The Judaizing of Yoga Practice

Wendy Schneider
The Hamilton Jewish News
May 10, 2004

 

During the latter part of the 20th century, up until present times, thousands of western spiritual seekers have been looking to eastern religions and disciplines to satisfy their thirst for an accessible and more gratifying form of spirituality. Among them is a disproportionately large number of Jews, many of whom are among the most renowned leaders in American Buddhism, meditation and yoga centres throughout the west.

 

For an entire generation of Jewish seekers , Judaism was a religion that was “Pre-occupied with social and political issues, and often embarrassed by expressions of spirituality” , while eastern religious practices offered them an opportunity to experience union with the divine through direct experience,

 

“And not through subscribing to a set of beliefs and practices that they were required to accept on faith.”

 

Uninspired by an institutionalized Judaism they found during sporadic synagogue attendance and unfamiliar with Jewish ritual life, many were drawn to meditation practice. Commenting on this phenomenon Alan Lew, founder of Makor Or, a Jewish meditation centre in San Francisco, has said,

 

“Meditation, in all its forms, was a popular choice. Buddhist meditation, Hindu meditation, Transcendental meditation, awareness meditation, trance meditation, meditation on breath, on mantras, on mandalas, on guided imagery – all of these were found by a generation of Jewish seekers to be more accessible, more immediately gratifying, more inspiring and more useful than the spiritual models they had grown up with.”

 

Many of the last century’s “wandering Jews” may have been astonished to learn that Jewish history is rife with examples of movements that took a more spiritual and mystical approach to Judaism. Included among them is Kabbalah (a Jewish mystical movement dating back to the 13th century) Hassidism (a movement founded in early 18th century Russia), Musar (founded in 19th century Lithuania) and the modern movement for Jewish renewal.

 

Nonetheless, much of the Kabbalah and Chassidic literature had, until recently, remained inaccessible to ordinary Jews. The study of Kabbalah, for instance, was considered in traditional circles to be forbidden to any male under the age of 40 and considered out of the question for women.

 

Much has changed since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the late 60s, and “the search for a meaningful life” is no longer a topic considered inappropriate for water cooler discussions. In the Jewish world there has been a proliferation of classes in Kabbalah, Chassidism and other topics of a spiritual nature, as synagogues, educational institutions and Jewish Community Centres, in increasing numbers, respond to a growing demand for a Judaism that can address the search for personal meaning and fulfillment.

 

In the early 1980s a book was published that had an enormous impact on thousands of Jewish seekers hungering to find a Jewish context for their evolving spirituality. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, Jewish Meditation, revealed a host of ancient Jewish meditation techniques that were easily accessible to ordinary Jews. Rabbi Caplan presented a succinct summary of practices, including meditations on the Hebrew letters that form God’s name, as well as illuminating the fact that many of the familiar prayers in the traditional Hebrew prayer book were originally meant to be recited as meditations. One of these, the Amidah, a famous prayer that is recited three times a day, is now known to have been designed as a standing meditation. Its chanting includes specific physical movements, which some have come to see as an ancient form of a “Jewish yoga”

The Amidah is to be recited without interruption, with each benediction flowing directly into the next. The recitation is accompanied by ritual bowing. When reciting the word ‘baruch’  one should bend the knees. When saying the next word, ‘attah’ one should bow from the waist…the Talmud suggests that one bow quickly and rise slowly ‘like a snake’ which, the rabbis said, loosened the spine and opened the body to the flow of divine energy.”

 

Rabbi Caplan’s book was just one of many influences that has led to a huge transformation in the world of Jewish worship. In addition to the four main streams of Judaism – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist – hundreds of Jewish renewal congregations and communities have arisen in recent years. At a Jewish renewal retreat centre in the Catskill Mountains known as Elat Chayyim, classes in Jewish meditation and Jewish Yoga are offered together with workshops in sacred dance, Jewish mysticism and Jewish healing practices.

 

While the Jewish Renewal movement has come under criticism for being syncretistic (a process by which elements of one religion are assimilated into another religion resulting in a change in the fundamental nature of those religions), its defenders say that Judaism has always demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances.

