Members filter in to a hushed atmosphere. They gravitate to their habitual spots and are seated. The leader enters, assumes a position in front of the congregation and begins. All rise. Although the ancient language is foreign, everybody follows respectfully, even earnestly. There’s chanting. Are we in a synagogue sanctuary for High Holiday services? Nope – this is yoga class. And I find myself wondering: Why do Jews love yoga?
Well, why does anyone love yoga? From Vaughan to the Beach and from Ashtanga to Moksha, yoga classes are proliferating and populated not only by Jews, but by longtime yogis, stressed out executives, harried parents and spinning aficionados with tight hip flexors. In fact, many members of our tribe meet all of the above criteria.
I’ve heard some yoga practitioners make a logical argument about not getting anything out of an Orthodox religious service because they don’t understand the words. However, it strikes me that these same people who make that argument seem to easily embrace prana, asanas and oms. If they didn’t fully understand the Sanskrit to begin with, they took the trouble to learn.
I grew up attending Orthodox services. Today, I go to stand with my community but don’t expect or find spiritual fulfilment. By contrast, my passion for yoga continues to grow. The first times I tried yoga, I found the experience slow and even left before the important closing pose known as savasanah. Over time, however, not only do I enjoy the physical benefits of the practice, I value even more the inner benefits which I derive and can take with me “off the mat.”
Is my journey typical? What draws so many of us to yoga and is there a lesson therein? Is that lesson for those of us more drawn to yoga class than services, or for the religious leaders who would like to see synagogue attendance increase?
Barry Bernstein strikes me as someone who might offer an interesting perspective. He is shomer Shabbat and keeps kosher, his level of observance having increased over time. I wonder what draws him. He is a relative newcomer to yoga and humble about his practice.
Bernstein says he first “dipped his toes gently into the water” of yoga six years ago. He describes his teacher Geeta as “fantastic.” Many students rave about Geeta much as followers might admire their rebbe. He “lucked into her” originally but eventually followed her to a new location and became part of a group of – dare I say – devotees? Bernstein describes his view of Orthodox services as “evolving.”
“What I always enjoyed about modern Orthodox services is becoming more and more atypical. Often, services are led by a lay member, rather than an accomplished chazzan, and the atmosphere is chop chop with a rush to get out; the antithesis of spirituality, prayer and a meaningful experience. For me, the chazzanut, bears a similarity to classical music, stirs the soul and helps me to get into my private prayer.”
Soul stirring was not a concept I gave much consideration to during most of my synagogue experiences – rushing to capacity services with hundreds of ticket holders on the High Holidays. Private prayer?
For clarification I turn to Rabbi Shalom Schachter of Beth Tzedec who talks to me about the two different sources of the obligation to pray; the rabbinic, with structured liturgies of text and times, versus biblical, which he says is “from your heart and can express emotions that you are feeling in the moment, like joyfulness, thankfulness or anxiety.” That sounds “private”, although more like what I think of as emotion than prayer.
Of the two, he explains that “the biblical requirement to pray can be achieved with or without words and, for many, is more easily felt” than the rabbinic. When Rabbi Schachter leads a minyan, he might start with a niggun or a chant, and try to insert the objective of the particular prayer. “Just as we don’t jump right into heavy exercise, but rather begin by warming up our muscles, so it is with prayer,” he says.
Anusara instructor Louise Hanley begins her yoga classes with talk instead of movement. She gives an example of a relevant experience – anything from a traffic ticket to dealing with aging parents. She then leads students through postures, using our bodies to strive for attitudes that will help us respond to life’s curve balls with more strength, flexibility and with softness in our hearts. The first principle of Anusara Yoga is about “opening to grace”, which sounds akin to private prayer.
Birchot Hashachar builds like a yoga class. Rabbi Schachter reminds me that morning prayers are about thanking God for our physicality. Next we warm our souls with the Psukei de Zimra and then focus our mind with the Shema. The positive framework of the focused mind from the Shema leads us to the Amidah or the Shemoneh Esrei, which is about our individual needs, be they health, parnassah or spiritual; private prayer.
Rabbi Schachter’s late father, the revered Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, was the picture of a wise Orthodox rabbi, replete with white beard and benevolent countenance. But far from typical of anything, he also counted the Dalai Lama among his friends and taught in ashrams, frequently hosting many spiritual seekers who were Jewish.
Is that Judaic or yogic?
Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi tried to meld alternative practices such as movement or meditation into the current practice of Judaism to enhance the spiritual experience. He was reputed to recognize the divine in all with whom he came into contact. This reminds me of how we bow our heads in yoga, hands in prayer position and greet with the word “namaste”, loosely translated as “the light inside me recognizes the light inside you.”
Rabbi Shalom Schachter says his father “lived in constant consciousness of his relationship with the Creator. He got in touch with his physical needs, emotional state and his spiritual neshama and aligned them with the Divine purpose of his existence.” Purpose or intention is expressed in Judaism as kavanah. Just as kavanah is important in Judaic practice, so yoga instructors often suggest setting an intention at the beginning of class.
Another common thread is the importance of staying present. Yoga instructors repeatedly remind students to come back to the present when the mind wanders. In Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi writes: "The awareness that we stand in the presence of the Living God is one of the most important realizations we can install in our operative consciousness. God is always present. The question is, how present are we?"
Iyengar instructor Kim Tanenbaum is passionate about yoga and about Judaism. As a convert raising a young family, she is particularly thoughtful in both regards.
“The word yoga itself means ‘union’ or ‘absolute consciousness’ with God, so while yoga is not a religion, I believe that there is yoga in every religion,” she says. “While it’s human nature to avoid roadblocks that litter the path to spiritual maturity, yoga gives us the opportunity to work on our nature. We then recognize that yoga is not just physical exercise, but an integrated science leading towards spiritual evolution. It’s one thing to be told exactly how to get somewhere, and another to be given a road map, but encouraged to blaze the trail yourself. This is what I think people seek and find in yoga.”
Rabbi Shalom Schachter adds: “It helps to have quiet and go inside yourself, to protect yourself from the white noise. Actions – like body movement or humming – assist in closing out interferences and help you go further with images and insights. King David talks about prayer as not being a one-sense experience but rather one in which “all my limbs shall cry out” in joy. So dance and body movement are not just an eastern or renewal phenomenon, but actually are contained in our own history.”
Celtic spirituality identifies “thin places” where we feel a closer connection to the Divine. Jews I spoke to find spirituality inside and outside the sanctuary; sometimes related to religion, such as in blessing one’s children at the Shabbat table, or sometimes unrelated, such as watching a sunrise or witnessing a birth. Some weekend warriors feel it on their road bikes. It can be solely associated with a place, such as the vortexes in Sedona, or it can be a combination of place and religion, such as the Kotel in Jerusalem.
Speaking of Jerusalem, a yoga studio is the last thing you’d expect to find in the haredi neighbourhood of Beit Shemesh. But Rachel and Avraham Kolberg are chassidic yoga teachers catering to the ultra-Orthodox community where the practice is controversial to say the least. Meanwhile, there are regular yoga meditation Shabbat services at Beth Tzedec, the largest Conservative shul in Toronto.
Both Judaism and yoga consistently recognize the importance of setting aside the mundane in order to focus on something higher. The jury is out on the most effective way to do that. What’s certain is that the one does not rule out the other and that the yearning for the resultant peace and meaning is universal. And so, the conversation continues.
Care to weigh in?