walked out the door, dozens of little muscles I didn't know I had was clenching released for the first time in years. The effect is both energizing and deeply calming.

The Commitment: The entire makko-ho sequence is comprised of only four simple poses; I was able to remember and practice them at home after just one class. However, Tomoko introduces new self-massage and acupressure techniques each week, and each pose has assisted versions done with a partner, so you'll want to keep coming back. And did I mention hodo taiso? That's the 20-minute bodywork section of the class, when everyone partners up to give and receive a guided full-body massage.

The Cost: Classes at purepeace are $15 an hour or you can purchase a 10-class card at a discounted rate. In addition to an effective stretching regimen, makko-ho is far and away the most affordable massage in town.

The Payoff: Improved skeletal alignment, increased flexibility, particularly in the back, hamstrings, groin and quads. And, though you won't even realize it's happening, a much stronger core. All that deep breathing into the harra, or lower abdomen, engages the center of the body while other large muscle groups stay relaxed—a subtle skill that will trick you into keeping an open chest and effortless good posture throughout the day.

Difficulty Level: Makko-ho can improve the flexibility and alignment of nearly anyone of any fitness level. It's slightly more rigorous than sitting still and a hundred times more relaxing. Possessing a degree of flexibility is to your advantage, but not necessary. Ages in the class I attended ranged from mid-20s to late-50s.

The Verdict: The makko-ho sequence is invigorating and easily practiced at home, be it first thing in the morning, midday, or whenever you have a spare 15 minutes. Tomoko's expertise in other eastern exercise forms make the class a wonderful complement to a regular yoga practice and an approachable alternative for those discouraged by the rigors of yoga. You won't believe you could feel this good after a fitness class without needing a shower.

Makko-ho class is held at purepeace Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. – 11 a.m.


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