THE WAY Returnees Edition introduces women who continue to shine and empower themselves even after returning to their home country by making use of their experiences abroad.
This time we meet yoga instructor and therapist, Ayaka Toshima. At 28, she left the apparel company she was working at due to health problems and decided to study in Australia. She is now back in Japan and is using what she learned at a yoga school in Sydney to offer yoga therapy online, focusing on the connection between the body and the mind.
Ayaka used yoga to save her mental and physical health. Here, she shares how she turned yoga into a career, including going to yoga school in Sydney, meeting classmates from diverse backgrounds, her perseverance with learning English and the lives of the people she met in Australia—a country of wellness according to Ayaka.
From hitting rock-bottom to making the move to Australia
After graduating from high school, Ayaka worked in sales and public relations for an apparel company. Overtime, she was burned out which eventually led to physical and mental health problems.
“When I was 26, I was diagnosed with panic disorder. I had to quit my job which I loved and I didn't see my friends as much as I used to. I hit rock-bottom."
Ayaka envisioned living in Tokyo, continuing to work at her apparel company, getting married and having kids. Due to the change in her health though, she inevitably had to change her life goals.
“It wasn’t until I left my job that had the time to think about what it was I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t want to follow the crowd.”
Ayaka moved to Chigasaki in Kanazawa Prefecture and began to explore ways to work and travel at the same time. She started a web content writing job and launched her blog. Around that time, she started surfing and bodyboarding which she fell in love and became aware of working holidays.
Ayaka had nothing left to lose so she decided to move to a country where she could surf. At 28, she packed her bags and studied in Australia’s easternmost town, Byron Bay which is famous for its waves.
Defining her own success
After staying in Byron Bay for four months, Ayaka did a farm stay in Cairns. She planned for the second year of her working holiday to be spent in Sydney. One of Ayaka’s goals was to mix with the local lifestyle and people as much as she could but before she knew it, she ended up spending more time with her Japanese friends.
After two years of being on a working holiday, Ayaka had one regret about not improving her language skills to a level that she was proud of. She decided to extend her stay by switching to a student visa which was the only option for her at the time.
There were various types of schools like language, business, nursing and beauty therapy colleges Ayaka could choose from. Australian student visas allow you to work as long as you meet the required attendance rate and many students work part-time or do internships outside of class. When Ayaka was deciding on which kind of school to attend, she found a vocational school for yoga.
“Originally, yoga was one of my hobbies that I had been doing for a while. I wanted to become a teacher someday but I never thought I would study abroad. I wanted to learn something I was interested in so I decided to study yoga in Australia.”
Ayaka chose a school that was known for its tough classes where she was one of 18 students. Teachers and students came from all over the world. Classes were held 2 days a week and the course took 2 years to complete. Classes were held from 8:30am to 4:30pm and in the afternoon classes, Ayaka learned not only yoga but also medicine and health.
In Japan, yoga is associated with diet and exercise but in Australia, there is a bigger focus on mental health. There were classes on cancer, addiction and depression and Ayaka had the opportunity to learn about therapeutic approaches.
Ayaka completed 7 out of 8 terms in 2 years and returned to Japan. She returned to Sydney for her final term and successfully completed the Yoga Therapist program in June 2022.
“I started working right after graduating from high school so I didn’t have any experience with university entrance exams or writing a graduation thesis. Working on my yoga course, practicing poses with my classmates and successfully graduating from yoga school even though I took a leave of absence gave me a great sense of accomplishment and confidence that is irreplaceable.”
It's not easy to feel a sense of accomplishment that makes you thankful for your own hard work. Ayaka thinks one of the real pleasures of taking on challenges overseas is being able to experience that feeling.
Persevering with English and business
Ayaka spent about five years in Australia. When she looks back on her life as an international student based on her English ability, she divides her growth into three stages.
The first stage is the six months immediately before studying abroad. During this period, Ayaka attended a language school to prepare for her study abroad and increased her level from where she could barely speak English to a level where she could have daily conversations.