 

Jews and Yoga

 

Yoga, promoted in the west as a practical, spiritual discipline that does not require its practitioners to accept a prescribed set of beliefs, has had widespread appeal for thousands of non-observant Jews. Its promise of self-transformation, direct personal experience and realization of one’s true self, is not offensive to their Jewish sensibilities. For more traditional Jews, however, yoga has been more problematic in that in many settings where it is taught sanskrit chanting, altars, and pictures of gurus and Hindu gods, are to be found. Orthodox Jews, in particular, are averse to anything that connotes “avodah zarah”, or idolatry, and many fear taking up a practice that may bring them into contact with forbidden subjects.

 

Increasingly, Jewish yoga students are asking the question, “What are our equivalents?” “What does Judaism have to offer that parallels the experiences and teachings I am finding in my yoga classes?” Happily, many of those who rejected Judaism in the past are rediscovering Judaism via their yoga and meditation practice, by finding parallel beliefs within Jewish mysticism or substituting Hebrew words and phrases for the sanskrit chants they are learning in their yoga classes.

 

Laurie Wolko, a yoga teacher in New York, trained in the Integral Yoga system by Sri Swami Satchidananda, has spent much of last few years exploring her Jewish roots and becoming more observant. But, even during the years when she was a non-observant Jew, there was discomfort.

 

“I was also very uncomfortable with chants, and the altars and the guru stuff for a very long time. And I’m still uncomfortable with it. All the chants are prayers to gods.”

 

Wolko, who has deepened her understanding and observance of Jewish practice over the last number of years, understands the hesitation among orthodox Jews to delve into yoga. She tells the story about the time she and a fellow yoga teacher went to a weekend retreat, organized by an orthodox Jewish movement, and her friend was asked to teach yoga.

 

“They wanted her to teach yoga but they did not want her to use that word. It was a stretch class. There were to be no sun salutations at all.”

 

Over the last decade, a growing number of traditionally minded Jews have been experimenting with ways to bridge their yoga practice with Judaism. “Jewish Yoga” classes are being offered across North America, in Europe and in Israel. As diverse in form as the individuals who created them, what they have in common is a sincere intent to illuminate Jewish texts and concepts through mindfulness and meditative techniques. For some, the return to their roots followed years of experimentation with various eastern practices. For others, a late introduction to yoga aroused a longing to apply its spiritual aspects to Judaism. What seems clear, however, is that Jewish yoga is providing a gateway back to Judaism for many Jews who had given up on their faith.

 

As Alan Lew reports in his book, One God Clapping, it took ten years of immersing himself in Zen meditation and stripping away his illusions to discover that his essence was, after all, Jewish.  Lew, who went on to become a conservative rabbi, tells the story about his friend, Norman Fischer, the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, who had been raised a Jew.  On a day when Fischer joined Lew at morning services at his rabbinical seminary, Lew watched in surprise as his friend put on t’fillin, picked up a prayer book and prayed with great intensity and passion. When Lew asked him about is as they were leaving, Fischer said,

 

“You know, Alan, now that I’ve done Zen meditation for so long, I could do this (i.e. normative Jewish spiritual practice) for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t have to do anything else. It would be enough. But if I hadn’t done meditation, I wouldn’t even know what this was.”

 

Judaism as Karma Yoga

 

Judaism, with its emphasis on the centrality of the 613 mitzvot (commandments), resembles Karma Yoga, the yoga path that stresses the individual’s becoming an instrument of God’s will, to serve others, to work for work’s sake without attachment to results. Whereas Karma Yoga speaks of doing one’s work or duty for its own sake, Jewish oral tradition teaches that the performing of a mitzvah (good deed) should be thought of as an end in itself.   As a “hands-on” religion, Judaism has been more concerned with the doing or the observance of the commandments, more than on the intention behind the action.  This is reflected in the famous rabbinic commentary that states that when the Israelites were asked whether they were prepared to take on the precepts given at Sinai, they replied, “We will do and we will hear”, implying that for Jews, it is important to do first and understand later.

