Traditional gesture, movement, and alignment in Jewish prayer: How yoga helps me to daven with more intention

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By Kim Kinneret Dubowitz, edited by Tracy Seider

Kinneret Dubowitz, of kinneretyogatraining.com, is a religious Jewish girl from Toronto who loves yoga, teaches yoga, and trains other Jewish women around the world to teach yoga.

Within Jewish prayer (or davening, in Hebrew) there are movement meditations, which – when done with mindfulness and intention – can lead a person to a transformative consciousness, where one learns to stand in the presence of one’s Creator.
Through my yoga practice I have learned how to align my body in such a way that when performing these traditional movements during the important Shemonei Esrei prayer (the 18 benedictions), the entrance and exit to this holy time of speaking to our Creator is filled with a deep and moving moment. This deepening has shed light on what is known as the silent prayer. The intention of these movements or gestures are not to serve the self but to serve the Creator of the world. Let’s explore these movements and explain how, through body awareness and healthy alignment, I have gained more out of traditional Jewish prayer.

Three steps back; three steps forward
Before we begin the Shemonei Esrei prayer we are required to take three steps backwards and then three steps forwards. The backward steps are traditionally understood to be the steps one takes out of the mundane, and the forward steps are those taken into holiness. This gestural walk, which starts Shemonei Esrei, takes us out of real time and space and enters us into G-d’s time and space.
I have learned from yoga that there is a way to stand and walk that results in a perfect distribution of weight across the feet. This important alignment allows the spine to extend tall and the lungs to breathe deep.
When one completes this walk mindfully and takes the three steps forwards into the equivalent of the mountain pose to begin the prayer (which parallels the recommended movement stance of the Shemonei Esrei – that is, two feet together, standing tall), there is a moment of standing centered, with mind and body ready to meet Hashem.
Traditionally, Judaism teaches that when the two feet are together it is as though the two legs become one leg and that, just like the angels (malachim) who have only one will (to serve G-d), we too stand in this silent prayer with one purpose (to serve G-d). The mountain pose in yoga places the body in the perfect midline or center of gravity. The body has found its place where there is no fight or struggle, and when it aligns there it feels strong, free, and open. Now we are ready to begin a conversation with our Creator.

Bowing
Another beautiful movement gesture within the Shemonei Esrei which encompasses the silent relationship between the Jew and G-d are those times during the prayer when we combine words with the movements of our joints. Traditional Jewish prayer teaches us to bend our knees as we say the word “Baruch” (Blessed). We then bow forward with a bend of the spine as we say “Ata” (You – meaning G-d). Lastly, we straighten the spine back to standing as we say the word “Hashem” (we are not allowed to write in this context the actual name of G-d used in this prayer).
There is a traditional Jewish idea that when we bow and bend the spine we are coming down like a snake; but when we come back up to standing we are like a staff. This is an allusion to the idea that we are rectifying the unhealthy “snaky” part of ourselves or the part of ourselves, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, which makes choices that may not lead us on the best path.
I have learned from yoga that the spine has five movements, the most difficult of which is the movement of the spine that extends up (called axial extension). It is difficult because one has to do it consciously, otherwise the spine will naturally round and fall. Just like we need to work on fighting gravity and lengthening our spine, so too we need to work on rectifying our “inner snake.” As we do this gesture, we remind ourselves that we need to turn to G-d and ask for guidance. When we lift the spine in yoga we are informing our bodies; when we lift the spine in the Shemonei Esrei we are informing our souls.

The Kedusha
Another movement in the Shemonei Esrei is that of Kedusha, where we bounce on the balls of our feet three times as we hear the words “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh” (Holy, Holy, Holy), and complete the verse with “The Lord of Hosts, The entire world is filled with His Glory.”
Jewish tradition teaches us that we do this gesture as though we are lifting ourselves towards Heaven, similar to one who raises their eyes heavenward. The name of our forefather Jacob (Yaakov) is derived from the Hebrew word “heel,” as Jacob was born holding on to the heel of his twin brother, Esav. This connotes one that has a lowly or subservient nature. However, after Yaakov struggles with and triumphs over the angel, he is referred to as Yisrael (Israel), which connotes “head” or “exalted one.” Therefore, in Judaism, we learn that the heel connects us to this world and the head connects us to the world above time and space.
In yoga we use the heel to ground our bodies and to find a deeper sense of stability; but when we lift our heels off the ground we challenge our balance. Balancing poses usually elicit two reactions: frustration when we fall; and pride when we don’t fall. Both reactions, however, are manifestations of the ego. The work in yoga is to learn to put aside our ego and cultivate a sense of presence to what is.
In Judaism, when we lift our eyes heavenward – or in this case, the heels – our gesture reminds us to turn our life towards G-d and to become present to the fact that all aspects of our life are in the hands of our Creator. Sometimes we stand stable and become attached to how everything is going so well. Then suddenly we fall, and this can make us frustrated because we feel unstable. But when we lift our eyes towards G-d, when we lift our heels towards G-d, we transform our frustration into elevation. We understand that the entire world is filled with G-d’s glory.
In yoga we usually try to practice a pose three times: the first time is challenging but the easiest of all; the second time is harder; and by the third time we don’t want to do it again, but we push ourselves to meet the challenge. In Kedusha we learn that for each of the three times we raise our heels we are ascending up to a higher level of soul. We must strive towards this ascension even though sometimes we don’t want these challenges. We must strive towards continuously getting higher. When we come back down, we ultimately land on our heels.
Judaism teaches us that we need to bring our holiness back into the world. In Judaism, our ultimate goal is not about leaving the world for a higher consciousness, but about transforming the world within nature to build a better world – “Tikkun Olam” (the fixing of the world).
When we have completed the Shemonei Esrei we take three steps back again and re-enter the world ready to face life’s challenges and turn the snakes into staffs – and like the miracle our leader Moses showed us, we create the possible out of the seemingly impossible.