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An Uncommon Offering of Grace

The master reached into the paper bucket and ate of the 23 original herbs and spices....

I’m a person who takes her job, whatever it may be at any given time, very seriously. The segue from bartending to bodywork was an obnoxiously overgrown portion of my path. Frosted beer mugs were replaced by giant quartz crystals and roasted barley tea nudged it’s way past my daily coffee mug. Electric hair and slippery fabrics yielded to a white cotton karate gi. I was studying Shiatsu, and I was on a mission.

It was really hard to say no to Ohashi, director and master instructor at the school. My weekly ritual included a savory slice of crusty pizza en route from Penn Station to the institute located just five blocks away. Class was never canceled, even during snow storms; perfect attendance was mandatory. So on one very white, winter Monday, NJ Transit was delayed. My rubber boots and I didn’t have time to stop for lunch.

Unlike many of my classmates, I had arrived on time. Though class wasn’t canceled, it was clear we’d be starting late. After signing in at the registration desk, I went back to the foyer to retrieve my boots and make a fast dash for sauce and cheese. I was greeted by a smiling Ohashi who beckoned me into the teachers’ kitchen. I thanked him and politely explained that I needed to hurry out in order to be back in time. “You’re already on time, “ he happily stated. In my stocking feet I followed him as invited.

I learned about miso that day. The simmering broth was soothing and delicious.I also discovered that it sustained me through a three hour class plus an additional practice session more effectively than my chewy favorite ever did.

During the three years of weekly commutes to NYC for classes, I watched teachers and students gravitate toward a balance within the yin and yang of food. Brown rice was the most respected staple, and meat was generally avoided. Diet wasn’t prescribed, but was suggested in areas of preference. Though most of us deviated from time to time, we found community in sharing wholesome, vegetarian options. After we thought we had finally understood the right way to eat, Ohashi taught us more.

During a special weekend seminar, we spread a large cloth on the floor for a pot luck picnic. There was an amazing array of lovingly prepared foods including a lotus root salad, shredded seaweed and cucumber, and barley malt rice treats. A single lily held the essence of serenity in the midst of our offerings. Then an assault was fired. Familiar eyes exchanged indignant glances when a guest student placed a bucket of Kentucky fried chicken on the sacred cloth. Knowingly, we waited for Ohashi’s eloquent disapproval.

The master joined us and praised the abundance that was generously contributed to the meal. He verbally acknowledged each preparation with familiar welcome. As the dishes were passed and the bucket remained covered, he noticed a quiet participant wearing a pink face and downcast eyes.

At that moment he offered a poignant lesson. “Who brought this?” he asked, holding up the bucket. The woman continued to look down as she gently raised her hand. “Thank you for remembering,” said Ohashi. He opened the paper canister, selected a chicken breast and immediately bit into the deep fried flesh.

Without saying a negative word, Ohashi had exposed our judgments and our righteous superiority. All conversation stopped as his regular students sat stupefied in unexpected shame. “When we live in an aggressive world, it is important to be able to deal with the stress of toxins. If we are completely pure, we will not have any way to fight the pollutants that enter our system. Please everyone eat. Eat with gratitude.”

It wasn’t junk food that Ohashi encouraged. It was consciousness. The foods we choose enable us to change our physical and emotional patterns.

Likewise, a toxic attitude can taint the purest of foods. Mindful choices of nourishment allow us to evolve as we are ready. Meat may be an unnecessary indulgence for one person yet be medicine for another. One becomes a runner before attempting a marathon. We can’t expect ourselves to embrace strict diets until we simplify our desires and our perspectives. Is it good for anyone to eat brown rice with resentment?

Sitting with my food in solitude, in company or in community, I seek to create conscious ritual. That which was living will live again through this offering to my body. May we all be blessed with a healthy serving of culinary gratitude, Amen.

by Toni Zuper
Alternative Healing
Center City, Philadelphia

published in Yoga Living -- November 2005 issue