Allspirit Interview with Aaron Hoopes
By Gill Washington
In Perfecting Ourselves, Aaron Hoopes draws on his experience as a certified instructor of Shanti Yoga and meditation and his twenty years of training in Japanese Shotokan Karate. He is also a student of Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Shiatsu massage.
He has taught his methods at Tulane University, Dartmouth College, the Sakai Shibu in Osaka, Japan and the Shanti Yoga Meditation Institute in Australia. He holds a degree in Asian history from Tulane University and has authored UpdateJapan.
I met Aaron via email, after he had visited the Allspirit website, and emailed me to tell me of his book ‘Perfecting Ourselves’. After reading the book I thought it would be a good idea to put some questions to him, about the book and his work, and you can read the result below. Aaron shows great commitment to a difficult path, and the humility of all true masters in remaining a student.
Aaron, could you tell the Allspirit readers what projects you are currently working on. In ‘Perfecting Ourselves’ a new book is mentioned. Could you tell us a little about that?
I have worked with children for a number of years and my ‘Zen for Children’ program has been highlighted in the Connecticut public school system. At present I am working on something called the ‘Zink Project.’ It is designed to empower children to develop healthy lifestyle skills at an early age.
The central focus of the Zink Project is the fictional children’s book Catch the Cat, in which a pair of preadolescent misfits meet a purple, talking cat. The magical cat, Zink, an impish, wizard-like character, puts them through a series of amusing experiences while teaching them the wisdom of five secret words. These five words emphasize the importance of proper breathing, healthy movement, smart eating, relaxation, and maintaining balance in their lives.
Catch the Cat is ideal for students in grades 4-6 enrolled in health classes, PE programs or other extracurricular fitness activities. A supplemental parent/teacher’s resource kit containing activities and worksheets is being developed which will encourage the children to actively participate in Zink’s five lessons. These “Zinkercises” are fun, easy and will supply the students with the fundamental skills for cultivating a healthy, active and fit lifestyle. Future expansion plans include audio and animation video supplements.
More and more adults are becoming concerned about their health but sadly lack both the knowledge and skills needed to make positive changes. Equipping children with these skills at an early age will enable them to recognize and avoid many of the poor lifestyle habits that lead to diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc. Children who embody the principles taught in this book will be empowered to develop healthy habits to last a lifetime.
The title of your current book is ‘Perfecting Ourselves’. You say in the book that you are not presenting a ‘grand ideal’; is it really about being the best we can be at all times?
Perfection is fleeting. To imagine that we can actually achieve some sort of perfection is unrealistic. However, it is the process of striving towards perfection that benefits us most. We are all on a journey in one form or another and the goal of that journey may be defined in many different ways. Perfection is the way I have defined that goal in the book. But the thing to remember is that the goal is not the important point. It is the effort of traveling along the path that makes us who we are.
Perfecting Ourselves is about being the best we can be at all times in body, mind and spirit. The exercises in the book are designed to help in the coordination of the three. What we come to realize as we begin to achieve that coordination is that we are, in fact, perfect already.
You started on this path at a young age. What influenced you to start the work of perfecting yourself, and did you always realize the work had to include body, mind and spirit?
Like many people, as a young person growing up in our society I was feeling a bit lost and unsure of what exactly I wanted to do with my life. Eventually I reached a crossroads and realized that if I didn’t take some positive steps I would be dragged into a life course not of my choosing.
I felt that I needed some sort of discipline and began to study the martial arts. It became a solid base for me to center myself. I began to study the history and language of Japan and later went there to continue my studies.
Eventually I began to understand that every art from Zen Meditation and Japanese Karate to Chinese Kung Fu and Tai Chi teaches the same principles of training the body and calming the mind. In the end they all seek to reach the spiritual essence that exists within the self.
In ‘Perfecting Ourselves’ you say that you wrote the book because you had searched for ‘the book that would provide a framework for understanding the coordination of body, mind and spirit’ and had not found it. Do you think you achieved your aim?
Yes, very much so, as far as it goes. Perfecting Ourselves gave me the opportunity to get the basics down in writing. The principles of breathing with the body and relaxing the mind are fundamental and can be considered a starting point for those wishing to understand more about themselves.
However, Perfecting Ourselves is just the beginning. It is important to understand the basic framework of the body, mind and spirit before one can begin to delve deeper into the self. I will be discussing some of the more advanced principles in a future book titled, Beyond Perfection.
You have worked with varied teachers. Do you still work with teachers, and which teachers have been the most influential?
There are teachers all around us throughout our whole lives. We just need to be able to recognize them. We can learn from everyone we meet.
That having been said, some of my most influential teachers have been people who have dedicated their lives to a certain art or practice. Too often these days people become ‘masters’ overnight. The traditional arts become diluted and lost. It takes many years of experience to be able to impart true wisdom.
I will probably always consider myself a student and try to learn all I can from every teacher I have a chance to meet.
Studying in the USA, Australia and Japan will have brought you into contact with many diverse peoples and cultures. Could you tell us a couple of your most striking experiences?
Japan is an experience in itself. I don’t think anyone can truly get a sense of it without visiting. The number of people squeezed onto four small islands is staggering. I once rode on a train through Tokyo for 45 minutes without seeing a tree. It was the true definition of ‘concrete jungle’. Finding a quiet place to spend a minute alone is a major challenge, and when you finally do find a place you usually are sharing it with 10 to 20 other people.
Australia is the exact opposite. There is a lot of natural space on a grand scale. I have spent a great deal of time hiking and climbing along the coast and in the rainforest. Many of the ideas for the Quiet Watching section of ‘Perfecting Ourselves’ came from my meditations in Australia.
One of the most interesting aspects of spending a lot of time in other countries is that you get to see your own country from a new perspective. I think many people in the United States would benefit from some time spent overseas. Living in another culture makes one realize that there are different ways of thinking and seeing the world that are just as valid as any other.
When writing ‘Perfecting Ourselves’ did you have a particular type of reader in mind, and do you think we can all work toward perfecting ourselves, whatever our age and current level of fitness of body, mind and spirit?
Actually, I wrote ‘Perfecting Ourselves’ with the general reader in mind. The concepts are laid out in a basic format to enable anyone to quickly gain an understanding of the fundamental principles of coordinating body, mind and spirit.
It doesn’t matter what level of fitness in body, mind or spirit the reader is in. All that is important is a genuine desire to explore the potential that life has to offer.
What advice would you give to our readers here, to motivate them to start on this work?
The most important step is always the first one. The two best things we can do for ourselves are to breathe and move the body. Start at whatever fitness level you are and begin some of the simple breathing exercises in the book.
Everything starts with breathing. It doesn’t matter what your age, fitness level or state of health. Making the effort to improve yourself is what is important. I can’t stress this enough. No matter what you are doing – Remember to Breathe!
Aaron travels widely teaching breathing, stretching and meditation seminars.
His website is: Aaron Hoopes – The Art of Zen Yoga