I read with great interest Anita Diamant's recent piece, "A Happily Bifurcated Yoga Jew: Why I Keep My Asanas and my 'Adonais' Separate." I am a rabbi, a certified yoga teacher, and have taught Jewish Yoga for over two decades. At the time I read the piece I was in the midst of co-teaching 23 participants in the third cohort of the Yoga and Jewish Spirituality Teacher Training Institute (YJSTT) held at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, and had just before that completed a summer season of retreat-based Jewish Yoga -- teaching to almost 80 rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish life as part of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's 18 month Rabbinic Leadership program. Experience has shown me an approach that differs from Diamant's: I passionately advocate the aspiration towards integrating one's yoga practice and one's Jewish life.
Diamant states that she finds great spiritual value in her yoga practice, a practice that engages her fully in the moment and in which she feels deeply, satisfyingly, present. She writes, "One of my yoga masters (an Australian woman who has the long body and longer ponytail of a Nav'i) often says, 'If all you're interested in is a work-out, you should go to an aerobics class.' She also says things like, 'Yoga is about paying attention, learning to explore discomfort, surrendering to gravity,' and other bon mots that strike me as profound in class but tend to sound obvious and pedestrian when I try to repeat them later."
I think Diamant has put her finger on exactly why Jewish Yoga sessions can be so profoundly healing and nourishing for a Jewish yogi. When we can hear sacred Jewish phrases or teachings offered just at those moments when we are most alive and attuned to the deeper strata of our cells and our souls, we can be stirred towards spiritual growth and transformation. I find that through practicing "asana" (Sanskrit word literally meaning "taking one's seat") one can open to "Adonai" (one of the many names of God, reflecting Awareness and Consciousness itself). When a Jewish insight is taught in the context of the deeply intentional, physical work of asana practice, a formerly abstract point can take on concrete meaning in a person's life so that they can feel then connected Jewishly where before they had not. This often has impact beyond the yoga mat - how we treat our beloveds, our community members, our students and teachers, our friends. It just may help us be more effective in living our Jewish values in accordance with our deepest beliefs and desires.
Yoga does help us "empty the mind," as Diamant states, and to quiet the egoic self while we open to experience something bigger. Yet, I find that it can be meaningful if we also "fill" our awareness with positive Jewish teachings and imagery in those very moments because the resonance of the deeper spiritual teachings have a chance to be conveyed without the chatter that accompanies the "Jewish committee meeting" mind state to which Diamant refers.
For example, yoga is a means through which I can come to "sit in the House of God," as it says in Psalm 27 (a psalm Jews recite daily during this month of Elul as we prepare for the New Year ahead). I know of no other way to "sit in the House of God" than to start with where I actually am and to pay attention. Cultivating this kind of awareness on the yoga mat is strengthened mightily when I can bring to my conscious intention that I desire as to "sit" not just with myself, but with God, in "God's House." That awareness stirs my soul to attention even as I am highly aware of the placement of the ankle bones and the inner arch of the feet in a simple seated pose. In this integrative kind of moment, "Asana" and "Adonai" reverberate in meaningful (if silent) discourse, albeit through simultaneous and different vernaculars. My own bodily experience and "language" is the site of that conversation.
Moreover, I believe it is inaccurate to suggest or imply that yoga itself is devoid of intellectual content. In fact, to do yoga safely and effectively, one's mind is or should be very much engaged. If you are not paying attention to precise details of anatomy and asking yourself questions about the impact of one movement or breath upon the body as a whole, you are not fully engaging the potential of this practice. Yoga practice encourages active, steady inquiry by the practitioner. Yoga-related injuries are much more prone to occur when one is not being intentional in poses, or finding the balance between willfully muscling into a position, and allowing it to slowly unfold as muscles, nerves and tissues soften and open with time. To strike this balance, you need to be focused, alert and actively inquiring about how your body is responding to a slight movement here or a different way of breathing there.
Yoga can help us expand what it is we mean when we say "mind," including but extending beyond the intellectual mind. Yoga "yokes" or joins the intellectual and the sensory levels of one's intelligence. It does not privilege one over the other. A yoga teacher's job, like a rabbi's or Jewish educator's, is to offer information and guidance to help a person wake up and come present in a more highly informed way. We do not leave our intelligent, aware selves outside of the yoga studio or off the mat, any more than we would seek to check our intelligent self outside of the beit midrash for serious text study, outside of the synagogue or any other prayer space where we might seek to "sit in the House of God," or any other place of serious Jewish inquiry. Yoga informed with this Jewish intention of sitting in God's presence is a highly integrative, highly conscious and intelligent venture.
"B'chol darechecha daeyhu," "In all your ways, know God," is a Jewish teaching highly valued in both religious and spiritual circles. It implies that for a person with spiritual or religious intention, every aspect of one's life is an avenue through which one can wake up. Yoga master BKS Iyengar has written that through yoga you can wake up every cell of the body and that each cell carries within it vast intelligence. As one becomes through this physical practice more aware of and skillful at partnering with this sacred intelligence running through the body, one is in effect embodying a fuller actualization of the Jewish teaching, "In all your ways [not just some of them, some of the time, as codified in a way you are habituated to], know God."
To be clear, Jewish Yoga does not take the place of Jewish practice as a whole nor of a steady diet of asana practice on the mat. But by practicing Jewish Yoga, some will experience the spiritual and religious depth of a child's pose bowing gesture (a "prayer of the body") on Yom Kippur as a meaningful way to pray. Or when one chants a Hebrew phrase on the yoga mat or sets an intention to place God before oneself (in one's mind's eye and in the cellular awareness running throughout the body) during an asana session, one's yoga practice can become itself an expression of personal prayer that has not been experienced (yet?) in shul. These kinds of transformative experiences are shared by some, like myself, who find inspiration and strength for their Jewish lives through asana practice which is, yes, resonant with silent intimations and sometimes chanted declarations of "Adonai."