Jewish Journal


December 1, 2010

Warrior pose: The battle for 21st century yoga


If you thought that yoga was all about peace and love, think again. The vitriolic fight that has erupted within the world of this ancient meditation system gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Warrior Pose.”

The co-founder of the American Hindu Association, a relatively small organization, has been complaining that people should become more aware of yoga’s Hindu roots. The association has mounted a Take Back Yoga campaign in New York, and has publicly lamented the fact that there weren’t trademark lawyers in place when modern yoga was being developed in India.

For a nonviolent religion, it’s ironic that the Hindu group’s leader, Aseem Shukla, should write an article as provocative as “The Theft of Yoga.” It first appeared in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog and led to a vicious online debate with modern guru Deepak Chopra, whose mind-body healing headquarters is right here in sunny Southern California.

For Jewish yoga enthusiasts, the debate raises long-simmering, uncomfortable questions about a practice they have long seen as healthful and spiritually uplifting but not religious.

If you look around almost any yoga studio in Los Angeles, you’ll find it is full of Jews. This reality first really struck me during a Sunday morning session at a studio in Santa Monica, where the teacher was leading people through a series of sun salutations and occasionally stopping for the traditional call-and-response kirtan chanting. He used phrases in various languages, but when he said “Shalom,” the room suddenly came alive. I looked around and realized that half of the people in the room were likely People of the Book. 

Despite the vast number of Jews getting comfortable in downward-facing dog, there is still a certain level of discomfort. We remember our early Hebrew teachers explaining the story where Abraham smashes his father’s idols, and we are genetically programmed to avoid bowing before statues. This raises a problem in the many yoga studios that are full of shiny Buddha, Ganesh and Shiva statues. Sanskrit chanting makes people a little more uncomfortable, and all of this makes it an easy target for some Orthodox authorities to classify yoga as forbidden.

Story continues after the jump.

But here’s the part that your rabbis didn’t teach you: Jewish tradition is full of references to the body and physical meditation. 

King David wrote in psalms that we should “use all of [our] bones to praise the creator.” The Talmud talks about a rabbi who perfected a yogic-style handstand in the Temple celebrations, and it describes how we should arch our back “like a snake” during the thanksgiving section of the Amidah prayer. The 13th century kabbalist Abraham Abulafia devised a meditation sequence that involved conscious breathing exercises while moving your head in the shape of Hebrew vowels. There are many more examples of physical prayer postures that are essentially identical to classical yoga postures (asana) and movements (vinyasa). Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that it’s “impossible to know God unless we are physically fit” (Hilchot Deot, Chapter 4). What better place to start than on the yoga mat?

There is a challenge with the supposedly Hindu-influenced philosophy of yoga, but this isn’t necessarily a problem. A strong academic argument suggests that modern yoga was only married to a gentle Hindu philosophy around the second century when the Indian sage Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras.

His profound work is virtually free of theology, and it’s hard to argue with his 10 basic principles, known as the yamas and niyamas, which include the call to nonviolence, non-stealing and surrender to God. Several commentaries render the last idea as “the god of your choice,” which further unlinks the supposed Hindu exclusivity, thus making it even more palatable for Jews.

Yoga means “union” or “yoking,” whether it is connecting the body and soul, unifying the breath with conscious focus or drawing ourselves closer to God. This has deep kabbalistic references, which refer to every Torah commandment as yichud because they unite us with the Divine, causing a state of echad, or oneness. The late genius Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote in his introduction to a major kabbalistic work Sefer Yetzirah that it is a form of Jewish yoga.

That doesn’t mean that yoga itself is Jewish. But it does point to elements of yogic practice as something shared by all great spiritual traditions. Yoga is at least 4,800 years old, according to archeological evidence found in the Indus Valley, where the Mohenjo-daro seals depict early yoga postures. This pre-dates modern Hinduism and Buddhism, and it’s even possible that the seals were brought there from Aryans who’d traveled on trade routes from what is now the Middle East.

However it arrived, yoga’s been doing very well on its own for the last few thousand years. India has given a tremendous gift to the world. It’s a shame that American Hindu Association members feel that they’re missing credit, as we are often painfully aware of their culture’s influence when stretching our bodies into shapes that are named after Hindu deities. Rather than feeling that they are losing out, they should feel pride.

After all, we Jews don’t feel the need to insist that churches and mosques remind worshippers of their Hebraic roots. We could try teaching our Hindu brethren a Jewish posture that can even be performed while holding a cup of tea and a doughnut. It’s called shep nachas — that is, “feel proud.”

Still, if they really want to go ahead with retroactive lawsuits that date back to the publication of the Bhagavad Gita, then I’m sure we could recommend a good lawyer.

Marcus J Freed is the creator of Bibliyoga and president of Yoga Mosaic USA, an international association for Jewish yoga teachers and practitioners. A world-renowned yoga teacher, he also writes the weekly Kosher Sutras, a long-running series of essays that combine yogic spirituality with Hebrew wisdom. He lives in Los Angeles and is the yogi-in-residence for Jewlicious Festivals. More at www.bibliyoga.com.

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