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.
Some people say, "I can't do yoga, I'm not flexible." It's not about that. It's learning to stretch in a way that you are so attentive to every stage of the posture. It's not about getting your head to your knee or doing the splits. It's how attentive you can be on each step of the way.
If you look at the book of Genesis and the description of the creation of trees, when God says, "Let there be trees," the way God says it is, "Let there be fruit trees, bearing fruit." That's God's command for the fruit trees. Well, Torah study looks at words very, very closely. So when you actually come to the passage where the trees come out, it says, "And there were trees bearing fruit" instead of "there were fruit trees bearing fruit." One understanding of that is that there should be a distinction between the actual tree and the fruit. The tree itself was full of fruit, which is in a way saying, "the whole thing is full of fruit." But often in our lives people are waiting for the fruit. They're waiting until they get somewhere before they enjoy or before they really taste something, instead of really feeling like every day, every moment, every breath has its particular taste, or its particular fruit.
Every posture is a possibility to bring you back to that consciousness of being in the moment and feeling the fruit of this particular moment, rather than someday, when you're finally able to do a headstand or a handstand or anything else. They're both very process-oriented.
So in your classes, you begin by teaching that example from the Torah first, and then you could go into the postures?
Yes. In my classes, I always start with a few minutes of stretch and movement. I'm really emphasizing that the wisdom of the Torah is contained in the body, so we want to also really be connected to the body. As Jewish people, we spend a lot of time looking outside of ourselves and looking at text and very little time looking at our bodies. So I always start the class with ten minutes of some kind of stretching so that people will immediately remember that we are also going to include our body. Then I'll do a Torah teaching in a traditional way, for ten or fifteen minutes. I've been doing this for 14 years so I have hundreds of teachings. The rest of the class, which would be about an hour after that--it's an hour and a half altogether--we will do yoga postures and I will continually remind the class of the concept that we are focusing on and how to experience it in the body.
Do any non-Jews ever attend your classes?
What do you think they get out of it?
I have one very loyal student right now, a woman who's Lutheran. I think it's very comforting for her because the roots are her roots. She can relate to the Jewish roots, or the Old Testament, more than the Far East or more than Hinduism. I really choose the aspects of the Torah that are universal for any spiritual seeker. There are certain parts of the Torah that are specific for the Jewish people, but much of it is universal. So on one hand, I think non-Jewish people enjoy it because it's comforting to stay closer to their tradition, or their roots, but any spiritual seeker can enjoy the powerful Jewish wisdom.
Have you ever got any adverse reactions from Jews?
I have not ever personally encountered anyone who has rejected yoga as being wrong for Jews to practice.
So, for someone who has never done yoga before, is this is a good way to begin?
Yes. It depends what someone is looking for. Many of my students have never done yoga before. There's no reason not to begin with it, especially if you are interested in your Jewish spirituality and you want to stay within that context. It's not the only place to begin, but for many people it will be the most comfortable place to begin.
Jewish meditation classes are very popular right now. Is Jewish yoga related to meditation?
It's very related. Yoga, in my opinion, is meditation. In each chapter of my book I have an opening meditation. Yoga is sometimes called meditation in motion. It's obviously not just sitting still meditation, but my understanding is meditation is a focus practice, the practice of concentration. So yoga is definitely a cousin, or a sister or brother, to sitting meditation.
Returning to what you said about wanting to connect to Judaism with your body, it seems like there are other ways that Jews do that. Davening [praying] is a very movement-oriented practice for some people. Are there other ways Jews incorporate movement into their Jewish practice?
It's true that's shuckling [moving back and forth while praying] is a natural way for Jews to kind of get their body moving, or get their body to wake up. The difference is they don't then stop and focus on the sensations of their body as an aspect of the prayer. It's not the same thing. What I'm saying is, you can listen to your body and feel something about the truth of the prayer right in your body. So the way they move while praying is not exactly the same.
I think what's more similar is the Hasidic tradition of dance as a celebration. I mean the fact that they danced and they were joyful in their bodies--that experience is a little closer. But it's still not the same. Torah Yoga is very intellectual, in a way, about the body. It says the body is smart. The body knows things and you can learn things with the body.