June 28, 2011
Classes bring a bit of shul to yoga
In a dimly lit room overlooking Santa Monica’s bustling Third Street Promenade, prayers set to electronic music float between bodies in motion. Barely audible over the melodies are the deep exhales of students.
“Shabbat Shalom,” said Zach Lodmer, walking around the room. “That’s something you don’t usually hear in yoga, isn’t it?”
It’s January, and Lodmer is leading the second monthly installment of his Om Shalom Yoga class at The Yoga Collective in Santa Monica, a class that sets traditional yoga sequences to Shabbat prayers.
An attorney by day, Lodmer knows that the concept might sound eclectic — “Some people are skeptical” at first, he admits with a slight grin — but since finding his own connection to the combined practices of yoga and prayer, the 31-year-old hopes to help others in the Jewish community put a new twist on traditional worship.
Lodmer wasn’t always the picture of health. Several years ago, the now-fit yoga instructor smoked, was 75 pounds overweight and was unhappily employed as a prosecutor. It was the birth of his son, he said, that served as the impetus for change and, ultimately, the creation of Om Shalom.
Craving a healthier lifestyle, Lodmer changed his eating and drinking habits and took up yoga. At the same time, he was playing clarinet for Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. He soon realized that his desire to practice a more personal brand of Judaism was in line with his changing health habits.
“We were sitting in a circle, moving through prayers by singing” and playing music, he said. “I began to get interested in including not just [song] but yoga in the Shabbat experience.”
From there, Lodmer, who was raised Reconstructionist, consulted with rabbis and enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program. All the while, he worked on creating the soundtrack for Om Shalom, which would prove to be the linchpin of the class.
“It was a lot of work,” he said, “but as time passed, I made it my own.”
Om Shalom isn’t the first yoga class to incorporate religions other than Hinduism, which is largely credited with the ancient origins of the practice. Rather, Lodmer’s class is part of a growing movement to meld the physical practice and some of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga with Judaism or Christianity.
Ida Unger, who owns Yoga Garden Studios in Tujunga and also teaches, according to her Web site, “yoga with a Jewish bent,” has been studying yoga for several decades and began incorporating components of Judaism into her practice about 10 years ago. She believes that interest in Jewish yoga began gaining steam in other circles at around the same time.
“I think many Jews found yoga as a physical practice, and after a while it just connects to the soul,” she said. “If you have a Jewish soul, it’s very easy to connect to.”
Like many others, Unger sees parallels in the teachings of Judaism and the teachings of yoga. The basic tenets of both, says Rabbi Avivah Erlick, who teaches private Jewish yoga sessions, are very similar.
“The teaching of Judaism involves Torah, mitzvah and study,” Erlick said, “and the four types of yoga are basically study, prayer, holy action and meditation.”
Unger points out the similarity of savasana, or resting in corpse pose by lying still on one’s back, which concludes most yoga classes, and the practice of resting on Shabbat, which is derived from the Hebrew word shavat, in Jewish culture.
In addition to the overlap in ritual and philosophy, many teachers see yoga as a way to add a needed physical element to Jewish worship.
“Judaism is lacking a movement-and-meditation practice,” Erlick said. “I think people can get that from yoga, as a teaching tool as to how to calm oneself, center oneself and be present in prayer.”
Om Shalom — and Jewish yoga in general — is not necessarily for everyone. Lodmer notes, for instance, that he breaks halachic tradition by playing music on Shabbat, which might turn off Jews looking to adhere to the letter of the law.
But for those who are interested, he believes the combination of yoga and Jewish prayer can help people connect to Judaism in a more personal way.
“People are looking for fewer barriers to prayer and to Judaism,” he said. “People are moved by [Jewish yoga]. And if Judaism is not engaging, we’re losing people.”
Within the Jewish yoga community, Lodmer has been welcomed and admired. Unger sees his work as the continuation of a new brand of Jewish worship.
“He’s almost a generation younger than me,” she said. “I think what he’s offering is very exciting.”
Lodmer’s class follows a traditional yoga prototype: sun salutations, standing poses and a flow that builds steadily in intensity and then tapers off into a cool-down. What sets it apart is the music.
Layering prayers like the Sh’ma and Shalom Aleichem over a soothing but vibrant beat so that they correspond with the trajectory of the class, Lodmer creates the music for his class in his free time. It’s no small task — much of his time outside of work is spent either with his family, he says, or refining the Om Shalom playlist.
“Making the music is a second full-time job,” he says.
It seems to be a worthy cause. Back in the studio on that Friday night in January, students leave glowing and happy. Wishing them all a “Good Shabbos,” Lodmer sees them out the door and back into the world.
Om Shalom Yoga
Rabbi Avivah Erlick’s Gentle Jewish Yoga
Yoga Garden Studios