After over 70 years of its existence, Israel comes across as a cultural symphony to a usual traveler. For a tourist, the country has a beautiful myriad of landscapes to offer. But Israel could never break free from the title of a troubled nation. Founded a year after the independent state of India and Pakistan came into being, Israel assumed the character of a military state in light of the perennial geographical dangers and geopolitical threats it had to counter for survival. A country founded as a homeland for the Jewish Diaspora around the world, the natives of the state of Israel were essentially immigrants who flocked in from East and West to “return to their holy land”: a journey labeled as Aliyah in Hebrew. Their struggles were enormous – military threats from hostile Arab states along with socio-economic challenges of state building. Moreover, the statehood in 1948 was preceded by a bloody holocaust and decades of social exclusion.
At the most basic level, it reflects the Jewish people’s constant subjugation to high levels of mental and emotional stress over centuries. As we see today, the “Israel-Palestine conflict” continues to be the most disturbing and complicated international debate of the century, and the solution is nowhere in sight. But at a micro level, the catharsis perhaps can be achieved and a nation 2800 miles away to the East has something valuable to offer in the form of Yoga – a holistic approach to well-being which heals the mind, body and soul.
India’s richest asset in the form of its traditional knowledge of Yoga became popular with Israelis mainly after 1992 when India and Israel entered a diplomatic embrace. Surprisingly, even prior to 1992, Israeli tourists visited India annually. However their exposure to Indian cultural practices wasn’t much even though few scholars chose to study the ancient Indian texts. Post-1992, the numbers shot up steeply as official relations were established and tourism got a boost. In 2008, the annual influx of Israeli tourists touched 40,000 and the numbers have been showing a northward trend every year. Israel emerged as a backyard of Israeli military forces and it almost became a tradition among the Israelis to have a post-military tenure in India to de-stress themselves.
From the hamlets of Himachal Pradesh to the holy city of Banaras and the beaches of Kerala: Israelis have been camping across the country, interacting with the locals and in the process, also getting acquainted with traditional Indian religious and spiritual practices including varied forms of yoga and meditation. Such ideas traveled back with the tourists and travelers who were exposed to Hindu traditional arts and aesthetics.
I am reminded of my personal interaction with a young Israeli couple I met en-route Grahan – a small beautiful village nestled in the mountain ranges of Kasol in Himachal Pradesh. The couple, who were on their second trip to India, shared how it is revered as a warm and welcoming Asian country with vast spiritual affluence and topographical diversity. The couple, like many other Israelis, had undergone yoga and Vipasana (meditation) training in Indian cities of Dharamshala and Leh. Back home, the yogic learning is shared or rather sold in the form of weekend sessions, crash courses or full-fledged training programs.
Interestingly, Israeli Yoga blends the physical “asanas” (postures or movements) with local traditions. Some trainers, for instance, replace the Hindu Chant Om with Hebrew word Shalom to give it a Jewish touch. Popular Israeli Yoga specialists such as Orit Sen-Gupta studied and received their yogic training in India back in 1980s – a decade before the two states had official ties. Her important works include translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras from Sanskrit into Hebrew, and thereafter introducing Vijnana as a mild form of Yoga. Thus with translation of ancient works and on-ground training, Israel today has a well-catered, monetarily rewarding market for Yoga in the form of Yoga flashmobs, Acro-Yoga, Yoga dance.
Even though India’s global battle for patenting of Yoga continues, traditional ideas and spiritual knowledge in contemporary world cannot be restrained by physical borders. The well-read historians may acknowledge the origin of Yoga to Indian subcontinent or Hindu scriptures, but it is a part of popular global health and wellness regime. Nevertheless, Indian Sanskrit scriptures, gurus and Sadhus still hoard rich knowledge of Yogic practices – an untapped reservoir which is yet to transcend Indian borders and will continue to intrigue those in search of spiritual elevation. It is worthwhile to stress that even though Yoga – as an art form and exercise – has made inroads within the Israeli market, many Israelis continue to be magnetically drawn towards India after hanging their military boots. Perhaps because experiencing Yoga amidst surreal Indian landscapes has a nonpareil solace to offer, something the desert cannot replicate!