Yoga Jew

I get invited to talk at temples: big ones and little ones; Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative. As much as I dislike the travel, I like meeting the people, who always make me think.

After my presentation at a smallish Midwestern synagogue last spring, I was schmoozing over the dessert table when the rabbi came up to me and asked if my yoga practice had anything to do with my Jewish observance. (Thus letting me know that he had read my blog, where yoga is one of the few personal details in my profile.)

This was a cool, young rabbi; the kind of rabbi who runs serious wilderness hiking trips with congregants and prays with them under the stars. I assumed that he wanted to me say yes, but I told him the truth.

“No,” I said. “Yoga is for emptying my head. The Jewish stuff is about filling it up. I try to keep them separate.”

He grinned at me and said, “Me too.”

Several years ago, I tried a “Jewish Yoga” class in which the instructor used Hebrew metaphors to get us into poses or asanas.

“Think of your body as an aleph,” she said.

“Oh, no,” I thought. That meant I had to remember the shape of aleph, which is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. As someone who was then barely (and remains only marginally) Hebrew literate, I immediately forgot what an aleph looked like. And then I had to wonder if she meant aleph in cursive or block letters, because they are very different.

At the end of the class, the teacher asked us to chant the Shema, the foundational six word declaration of the divine unity. (Loose translation: Listen up Jews: Our God is One.) As I said, I go to yoga to empty my head, which means no theology. But there it was: “Adonai,” posing the usual theological problem. Adonai means “Lord.” As in “King.” Which suggests a crown and a head, and all the other anthropomorphic male images that tend to block my access to divine unity.

In my regular yoga classes, the teachers sometimes open class with an “Ohm,” which I’ve heard nicely described as “the hum of the universe.” At the end they might say, “Shanti,” which means peace, or “Namaste,” which usually gets translated as, “The light in me salutes the light in you.” These are all terms that, to my ears, sound utterly vanilla and empty of associations with anything except yoga classes.

This isn’t to say that yoga is without content. There is a spiritual element involved – with or without the Sanskrit names for poses or peace. 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 which strike me as profound in class but tend to sound obvious and pedestrian when I try to repeat them later.

I have been told that some Orthodox Jews object to yoga because some of the poses look like “prostration,” a position of extreme reverence that is due only to, well, Adonai. I imagine Child’s Pose might be one of the problematic asanas, as it requires you to sit back on your heels and put your forehead to the mat, arms stretched out in front of you. I happen to love that pose, partly because I find it relatively easy and partly because when I stay there for more than ten seconds, I feel calm, humble, and relaxed. My brain shuts up. And as far as I’m concerned, shutting down my brain — my ego — has nothing to do with worshipping idols. I’m pretty sure that the only way to experience the sacred is by shutting down the ego – whether you’re balancing on one foot or pouring over a page of Talmud.

For most Americans, yoga is a spiritual practice, but not a religious one. Of course, Judaism is both a religious and a spiritual practice. And while I experience the spirituality of Jewish life in song, ritual, holidays, and communal study, it is on the mat where I manage to lay down my ego for more than ten consecutive seconds at a time.

People I trust and respect have told me about terrific teachers who masterfully blend yoga and Judaism. But I also know that finding the right yoga teacher – like finding the right rabbi or hairdresser, is a matter of chemistry and kismet and timing. So maybe someday I’ll give the Jewish yoga thing another try.

But the truth is, I am not interested in a reconciling my yoga practice and my Jewish practice. I feel no tension or contradiction in this double life.

Judaism demands debate, and justice, tzedakah (charity) and committee meetings. Judaism requires engagement rather than detachment. It’s a complicated package that defines, delights, and challenges me.

Yoga is where I go quiet and stop striving — even when I’m sweating. This is a counter-intuitive effort for someone like me: opinionated, impatient, perfectionist.

I am happily bifurcated; a Jew who studies yoga, a word that means “union.”

Go figure.

This essay also appears on Huffington Post


  1. Ticky and Mimi on August 4, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    I totally appreciate this post and your honest insight. I feel the same way.

  2. Noah on August 6, 2010 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for this post. As the wife of a Jew and mother of a Jew (and a person considering converting to Judaism) it was interesting to see your take on the two “practices”. I am also interested in how Judaism and Buddhism can be meshed into one life comfortably. Thanks again for the post

  3. I Am Gluten Free on August 8, 2010 at 8:08 pm

    Anita – I hadn’t given as much thought as you have to why I love my yoga class. You’ve given me a new perspective. My yoga practice demands (though gently) that I pay attention to the stretches, to the poses, to where my body will allow me to go, in the very same way that meditation asks me to come back to my breath. The comfort it brings me is a welcome respite from my busy, racing mind and take charge ego. It is no wonder that I am drawn to it like a moth to light. Shanti Ohm.


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