Yoga means “union” or “union with the divine.” It doesn’t mean “contortionism,” “hippie commune” or “Lululemon.”
“Judaism” means “monotheistic religion [of the Jews]” or “belief characterized by one transcendent God.” It doesn’t mean “bagels and lox,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “big beard and black hat.”
And “Jewish yoga” certainly doesn’t mean “contorting my body to the shrill soundtrack of a Larry David monologue.” Nor does it mean giving up my Judaism.
Not even close.
My practice weaves yogic teachings and philosophies with Jewish teachings and philosophies. And while I don’t think such a practice is all that rare nowadays, it is sometimes dismissed by people on both sides without much understanding. Disapproving Jews say, “Feh! It’s a Hindu practice and it’s avodah zarah [idolatry].” Disapproving yogis say, “But how can you practice Jewish yoga? Yoga is for everyone!”
Here’s what I can tell anyone who holds either of those disapproving opinions: It works for me. I am part of a growing body of people who recognize deep, logical and undeniable links between yoga and Judaism.
By examining the basic tenets of yoga and Judaism separately, we can better see why so many people are drawn to “yoga with a Jewish twist.”
At its core, yoga is a practice that unifies practitioner with source, human with divine. While we are all human, yogis believe and revel in the notion that the common thread among all things — living and nonliving, animate and inanimate — is the divine. The asanas, or the actual poses, are just a tiny part of the much larger picture of the union that yoga explores.
In “The Yoga Sutras,” Patanjali illustrates the eight limbs of yoga; limb by limb, he spells out exactly what it means to practice — and it’s much more than downward dog and plank pose. In fact, the only real guidance on the actual poses that Patanjali gives is an admonition that they must be “steady, firm and comfortable.” Most of the text is devoted to extolling the proper virtues of a yogi (compassion, peace, honesty), and outlining specific ways to solidify the union with the divine (breathing, focusing energy on a single point, turning inward, following rules to live a pure, proper, balanced, non-disturbed life), with a huge emphasis on the importance of acknowledging, praising and ultimately melding with the divine.
At its core, Judaism is a religion based on the belief, eloquently stated by Maimonides, that “all existence depends on God and is derived from God.” It follows that in Judaism, while inhabiting this temporary body, we are obliged to perform tikkun olam (repairing the world) through the fulfillment of 613 mitzvot, or commandments. The mitzvot spell out exactly what it means to be an upstanding Jew: Recite prayers of thanksgiving for food, do not engage in hurtful speech, give charity, honor your parents, keep your word, don’t covet, etc. By following the commandments, performing acts of reparation and engaging in acts of loving kindness, we indeed become closer with God. And while “poses” are not at the crux of any Jewish practice, there certainly are specific movements that a Jew in prayer performs: bowing, standing, swaying — all in the name of creating oneness with Hashem.
Unfortunately, mainstream “Jewish practice” in the modern world is often understood to take place only in cavernous rooms with stained glass windows, filled with people clad in designer suits and dresses.
Similarly, the phrase “yoga practice” has become largely synonymous in the modern Western world with “asana movement practice.” It evokes images of ripped, toned 20-somethings sweating it out on rectangular rubber mats laid over pristine hardwood floors. In reality, one can practice yoga anywhere: on the bus, in the home, in the middle of that important meeting, during a conflict with a family member … especially during a conflict with a family member. That’s where kshama (patience) and daya (compassion) — two “non-asana” aspects of yoga — are truly needed. Yoga and Judaism, two ancient practices that seemingly share so much, have been narrowly interpreted to a fault. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
To be clear, yoga is not a faith. Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice, and not a religion. Practicing yoga does not mean it must be to the exclusion of practicing Judaism, or vice versa.
While classes that talk about Ganesh and chant “Om Namah Shivaya” are nice, these themes are just not mine. They don’t tap into my deeply held beliefs as a Jew. What has made my practice more emotionally connecting, meaningful, comforting and enriching has been the introduction and exploration of text, Torah and Jewish prayer into my yoga practice.
Practicing unity with the divine and fulfilling God’s commandments can (and should) be done simultaneously; if you’ve never done it, try it before you knock it. You might find that both experiences become more profound. Perhaps you’ll see that you can repair the world with a stronger intention and effect greater change. Plus, it just plain feels good.
So practice your vinyasa. Pray. Move. Meditate. Sweat. Study Torah. Keep Shabbat. Live the yamas. Clear your mind. Read “The Yoga Sutras.” Be healthy and prosperous, inside and out.
Namaste and Shalom.