How did you initially make a connection between yoga and Judaism?
I've always been interested in my Judaism, but in my 20s I began to really want to know the Torah. I spent many years immersed in Torah text in a very traditional way, in Jerusalem, and I became quite observant. I've always been a mystically inclined person, so after five years, I began to sense that I wanted to understand the Torah with my body. My mind was just full of text. I felt like I needed to feel it more deeply, and I was very attracted to dance and movement. I came across a yoga teacher and took a class and deeply connected to it. It really spoke to me.
At that point I had a very solid Torah background was teaching in different settings in Jerusalem. Yet suddenly I was feeling that I needed to understand this in a different way. I knew I needed to move and dance and do yoga. I could understand when I was practicing yoga that this was described in the Torah, that what was happening in yoga was something that had its equivalent in the Torah. So much of what I was experiencing, I translated just naturally into Torah because my mind very much thinks in Torah terms. It's just the way I'm wired--I translate into Torah.
When you say you translate yoga into Torah, do you mean the actual postures?
Not so much the postures or any particular shape, but the experience. There are people who work with the shapes of the [Hebrew] letter and the shape of the body, but that's not what I'm doing. There is a spiritual experience that comes with a yoga posture. It has a wisdom in it and the wisdom in it is connected to wisdom from the Torah. Basically, I realized that I could teach them together, that they enhanced each other, that the practice of yoga could lead to a deeper understanding of Torah and the study of Torah could lead to a richer experience of yoga. Rather than yoga just being a physical or spiritual experience, it could also be a Jewish spiritual experience.
Were you the first person to do this?
Yes, I was the first person as far as I know. It was 1991 when I started to teach the two together. It is popping up all over the place at this point.
How do people who insist on the purity of the yoga discipline, or see yoga as strictly a Hindu practice, react to your teaching?
I think you would get different answers to that from different people. Ida Unger, who does Jewish yoga in Los Angeles, isn't connected to the Hindu tradition, but she feels it's more important to keep it integrated within that tradition. I haven't ever really come across any resistance to it. In my understanding, the practice doesn't have to be connected to the tradition, to Hinduism or Buddhism. Traditionally, it very often is connected to Hinduism, but many yoga teachers in India tell their students to use yoga to deepen their own tradition. They themselves say that yoga can help you become more of who you are and you don't have to become Hindu to be doing yoga.
There's one quote I have in my book by B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world: "Yoga was given for the human race, not for the Hindus." I firmly believe that there's a way to take the physical practice of the postures and the breathing practice and disconnect it from Hinduism. Some people would disagree with me, but there's a lot of support for saying that. Yoga is not integrally interwoven with a religion, and it is not a religion in and of itself. It's a very spiritual path. It's about God, it's about consciousness. That is one of the reasons why many Jewish people love the Torah yoga class--they're really happy to do yoga extracted from the Hindu context. More and more, there's chanting in yoga classes, and Jewish people are not comfortable. They don't want to be chanting Sanskrit or they don't understand it. They'd rather be chanting Hebrew and studying Torah.
About ten years ago, this older man who had been doing yoga for twenty years came to my class. After class he said, "Finally, kosher yoga." To me, that was a pretty good description.
Yoga is a practice of being in the process. A yoga teacher of mine, who was from India, once used the story of the Garden of Eden. He said, "What was the exile from the garden? The exile was when they reached for the fruit. What is reaching for the fruit? It's being too concerned with the results of what you're doing rather than just the process." There it was, yoga right in the Torah.