Hassidic Jews break stigmas through yoga

The Kolbergs were studying yoga in India when they chanced upon ultra- Orthodox Judaism. Today they run a studio in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

orthodox yoga 521 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
orthodox yoga 521
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
"If you can control your heart, you can control your desires," Avraham Kolberg announces as he strides between two groups of bearded, stretching haredi men.
“There is a guru in India who can stop his heartbeat for up to a minute,” he declares, explaining the link between physical and mental control. This control is especially important for the members of the strict ultra-Orthodox sects listening to him as they switch between a series of improbable poses.
Kolberg, a Breslov Hassid, is giving instruction to his Friday morning class of men in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Eight such men, some still wearing their black velvet kippot despite their physical exertions, have gathered in his airy studio to, as one participant puts it, learn how to “get in touch with their bodies.”
This is certainly not your typical soccer mom’s yoga class.
The studio is well appointed, with wood floors, wide windows overlooking a scene of pastoral hilltops, and plenty of sunlight.
Shelves with wooden blocks and other implements of the yoga practitioner’s art fill the corners, and ropes and straps used for stretching exercises line the walls. A pile of mats sits neatly folded over to the side.
Kolberg is active, his long peyot (sidecurls) swinging with the motions of his body as he goes from student to student, assisting with difficult positions and providing hands-on instruction in the most literal meaning of the term. Not all of the participants are young; several gray beards bob and weave under faces taut with exertion.
“Relax your body, relax your mind,” he tells his students. “Some poses require effort, and some require relaxation, so to reach this pose you have to learn to relax.”
As I sit on the sidelines and take notes, Kolberg comes over and insists that I get up and participate. His students make room, and suddenly I find myself lying on a thin mat with my arms to the sides and my feet in the air.
As I participate in the class, contorting my body into a series of uncomfortable positions, I realize just how out of shape I really am. At the same time, Kolberg, who is a ba’al teshuva (a formerly secular Jew who has embraced Orthodox observance), continues to stress the spiritual benefits of yoga. The discipline necessary to control one’s body, he believes, translates directly into an increased self-discipline that can enhance one’s spiritual life.
“Yoga is control,” he later explains, sitting on the hardwood floor and sipping chai tea. The purpose of yoga is “to control the mind. We learn to control the muscles, but it’s all aimed to control the mind eventually. That’s why it’s good for Jews to do it. It’s unbelievable.”
That may be true. However, as I was gazing up past my feet at the ceiling before, all I could think of was that when your most strenuous activity is typing fast, getting your legs up over your head can hurt.
When I note this aloud, Kolberg looks at me, says, “Don’t think you’re in terrible shape,” and invites me to become a regular participant in his class.
The instructor says he came to Orthodoxy during his yoga studies in India. He and his wife, Rachel, were studying the art on the subcontinent and decided to visit the Hindu holy city of Rishikesh, which he describes as “yoga Disneyland.”
“It’s full of ashrams, and all the tourists come there,” he says. “It’s where the Beatles were.”
It is also where he discovered Breslov Hassidism.
“When we came there, all of a sudden we saw signs that there was going to be Passover in Rishikesh in that hotel. So we said, let’s go see. When we came there, we met a couple who had come from Israel, Breslovers, who got funded to come to India and do Passover.”
He explains that “the moment I saw this person, something happened to me, and also to my wife. This meeting was very special.”
He believes that without prior grounding in yoga, he would not have been able to make the transition from secular to Orthodox hassid.
“Our yoga spiritual teachers prepared the ground for us to receive some spirituality, and meeting these people made it happen,” he recounts. “Our spiritual teachers were always asking, ‘What’s going on with you? You’re disconnected from your people, you’re disconnected from your culture, you’re disconnected from your God.’” The yoga masters, he says, “hate secularism” and encouraged him to explore his religious roots.
The Hindu roots of yoga can scare many potential participants off, even when the physical side is completely divorced from Indian mysticism – as it is in Kolberg’s studio, where they practice what some have called “mehadrin yoga.”
However, the mostly American participants in this Friday morning class say that coming from a country in which yoga is mainstream means that there is little to no stigma attached to its practice, even if it is uncommon in their neighborhood.
Michael Simpson, a 66-year-old with a long, white beard, velvet kippa and black shorts, explains that he started yoga due to health concerns related to Parkinson’s disease.
Asked if he feels stigmatized due to his involvement with yoga, he replies in the negative.
“There are some people who have a feeling that there is going to be some sort of avoda zara [paganism] going on,” he says, “but I find this completely free of that.”
Another student, Tzvi Benvenisti, says that rather than a stigma in his community, there is “a sense of bemusement, but not anything [that is] negative.”
He says his participation in yoga is due to his wife, who suggested the class as a remedy when he complained of feeling stiff.
“Life here is wonderful, but it has it’s stresses,” notes the young father of five, saying that yoga helps him be “more conscious of my body.”
All of the students seem enthused about making yoga a part of their lives, although they admit that it is not as big among the men as it is with their wives.
Kolberg says he finds this amusing.
“I think in all the world, there is a small percentage of men doing it. It’s very funny, because in India, the people who do yoga are men,” he says with a smile.
With some of his students, now dressed in suits, sitting around him sipping their tea and munching on whole-wheat cakes, Kolberg says practicing yoga can actually be the fulfillment of a Jewish religious imperative.
Jews “have a mitzva to take care of themselves” physically, he says, pointing out that many of his male students “come to yoga because of some illness or some weakness or some problem.”
While it is more accepted in the “Litvish” or non-hassidic, Anglo community of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, he explains, yoga is not nearly as mainstream in the hassidic Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Though he has clients who come from that neighborhood and the neighboring Kirya Haredit, the yoga master notes that “they would not normally come here. Not in their wildest dreams. But if a person is sick or if a person has some problems, then it’s easier for him to find himself in this situation.”
According to Kolberg, “the Israeli [native-born] haredi community is very unaware of all health issues, including food, behavior and regulations. They won’t take their money and their time to come do something that is worthwhile for their health because they think they don’t have time for it, they don’t have money for it.”
While the Anglos can come freely, he says, Israeli-born hassidim still have to hide their involvement. One seminary student, he recalls, was threatened with expulsion over her involvement with the Kolbergs’ studio.
His wife enters the room and sits down.
Asked about the reluctance of some in the more conservative religious factions to approve of engagement with yoga, she recalls a woman who left the class when she was told that she would have to remove her socks. She couldn’t expose her feet out of modesty concerns, Rachel says.
However, among non-hassidic haredim, and especially the Americans, Kolberg has made great inroads, making such progress that he even gives a weekly lesson in one of the local yeshivot.
His students are certainly enthusiastic, with one of his protegés, a young Talmud scholar, calling yoga “totally incredible.”
“I find that the community is accepting and understanding,” says Baruch Greenman, another student. “I don’t think there is any stigma involved in yoga.”
With two classes daily, one for men and a separate one for women, the studio does a brisk trade, but it was not always so.
“We had very few people here at the beginning,” Kolberg recounts. “I used to go to Jerusalem to teach, and we had some few private students. It wasn’t going.”
However, things have changed, and even though Kolberg says he did not set out to change haredi attitudes toward physical exercise, his small studio seems to be having an impact. Classes have expanded, and women have been coming in from the more insular neighborhoods.
“We’re not trying to make a revolution,” he says, “but as we were working here and practicing with people, we saw that it’s such a big thing to do, just to get people to connect.”
He compares his studio to a single needle placed by an acupuncturist: It may not seem like a big deal, but it can make a major difference.