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How Orthodox Jews Taught Me Yoga

How Orthodox Jews Taught Me Yoga

A yoga teacher encounters Jewish spirituality with religious Jews in Israel for the first time.

by

Most yoga classes are full of asana, touch on philosophy and ignore God. When I teach, I don't want to offend anyone. When I take class, I don't want to be preached to.

We do yoga to become steadier, expand our comfort zones and practice falling gracefully. We coordinate movement with breath and body with mind. Yoga helps us cope with life and even thrive.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras instruct us on how to achieve yoga, or union, between the soul and the Infinite. So try as we might to ignore God, eventually we have to talk about it.

I first felt the presence of God when I was 26 and traveling in Israel. A nonprofit organization sponsored a free trip for Jews who had never before visited.

They showed me what happens when God is the motive of actions. As it turns out, yoga happens.

When the plane landed in Tel Aviv, the tour guides said “welcome home”. Because my ancestors were Jewish, they considered Israel my spiritual homeland.

The guides were Orthodox Jews in their 20s. For two weeks they surrounded us with practicing Orthodox men and women from all aspects of the community. Collectively, they showed me what happens when God is the motive of actions. As it turns out, yoga happens.

Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender to God

It was easy to believe in God in Jerusalem because even mundane events are given ritual status. I was taught to touch the mezuzah (containing a scroll with Torah verses) when passing through a doorway. The Orthodox also pray upon waking up, eating, washing hands, seeing a rainbow.

God was everywhere. When we told Seth he has a beautiful smile, he said, “If so, Thank God.” He wouldn’t take credit.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.45 says that the way to achieve Samadhi (union with the Divine) is, "Ishvara Pranidhana". That translates to "Surrender to the Highest" or "Dedication to the Highest". In Israel, regardless of time or circumstance, people were dedicating their actions to God. It was inspiring to be mindful of the little things and plug into something bigger than individual ambition.

Yoga teachers may cue us to “let go” of tension, expectation or self-doubt. That really means “Surrender yourself. Stop fighting for control.”

Vidya – Clarity

There’s never really a “safe” time to visit Israel. After the two week program ended, some of us stayed longer to explore on our own. While we waited at a rural bus stop in the mountains, three rockets landed on the hill behind us.

We scrambled for a few minutes, then got whisked away by a taxi. We returned to our hostel in Tsfat where the locals said, “Don’t worry. The rockets can’t reach this far south from the border. The closest they ever came was 13 miles.”

The Israelis didn't get wrapped up in the drama of war. I assumed it was because they were used to bouts of violence. But really they just weren't wrapped up in the material world. They were following a basic yogic message to turn away from this transient, joyless world and take delight in God instead. They were calm because they recognized God as more important than the physical world.

The building shook each time a rocket landed and we Americans were feeling tense and anxious. We went to the rooftop for a night yoga session. That was, to date, one of my favorite yoga sessions and marked a turning point in my practice.

Avidya, ignorance, is described in Yoga Sutra 2.5 as “mistaking the impermanent for the permanent.” Avidya had always plagued my asana practice because I’d let myself get distracted by the whiny complaints of the physical body.

On the roof that night I found vidya, clarity. The physical body and pose alignment became less important as I absorbed the concept of impermanence. I found a calm steadiness that would not have been possible without examples from the Orthodox around me.

In yoga classes we might practice how to hold plank pose for a minute. The practice is more than strong wrists, arms and legs. The practice is silencing the complaints of the temporary body and sourcing our power from something higher. When we can do this we have a chance at being steady in our lives off the yoga mat, like Israelis in the face of war.

Brahmacharya – Walking with God

We switched our home base to Jerusalem because it seemed safer and is beautiful. The next time we saw our tour guide friends was at the wedding for the youngest guide.

Maya was 19. In the weeks leading up to her wedding she asked, “What does it feel like to hold hands with a boy?” As is custom, she had never flirted or dated.

On her wedding night, we danced furiously in a circle of hundreds of women. Maya didn’t care about sweating in her wedding dress. Her husband-to-be approached with a parade of men behind him. He was shaking with nerves and needed to be supported by both of his elbows.

Abstinence seemed berserk until I saw Maya’s confidence and healthy self-image.