 

“Jewish” Yoga

 

Diane Bloomfield is an anomaly in Jewish yoga in that she came to yoga only after attaining a thorough grounding in Jewish study.  Bloomfield spent 20 years living in Israel, much of that time spent studying and teaching Torah at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.

 

During a hiatus in the United States, Bloomfield began attending yoga classes at Kripalu in Lennox, Massachusetts.  She found it intriguing that such a large number of yoga students were Jewish and gave the phenomenon a great deal of thought.

 

“I think Jews are a very spiritual people and I don’t think that Judaism is always given over in a way that’s satisfying…but they also don’t realize that it’s in Judaism.”

 

When her yoga teachers would quote Patanjali, Bloomfield found she could immediately identify their counterparts in the Torah. Soon she began sharing her knowledge of Torah to the Jewish students she encountered at yoga workshops and classes.

 

Bloomfield’s 90-minute classes begin with a ten-minute warm up, followed by a meditation based on a theme chosen from a kabbalistic concept, Torah portion for the upcoming sabbath or a Jewish holiday that may be approaching. This is followed by an hour-long segment of yoga postures accompanied by instructions that reflect the theme of the class, so that the yoga becomes a real experience of the ideas that she has taught. 

 

Hanna Sara Zeller, raised in a non-religious Jewish family in New York, has been living in Israel and teaching a form of Jewish yoga for many years. She first came across yoga in the 70s in search of relief from discomfort caused by her scoliosis.  She was greatly influenced by the renowned guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga, under whom she studied throughout the 1980s. Satchidananda was well known for his teaching that there are many paths to the one truth and he often encouraged his students, many of whom were Jews, to find their authentic paths.

 

“He used to say, wherever you’re going to be, dig a well and if you can’t dig it deeply in yoga, then go be a Jew because that’s how you were born. He sent a lot of people home.”

 

Zeller ultimately became a “ba’al tshuvah”, the term used to denote those who “return” to orthodox Judaism. She found a rabbi and began immersing herself in the study of kabbalah.

 

During her classes, Zeller will set an intention (kavannah, in Hebrew), that might be related to the Torah portion, a Jewish life-cycle event, like a holiday or a new month. Alternatively, she may choose as a theme a quality of one of the ten s’firot, a kabbalistic concept, often referred to as the Jewish chakras, that describes ten dimensions of human consciousness.  Zeller found that working with the s’firot in her yoga practice enabled her students to achieve deeper levels of understanding.

 

If, for instance, Zeller had chosen the kabbalistic concept of “chesed”  (literally, lovingkindness) as a theme, she would direct her students to set an intention for themselves of opening to a sense of flowing abundance while they are exploring the poses.

 

A kabbalistic concept Zeller will often use in her classes, is that of “Chashmal”, literally meaning electricity, which teaches that, in order for current to flow, there has to be both a positive and a negative.

 

“The ‘chash’ is the positive effort in the pose, when you’re checking everything out, making sure you’re in the right form, going to your maximum…and then there’s the ‘mal’. That’s the place where you completely let go and soften and let go completely and allow yourself to make no effort at all… If you don’t do that, there’s no flow in the pose –  it will be a very static experience. It’s only through the ‘chash’ and the ‘mal’, the ability to move through from positive to negative, from effort to effortlessness that you find that opening.”

 

Another form of Jewish yoga, currently being taught in Israel, with adherents in communities around the world, is called Ophanim, literally translated as “cycles”. Ophanim practitioners use breathing, meditation and specific physical postures that resemble certain Hebrew letters, which, they say, will result in a “revitalization of both the body and the spirit, as the Divine energy permeates and awakens the physical organs and the soul itself.”

 

The Ophanim philosophy is based on the mysteries of the Hebrew letters outlined in the Kabbalistic work, Sefer Ha’Yetsirah (the book of creation), which outlines a set of postures resembling the Hebrew letters that are set in a specific order. “Ophanim”,  is “the name for a specific system of ‘sacred’ physical postures and internal exercises which are based on the Hebrew alphabet and Jewish mystical tradition.”

