Yoga and the Jews

East meets Middle East in the Holy Land.

STUDENTS AND teacher reach up and left in Safra Square (photo credit: ROLF VIETEN)
STUDENTS AND teacher reach up and left in Safra Square
(photo credit: ROLF VIETEN)
The ancient practice of breath control, meditation and body postures known as yoga has been part of the global lexicon for decades. In the Jewish and Israeli world, it has been shaped and repurposed to benefit nearly every stream of life. While discussing the relationship between modern Jews and yoga might seem to mimic that famously narrow focus of searching for the Jewish connections to all things, no matter how tenuous, it also seems natural for an ancient people to be drawn to an ancient practice.
Yoga arrived in Israel not long after the country's inception and drew a strong following in the 1960s and ‘70s from soul-searchers seeking new ways to improve their bodies and expand their minds. Today, the Indian-derived practice has evolved and branched out to reach a broader range of Israelis of every age, from soldiers to schoolchildren, Tel Aviv hipsters to New-Age hippies, and even some in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.
As we approach Sukkot, it seems appropriate to explore the connections between yoga and the holiday, and how Jews today relate to this time-honored pursuit.
Some might say the connections are a bit of a “stretch” (pun intended), but Jerusalem-based yoga instructor Ayo Oppenheimer Abitbol begs to differ. “Sukkot is a grounding holiday, yet it’s also about leaving your comfort zone to commune outside in nature,” she noted.
“Much like in yoga, the Jewish holidays, we reflect on ourselves in the present moment while aspiring to ascend to our ‘higher self,’” she explained. “One of the key commandments of Sukkot is aliyah l’regel, a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem that parallels our spiritual ascent, as well as a physical practice that encourages connection, reflection and awareness of the world around us during the holiday.”
Ayo has been teaching yoga for more than a decade, and has been practicing for over 12 years. Her rooftop yoga studio in the heart of the eclectic Nahlaot neighborhood attracts a wide variety of students.
Her approach to yoga is to bring her students back to connect to the world around them, allowing them the freedom to become at peace with their bodies, their minds and with nature.
She further describes how yoga and Sukkot share a common goal. Sukkot is z’man simchateinu, “the time of our rejoicing,” when we are commanded to be joyful. Yoga is largely a practice of finding peace – and Ayo believes that from peace, joy can emerge.
“Sukkot comes at a really interesting time of the year,” she said. “We are just finishing up this really intense time of the holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur bring up these heavy questions: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I want to be?’ Sukkot then arrives as a great opportunity to rejoice and let go of your own thoughts, a chance to be in a state of joy. Yoga practice shares those values. It allows us to transcend the weight of our thoughts and to be present with ourselves and with those around us.
“Yoga is about noticing the moment and slowing down, and Sukkot is very much connected to this,” she said. “The strongest therapeutic elements of yoga get us out of our own minds, or those looping stories that we repeat in our heads. And one of the great parts of Sukkot is this approach of, ‘You did all your work and you did all this reflecting. Now quiet the mind and get out of your story and be in this moment.”
But is it Kosher?
This is the part where things can get a little “twisted” (pun intended, again). While some of yoga’s origins are deeply rooted in Hindu religious practices, Ayo explained that contemporary yoga is not always connected to the religious aspects of these roots. “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali date back to 400 CE and is a philosophical treatise on the theory and practice of yoga that draws from universal sources rather than championing the beliefs of Hinduism or any singular faith. Beyond the ancient sources, much of modern yoga practice today actually evolved from Western and British influences on India, including gymnastics and other disciplines.”
However, this is not enough to convince a handful of prominent rabbis. Ayo pointed to Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg’s opposition to practicing yoga as having the “dust” of idolatry.
Yoga-instructor-turned-ultra-Orthodox-Rabbi Gutman Locks – sometimes known as “Guru Gil” – claims that various elements of yoga and poses are, indeed, forms of idolatry. He notes that the common “Sun Salutation” yoga sequence originally meant “worship of the sun” in Hindi, but that the translation has been changed to appeal to Westerners.
Locks holds that these elements are still deeply embedded in yoga practice and they are a form of deity worship that contaminates Jews. He says Jews should keep away from yoga because of the dangers that come with straying from Jewish ideologies and practices.
On the other hand, Ayo pointed to other rabbis who are supportive of the positive mental and physical benefits of yoga. “While the Lubavitcher Rebbe acknowledged the Hindu roots of yoga,” she explained, “he realized the mental and physical benefits of the practice and gave his followers a heter [permission] to practice yogic meditation and movements in more neutral contexts. The mainstream medical community has documented the benefits of mindful movement, thereby normalizing yoga and meditation – and the Rebbe, too, recognized the positive mental and physical benefits that yoga has on those who practice it.”
There are some people who have found it possible not only to practice yoga and Judaism, but to use each to complement the other.
MARCUS FREED, originally from England, now lives in Los Angeles, where he has built a career on combining Jewish practice with yoga. He co-founded the Jewish Yoga Network and even wrote a series of books that marry yoga practice to various Jewish holidays and traditions.
While searching for a way to get his body in tune with the work his soul was doing as he was becoming more religious, Freed established a strong connection between his Jewish practice and yoga.
He explained that while his mind and soul were expanding and reaching new and meaningful heights through connecting to Judaism, he felt his body was left behind.
“Judaism is an entirely cerebral practice and we have gotten stuck in the head,” he said.
Freed feels that there’s a collective pull toward this type of physical practice because of what he sees as something “hardwired in the Jewish psyche.” As he noted, “Jacob literally wrestled with God. We are hardwired to physically find God and to reveal the connection to the ‘oneness,’ and yoga is an important way to achieve this because it helps settle the mind.”
He asserts that Jewish practices were much more physical during the times of the Temple, and that after its destruction, the Diaspora that followed gave way to a more static form of Judaism, one in which sitting still in yeshiva became acceptable, if not the norm. He is determined to bring balance back to this ancient practice with a little help from the East.
As the Jewish people continue to evolve, it is clear that yoga not only has been accepted into the tribe, but it has become a necessity that complements modern Jewish life.
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