Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Jewish Yoga - Real or Fake?
"And my soul shall be joyful in the Lord; it shall rejoice in his salvation. All my bones shall say: Lord, who is like you . . ." (Psalm 35:9-10)
"[M]y heart and my flesh sing for joy unto the living God" (Psalm 84:3)
Note: This isn't an academic treatment of the subject, or anything of the sort. Rather, I'm sharing brief ongoing personal reflections about a subject that I'm in the process of re-thinking and re-working. I hope others benefit from hearing my (admittedly incomplete) thoughts.
"I love Judaism, and I love yoga, but Jewish yoga ruins it for me. They're both great for what they are, but mixing them is inauthentic and waters them both down." Recently, I was speaking to a friend and colleague about the rapid growth of "Jewish yoga," and asked him what he thought; these were the comments he offered. To an extent, I used to and still do share his initial reaction. Authenticity is hard to define, but I didn't really "get" the idea of yoga in a Jewish context at all.
As an Ashkenazic Jew with both limited flexibility and body awareness, I've dabbled in yoga before. I was introduced to yoga as a high school student as a technique for stress reduction in a physical education mini-unit, and have very rarely but occasionally taken classes ever since. Every time I've done it, I've thoroughly enjoyed the work, the challenge, and and the release that come from the various poses and states of mind, but have never made the commitment to follow it through in a sustained way. I was vaguely aware that yoga, at its root, was and is a contemplative practice rooted in Hinduism, but truly only thought of it in psychological and physical terms. Sure, there was the Om chant at the end of most commercial yoga classes, but I assumed no one really knew or cared about what they were saying. They were just mimicking the instructor; following the "cool kids." Yoga provided increased strength and flexibility. Yoga also provided peace of mind and inner calm, much like meditation, that was incredibly beneficial. That's more or less the way I thought of it.
Recently, though, through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, I was reintroduced to yoga, specifically as a necessary part of a healthy spiritual practice. Nice - sure. A Jewish requirement - harder to swallow that. How could a spiritual practice from India be the necessary basis for a serious Jewish spiritual discipline? I'm not opposed to synchretic (of or related to the attempted merging of different religions, cultures, etc.) practice per se. Still, it's a far cry from allowing for synchretic practice to considering it essential or mandatory.
As time has gone on, though, I've begun to sympathize with and even promote the position, and would like to briefly share why. Many versions of Judaism used to rest on a somewhat fixed bifurcation between body and soul. As many modern Jewish philosophers, theologians, scholars, and Rabbis have noted, it's now preferable (for a variety of reasons well beyond the scope of this entry) and common to think of this more along the lines of a continuum (as many kabbalists always did) than a duality. Soul and body represent different manifestations of physical and spiritual reality, intertwined and overlapped. So too, it used to be common, in a medical or scientific context, to think of hard distinctions and bifurcations between the body and the mind. Now, however, neuroscience has shed much light on an integrated and continuous feedback loop. Thoughts, emotions, moods, external stimuli (sound, the weather, lighting, anything really) and physical sensations all interact as part of a complex and dynamic process. Hunger can promote stress and anxiety; a smile can lift spirits and dull pain. Full awareneess (call it "da'at" in a Jewish context) and spiritual self-awareness in particular have to incorporate the intellect, the emotional, and the physical.
I'll use a mundane every-day example to clarify my point. This morning, I was anxious about the slightly over-committed day to come. Of course, the anxiety wasn't just in my mind. At some point during the morning prayers, it dawned on me that I was carrying tension related to the stress in my shoulders. By consciously and intentionally releasing the physical tension, the anxiety quickly faded, and a spirit of background happiness swept in to replace the worry. Just then, I read aloud the words from the psalm, עבדו את ה' בשמחה, "[W]orship the Lord with joy," that I happened to be up to, and began to smile a bit at the tremendous coincidence of timing. The inner Chasid inside of me was proud.
Obviously, it doesn't have to be Yoga, and it doesn't have to be Jewish Yoga. But an integrated modern spiritual practice absolutely requires a body practice. Modern science has shown us something that the psalmists always knew to be true, that true spiritual service is physical and embodied too, and something vital is missing if it's not. Yoga happens to be the most highly developed and popular spiritual body-practice in the world today. Placing it in a Jewish context is indeed highly synchretic. It can also be highly integrated and natural. If you view your Jewish practice as integrated part of your life and well-being and not a segmented partial identification, and if you want your spiritual practice to be whole, than a spiritual body practice (not just exercise!) is indeed imperative. Yoga's tried and true, and certainly helps with the clasically Jewish goal of reaching a state of "da'at", awareness.
I'm sure I'll have more to share as time progresses, but wanted to offer these preliminary thoughts. In the interim, anyone local (or who is willing to travel) is invited and encouraged to try out Yoga in a Jewish spiritual context with Thrive and the talented Liz Maynard. See here for more information about Exploring Authenticity, a Purim related Adar Yoga experiment. משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה - When Adar arrives, we increase our joy!