An Orthodox Jewish Yoga Teacher: How I Reconcile The Two And Why I Train Others Like Me To Teach Yoga
The question I face often in being an Orthodox Jewish woman teaching yoga, and training Jewish women to teach Yoga, is the question of ‘Is Yoga a form of idol worship according to Judaism and if it is should Jews be practicing Yoga?’. Much literature has come out today to support the idea, like the article “Not as Old as You Think” states, that” tremendous amount of cross-breeding and hybridization has given birth to yoga as we know it. Indeed, contemporary yoga is a unique example of a truly global innovation, in which Eastern and Western practices merged to produce something that is valued and cherished around the world. Hinduism, whether ancient, medieval or modern, has no special claims on 21st century postural yoga. To assert otherwise is churlish and simply untrue.” In this article, as well as the writings of Mark Singleton and his book ” Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice”, a clarification of the history of the development of modern Yoga sheds light to the Yoga world. Similarly for Jews, reading these writings can help subdue the fears that the yoga poses of today are rooted in a unbroken ancient chain and when practiced become a gateway to the polytheistic G-d head of Hinduism.
The article above goes on to claim that any religious practices in yoga studios such as chanting and any other religious Hindu ritual has basically been superimposed on the modern westernized postural practice and that this is all ” a paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably spiritual ambience,” but has no rooted ancient history of the kind of modern yoga postural practice that has become popular today. The idea that Orthodox Jews see this outbreak of modern yoga as threatening, because it may be rooted in idol worship, is basically naive to the true history of post – imperialist India and the modernization/secularization movement which the modern postural Yoga practice of today arose out of. To assert that Yoga poses are a form of idol worship is simply untrue.
There seems, in my view as an Orthodox Jewish yoga teacher, a far greater Yoga threat to Judaism then the notion that us Jews will encounter harmful spiritual energy in practicing yoga poses. I would like to refer to this threat as the Judaicizing of Yoga and the Yogafying of Judaism. I will discuss this issue below. If Jews were under spiritual threat from doing Yoga then playing sports would also be problematic and would be causing Jews to fall into the clutches of Greek philosophy and we would be creating a culture of body worship. If yoga is used as a tool for Jews to center ourselves on our mat and reintegrate the fragmented mind with the body, then Yoga postural practice is a modern tool which can help us to be more mindful, less stressed, and healthy in our life and our religious life. This is a very helpful tool for Jews since Jewish observance involves many rewarding sacrifices that if not rebalanced with self actualization and self awareness, can lead to a life of either stress, a kind of emotional numbing, or G-d forbid a disconnection with G-d. In learning how to practice Yoga as a Jew, I strongly promote that Jews will benefit greatly from talking to or learning from a educated observant Jew who teaches yoga without creating a confusion about what is yoga and what is Judaism. It is this confusion which I believe is founded on the idea that Judaism and Yoga have the same goal and that Torah is really a means to Enlightenment vs. a adherence to the fulfillment of the Commandments from Sinai. While Yoga practitioners may state “the purpose of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature (The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga, Bhole Prabhu ) “, Torah Judaism may believe that the goal of Judaism is to bring the transcendent nature of God down into the world through the commandments or that ” it is only through mitzvah observance that man (a Jew) can build a deep, enduring, and meaningful relationship with God. (Torah.org, Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene)” Therefore, although Yoga can offer a Jew a deeper self awareness of that spark of Divine within each person, a deep and meaningful relationship with God for a Jew is intimately bound up with Mitzvot observance. It is this confusion that Jews can connect to G-d equally through Yoga spiritual practices which may cause, for example, synagogues to offer a Yoga practice, call it Tefillah (Jewish prayer), and then emphasize that what G-d wants from us is our mindfulness over the obligation of fulfilling a time bound commandment. It is this confusion that may cause some Jews to say that if Jews are practicing Yoga on a Ashram in India, so long as they are connecting to their spiritual selves, then this is the most important thing.
The Yoga Teacher’s Training program that myself, and my co-director Sarede Switzer, have created allows religiously committed Jewish women to train to be yoga teachers but while maintaining their observance rooted in Judaism. Judaism is not necessarily overtly taught on the course. Jewish ideas are exchanged by virtue of the women who take the course. Mindfulness touches the Jewish soul cause each woman who attends our program lives their life deeply in relation to their Judaism. On our course we teach how to love Yoga and view it as what gets us centered on our mat, healthy in mind and body, and what helps us live a healthy and balanced life. There are moments in our Yoga practice when the soul gets stirred through the mindful movement of the poses integrating with breath, and at these moments something Jewish may be said to reinforce the wisdom of our Torah. However, Yoga does not become a replacement of the commitment to Mitzvot and Enlightenment does not become the goal of Judaism. At the Teacher’s Training course, we have lectured about the Jewish people having lost their connection to their body (as reinforced through the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook) after the exile of the 3rd Temple. In this lecture we discuss how Jews were thrown into ghettoized life, small spaces, anti-Semitism, and therefore a necessary emphasis on intellectual preservation with the unfortunate consequence of undermining the physical actualization of our tradition. For Rav Kook, with “our intense pre-occupation with spirituality, we have forgotten the holiness of the body. We neglected bodily health and strength. We forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than our holy spirit.”(Orot Hatechiya, pg 80). Rav Kook was vehemently attacked by the Ultra Orthodox community for his views on seeing the Jewish people’s engagement with Sports as something which could bring about a renewed strengthening within the Jewish people. The modern postural practice of Yoga, devoid of any Hindu underpinnings, taught by educated Jews who can discern between the goals of Yoga and the goals of Judaism and not confuse the two, can be a means towards healing the body and therefore reinforcing Jews to live healthier and more balanced Jewish lives. Through this process we the Jewish people contribute to the continuous hybridization of Yoga’s modern postural practice, while helping to reveal its universal benefits and its uniquely global innovation. Contributing to the progress of the world has never been a challenge for Jews. However, doing this while maintaining and deepening our own unique religious role has been our challenge. I look forward to the graduates of KinneretYoga playing this balanced and truly important role.
Kinneret Dubowitz is the director of KinneretYoga and offers a 200 hour
Yoga Alliance certified teacher’s training course in Israel, New York, Toronto, and L.A.
Use this link to read about our new L.A. course: http://www.kinneretyogatraining.com/la.html