 

Its website actually refers to it as a “kind of ‘Jewish’ yoga” and as a “practice which unifies and heals the spiritual, mental, emotional and physical sides of man.” 

 

The physical aspect of Ophanim consists of 27 postures (mirroring the Hebrew alphabet). On a daily basis, the practice includes the physical stance of five constant postures, referred to as the mother letters, and two others selected according to the month and day of the week. One can choose to supplement this basic practice by other letters if desired. While the postures are integral to the practice, Ophanim places greater emphasis on the meditative practice than on the postures themselves.

 

While Ophanim might seem a little too esoteric for Jews looking for a Jewish style of yoga, there are yoga teachers who will draw comparisons between traditional postures and the certain letters of the Hebrew alphabet, (Triangle pose, for example, resembles the aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) or explore the symbolism inherent in a particular Hebrew letter in a teaching context.

 

As Laurie Wolko’s life began leading her towards a deeper exploration of her Judaism, it seems inevitable that her yoga practice would reflect that journey. When Wolko came across Ophanim yoga during a visit to Israel, she became intrigued by its Kabbalistic origins, and began to bring elements of the practice into her own personal practice and into workshops on Jewish yoga that she leads in the New York area. 

 

“As I deepen my practice, it’s so not about the poses for me. I just need something very different now and I feel that I’m here to share with people. Ten, fifteen years ago, 75% of cults were Jews. Jews were always searching for things and many of the yoga teachers are Jewish. They have no idea that Jewish meditation dates back to biblical times.”

 

In her Jewish yoga workshops Wolko may begin by leading her students in the chanting of a niggun, a wordless Jewish melody, or a verse from a psalm. The repetitive chanting has a similar effect, Wolko finds, to the repetition of a mantra, in that the chanting becomes meditative and takes students beyond their thinking minds.  She will follow with a teaching, presented in lecture format, then teach the poses, and end with savasana and meditation.

 

Estelle Eugene is the founder of the UK’s Yoga Mosaic, a Jewish Yoga Teacher Association, founded in 2003. Its origins were entirely serendipitous.

 

“Back in 1992 one of the Jewish publications requested an article about Yoga and Judaism.  This was rather startling, as it had never occurred to me to link Yoga and Judaism together. However, during the course of my study to become qualified as a Yoga teacher, I recalled that I invariably related to Jewish sources too, when answering the questions posed on the philosophy of Yoga.  I recalled discussing this aspect with one of my former students who did exactly the same when she studied to become a teacher.”

 

Eugene’s discovery of like-minded Jewish yoga teachers led to the creation of Yoga Mosaic. The organization boasts a membership of 40,  and its website has attracted over 6,000 visitors. Eugene regularly receives e-mails from the United States inquiring whether any similar establishment exists over there.  Her hope is that other countries will follow their example by launching their own Yoga Mosaic – “exploring our roots and seeing where Yoga and Judaism strengthen each discipline. "

 

Conclusion

 

Today Jewish Yoga is being taught throughout the United States and Canada, Europe and Israel. There is, however, no single version of “Jewish Yoga.” It is, in fact, constantly evolving, and as diverse as the individuals engaged in teaching it.

 

The growing number of yoga teachers around the world who are experimenting with Jewish yoga appear to have one thing in common: a belief that any the spiritual practices of yoga and meditation can certainly be presented in a Jewish context.

 

Laurie Wolko, perhaps, put it best when she said:

 

“I put it [my practice] in a Jewish context in the sense that I see my physical practice as a prayer to God. And a prayer to myself and the to world. Some people would say that sun salutations are avodah zarah, and I understand where they’re coming from. But I believe it’s the intention that you put into it. What I do is to frame it in a Jewish way… So no matter what I’m doing in my practice, it becomes Jewish because I have couched it in a Jewish way.”

 

Reservations aside, the facts speak for themselves. Thousands of disenchanted Jews are seeking a gateway back into Judaism. And, for a significant number of them, Jewish yoga has resonated as a legitimate path that can lead them to reconnect to the richness and depth of their heritage.        

   

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