Under the chuppah (wedding canopy) they went through many rituals and prayers. Their wedding signified all their past mistakes being forgiven and two souls becoming one.

After the ceremony, the couple was escorted to a private room and left alone for about 20 minutes. Their lifetimes of celibacy made these moments exponentially more special.

Abstinence seemed berserk until I saw Maya’s confidence and healthy self-image. Most women I know have at some point used their body to manipulate a relationship. We often make poor choices. In these ways, we harm ourselves. Maya instead practices ahimsa, non-harming, toward herself.

It isn’t hard for Maya to practice ahimsa because she also practices Brahmacharya or “Walking with God”. Yoga Sutra 2.38 says, “When walking in the awareness of God, the yogi gains great strength and vitality.” If we give our focus to God, our actions are more likely to be noble.

In the Orthodox Jewish community everyone is supported and encouraged to live with God in all moments. While that looks different for each person, collectively they showed me that it can be done. Thank God.

This article originally appeared on a popular yoga blog.

Published: December 28, 2013


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Visitor Comments: 36

(23) Wendy, June 18, 2014 8:34 PM

Spiritual or not spiritual

I see yoga as a spiritual practice as UNION between MIND, BODY, SPIRIT and HEART. It is up to the yogi doing yoga to determine what it means for them. The different sanskrit names have nothing to do with any form of religion. As you do your own yoga, you signify your own connection to the divine . The way I see it, Its all about doing good for others as well as yourself. The word AUM can simply mean a universal sound. going up to the universe.

(22) What the Torah says?, February 6, 2014 12:44 AM

???

Yoga stems from the Vedas - the Indian holy texts that were composed from around 1900BC. Besides yoga, three major religions came from those texts - Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Around 200-400AD, a sage called Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutras. His "eight limbs" of yoga still inform practice today and discuss posture, breathing, meditation and correct living.

If you practising Yoga .. you are YOGI - In Hinduism the term yogi refers to an adherent of yoga. Traditionally, yogic training involved deferring the tantric practices of sexual yoga until such time that sexual self-mastery had been established, whereupon sexual union is considered to be the ultimate yoga of the hindus gods - Shiva and Shakti.

Last year, a yoga class was banned from a church hall in the UK and Malaysia.. "Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise,". Whether that is compatible with Christianity, Islam and Judaism is debatable. I suggest that YOGA should be banned in US and other country.

To those in the know, for example, the yogic asanas, or positions, retain elements of their earlier spiritual meanings - the Surya namaskar is a series of positions designed to greet Surya, the Hindu Sun God. Yoga classes vary. While some feature the chanting of Hindu sutras, others will make vaguer references to a "life force" or "cosmic energy". A session might end with a greeting of "namaste" and a gesture of prayer. There will probably be a moment for meditation, at which point participants may be encouraged to repeat the sacred word "Om", which Buddhists and Hindus regard as a primordial sound which brought the universe into being.

Yoga as we know it long associated with Hindu faith.. my Indian (hindu) neighbor always practising Yoga because it is a part of Veda teaching. So is it possible to teach a pagan culture nor pagan teaching to be observe in Judaism? What a nonsense..

(21) rivka, January 19, 2014 6:48 PM

In this essay, the author relates everything she learns about Yiddishkeit to concepts she learned from yoga practice. I hope this is only a beginning point for her, and as she grows will see deeper truths in Torah than in yoga. Reminds me of my daughter - at one point she was so immersed in tae kwan do (& rebellious about Yiddishkeit) that she excitedly tol the rabbi that Rashi was saying the same thing as a principle she learned in tae kwan do. B"H he took it in stride. Today she is married to a Breslover, and has blocked that memory so much she tells me it never happened. As she grew in Torah, she stopped seeing everything in terms of tae kwan do principles. Hodu laHashem ki tov!

(20) Emunah Murray, January 6, 2014 2:32 PM

Torah is enough

I think Torah Jews have no business dabbling into other religious practices. The Torah is enough!!

(19) Leon Zacharowicz, January 5, 2014 7:46 PM

Sorry, but yoga may be idol worship!

A large number of respected orthodox rabbis do not allow one to participate in yoga, which is at best closely linked to pagan religions and idol worship--which is one of the 3 most severe sins.

Consult your knowledgeable orthodox rabbi.

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