By Alex Pogeler Phebi in Upward Facing Dog!

I like foreign words that convey a lot of meaning. I especially love it when a single term encapsulates an entire culture. These words normally don’t translate into English very well. They come from societies that hold different values and mindsets than our own. Language is all about expression. The different words that people choose to include in their particular language and the meanings they ascribe to those words are a direct reflection of how they view the world.


For example, I’ve always felt that the word which best embodies Spanish or Latino culture is “manana.” The translation to English would be “tomorrow” but it doesn’t actually mean that in a literal sense. Manana is more of an attitude than an actual word. It is the philosophy of putting off until tomorrow anything you don’t want to deal with today. This is a word that is emblematic of a culture that encourages daily “siestas” (early afternoon naps.)


“Toska” is a Russian word that means great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. This emotional state is undoubtedly responsible for a lot of excruciatingly long and depressing novels. Try slogging through “War and Peace” sometime and you will understand this suffering first-hand. Actually I would really discourage attempting that last one.


That brings me to my favorite complex foreign word which is the Japanese term known as “kaizen.” It is a simple combination of the words “change” and “good” but its meaning is much broader. Kaizen is the philosophy of continuous improvement. It is the idea that there is always a way to make something better than it currently exists.


The concept of Kaizen as a practical application came to prominence following the Second World War. The Japanese economy had been decimated and the American occupation forces were tasked with rebuilding the industrial base of that country. They introduced Kaizen as a business model of sorts and the results were dramatic. This philosophy would eventually come to permeate all aspects of Japanese business and within a few decades the country was an economic powerhouse.


Kaizen encourages all workers to actively engage and experiment with methods that will increase productivity and eliminate waste. It is a daily, collaborative process that involves everyone from the janitorial staff to the upper management. The idea is that these small improvements, made over an extended period of time at all levels of the company, can eventually lead to huge, positive results. This philosophy has proved so successful in the business world that it has since been adopted and implemented in other fields and disciplines.


I have found that Kaizen applies particularly well to Yoga and I have tried to infuse it into my own personal practice. It’s pretty simple how it works, every time I come to the mat I try and find something to improve upon. It can be the slightest of adjustments in a pose or a simple mental reminder to maintain my breath. Maybe it involves internalizing feedback from the instructor on something I need to change. Perhaps it is eating the right foods that will give me the energy to sustain my practice that day. Sometimes it is just cultivating the right attitude for Yoga before I even get to class. Whatever it might be, there is always something to improve upon.


The purpose of Kaizen is to stay engaged and not fall into patterns of complacency. I know from personal experience that I would sometimes hit a plateau with my Yoga practice. I would reach a point where I could do a certain number of poses reasonably well and then I would just kind of just coast at that level for a bit. Approaching Yoga with a Kaizen mindset eliminates that kind of behavior. It creates the right environment to foster real growth and progress. It makes you into a better Yogi.