Then, for the three months just before enrolling in yoga school, Ayaka attended a language school in Sydney to meet the criteria required to enter a local school. It was the period of her life where she learned the most and because of this, she was able to keep up with the classes taught in English at her yoga school.
The third stage was the two years when Ayaka went to yoga school. Through classes and assignments, she was exposed to English as if she was bathed in it. By inevitably repeating the four skills necessary for English: reading, writing, speaking and listening, she naturally but steadily grew her confidence in English.
“Taking classes in English was difficult but yoga itself was something I was interested in so it wasn’t a problem at all. I think it was about learning what I wanted to do using the English I knew and then repeating and practicing that.”
Ayaka says that the trick to continue is to never quit.
For example, Ayaka had been blogging for a long time and people often asked her, "How are you able to continue for so long?" Actually, there was a time when she didn't update her blog for three months but she didn't stop there and after a short hiatus, she kept going.
“Like yoga, I love blogging, so I continue to do it. Of course, I would be grateful if more people read it and I made more money but even if I don't, I will continue to write. My blog doesn't get a lot of buzz but I've been sticking with it.
At the time, Ayaka didn’t imagine that her consistent efforts in yoga, English and blogging, even if they were not immediately useful, would surely become a great source of strength many years later. Nothing is ever wasted.
Starting her online school and attracting 45 customers in her first month
One of the hardest things about yoga school life was earning money. School fees had to be paid every three months.
In her first year, Ayaka worked part-time at a restaurant but when she entered her second year of school, she decided to start teaching yoga classes. She started teaching yoga at parks and beaches for acquaintances living in the neighbourhood and then opened an online school.
Opening an online school sounds like a big challenge but for Ayaka who had been blogging for a while, the digital world wasn't foreign to her. Even though she said it would not be easy to make the seeds grow on her blog, she continued to work hard and the number of readers steadily increased.
When she posted about starting online yoga classes on her blog, 45 members immediately signed up.
“Blogs posts can feel like a one-way street, so I wondered if anyone was reading them. I was really happy to see so many people.”
In addition to blog income, Ayaka was able to earn income from online classes and Ayaka stopped working part-time at restaurants. She was also able to apply what she learned at the yoga school for her online classes while earning money and concentrate more on yoga.
Steadily running a blog and learning yoga in Australia—these two dots became a line which morphed into Ayaka’s online yoga classes.
Australia is all about wellness
Ayaka now resides in Chiba Prefecture, Japan and enjoys surfing with her husband. All the yoga classes she started in Australia were conducted online so even after moving back to Japan, she was able to continue without changing her delivery mode.
Ayaka has two types of classes: group lessons for online members and one-on-one classes. She didn’t think ticket-based group lessons would last long and wanted yoga to become a part of everyday life so she decided to change her business model to a monthly fee system.
In one-on-one classes, Ayaka provides yoga therapy, posture improvement and body makeup tailored to the individual. During the first session, she listens to your body and mind. The goal is to heal the mind and body through yoga which she learned about during her time in Sydney.
“When I took part in a yoga class in Sydney, I was very surprised to see that everyone, regardless of gender, was doing the triple headstand. Australians are very health conscious, and yoga and exercise are part of their lives. I really felt it and I think it would be great if there was more awareness of health in Japan.”
Ayaka loves Australia's good climate, richness of nature and diversity of people.
For example, at a language school in Sydney, Ayaka had many Mongolian female classmates. They left their husbands and children in Mongolia to get better jobs and came to study abroad alone.
“I had never thought of leaving my family to study abroad so I was surprised. The fact that there are people who stick to their goals and put them into action, that is what continues to encourage me even after coming back to Japan.”
There were many twists and turns but Ayaka can say without a doubt that her life changed in Australia. This change was not something that happened unconsciously but something that Ayaka made through her own actions.
The reason why we can separate the past and the present is because the past fulfils the present. Ayaka's work in the past has become a stepping stone for the present.
We look forward to seeing Ayaka's next challenges!
Thank you for reading this,
Women can fly.
Much love, xxx
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