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When yoga meets politics, or do I just have genetic BDS paranoia?

When the drop-down list of countries on the yoga registration form doesn't include Israel
Half moon by water yoga pose. (Courtesy, Ruthi Soudak)
Half moon by water yoga pose. (Courtesy, Ruthi Soudak)

My romance with yoga began in 1985, when I was a young Canadian woman traveling around Asia. In India, I spent 10 days at a silent meditation retreat, and a similar amount of time at a yoga ashram. I loved yoga, and began practicing daily, a commitment that radically changed my life.

In 1987, I left Canada to return to India, to focus on intensive yoga study. On the way, I stopped in Israel, arriving three days after the beginning of the first intifada, for what I thought would be a two-month visit. I have been here ever since.

While Israel has numerous faults and is no utopia, I believe it is a good country, which has contributed immensely to creating a better world. But most importantly, it fulfills the imperative, made clear by the Holocaust, that Jews need a country in which they can live safely, unaffected by the ebb and flow of the tides of anti-Semitism. This is taking place in the Jews’ ancestral homeland, towards which Jewish prayer has been oriented and for which Jewish hearts have yearned throughout the long millennia of exile. The fulfillment of this imperative is still in progress, and will not be complete until both Israelis and their neighbors can live securely, without fear of violence, but its necessity is once again underlined by the current global wave of anti-Semitism. Never really feeling like I completely belonged in the Western world, in Israel, at the crossroads of East and West, I found my home.

In 1993, I finally returned to India, this time on an Israeli passport, to be trained as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist. The system of yoga in which I did my teacher training did not emphasize advanced postures, instead focusing on basic physical practices, pranayama, meditation and internal cleansing. The ashram in which I’d studied in 1985, and whose system I’d practiced during all the intervening years, never mentioned proper postural alignment.

When I returned to Israel, I began studying yoga with an approach that emphasized alignment and more advanced postures. I was in my 30s, my body was lithe and flexible, I could sit effortlessly in full lotus, and there was a thrill in being able to jump up into a handstand with both legs at once, to push up into scorpion posture from a headstand, or to balance on both hands with my legs extended forward or out to one side, in mid-air. And it was important to me to learn how to perform the postures “properly,” something that I felt had been missing from my previous training and practice.

During this time, I began to develop pain in the lower right side of my back, which radiated down the outside of my right leg. A CT scan, a series of chiropractic treatments, and a consultation with a world renowned yoga teacher and therapist determined that I had managed to rotate my pelvis by meditating daily, for years, with my right foot always placed on my left thigh. This had led to inflammation in my sacroiliac joint.

I started alternating legs when sitting for meditation (and teaching my students to always alternate legs), reduced the challenging postures in my yoga practice, and the problem bothered me infrequently over the years. However, a bit over a year ago, it came back, gradually worsening, and in the past few months I have been in nearly constant pain. I have run the gamut of physiotherapists, osteopaths, orthopedic surgeons, and acupuncturists, none of whom has been able to help me, or even to explain clearly what the problem is.

By chance, a few weeks ago, I saw a post on Facebook by a leading international yoga teacher, whom I have admired for many years and whose books can be found on my shelves — an advertisement for an online course she was offering dealing with sacroiliac joint issues. She claimed that sacroiliac joint problems were by far the most widespread yoga injury. As a teaser for the course, she was offering a series of 10 short videos for free, which would introduce the problem, its causes, and practices that could enable recovery.

I couldn’t believe my good luck. I followed the free series, waiting each day for the new video. It contained thorough, clear explanations of the anatomical aspects of the problem, as well as pointing out how widespread emphasis on postural alignment within the yoga world can often be badly misinformed, resulting in the sacroiliac joint problems from which I, and apparently hundreds of other yoga practitioners, suffer.

I decided to register for the full course, reasoning that, although it was expensive for me, it cost a whole lot less than I’d already spent on health practitioners who hadn’t helped me.

I begin to fill in the registration form: first name, last name, country…. “country” is an optional field with a drop down list. I type “isr” and nothing comes up. I try again, this time with a capital I, still nothing. I scroll down. Iraq, Ireland, Isle of Man, Italy… Israel is not there. I scroll down further. The Palestinian Territory, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria — the whole chevre are there. I am horrified. First Messi and now this, I think. I want to believe that yoga is beyond politics, bigger than BDS.

I write to the man managing the course registration and ask, as unconfrontationally as possible, why Israel is not on the list of potential participants’ countries. I am desperately hoping that this is some kind of oversight or technical glitch, and that I will not be forced to choose between loyalty to my ideology and my very real need for relief from my back pain, nor to question the admiration I’ve had for this particular teacher since my earliest days in the yoga world. I send the email and go out for my meditative walk in the forest.

As I walk, I realize that I am not meditative at all. On the contrary. I am preparing for war, lining up my arguments like soldiers. How could they have chosen fashion over fact? Included Sudan, Iraq, and Syria but not Israel? That they themselves live in a country in which the white man settled and colonized the native population. How could they let prejudice enter a discipline that is meant to promote unity (“yoga” means union)?

Upon returning from my walk, I find a response to my email, saying that they just hadn’t had time to check all countries’ tax registration statuses, and that some countries would be added and others would be dropped in the near future. I am skeptical. Do I really believe that they have managed to check the tax registration status of the Palestinian Territories, South Sudan and Syria, but not Israel??? And if so, doesn’t that say something in itself? But then truthfulness (satya) is one of the 10 foundations of yoga — surely they couldn’t be misleading me…Well, at least they didn’t tell me that I wasn’t welcome in the course. I complete my registration, wondering whether I’m doing the right thing, wondering what the right thing even is in this instance.

My maternal grandmother, z”l, fled from pogroms in Russia when she was a child. She experienced unspeakable and unimaginable atrocities. Some 50 years later, as an elderly woman safely settled in Canada, a world and decades away from Cossacks, she still believed that everything that went wrong in her life was the result of anti-Semitism. I can remember, when I was young, her dress getting stuck in the door of a taxi, and her whispering to my sister and me that the taxi driver was an anti-Semite. My sister and I raised our eyebrows and snickered to one another.

As a child, I found this ridiculous and embarrassing. But now, as an adult who knows that our childhood traumas can haunt our entire lives, I can relate with much more compassion and understanding to why she felt that way.

I have recently read several articles about how trauma can be passed on genetically, and this gives me pause. I wonder whether I am creating this story, whether I’m suffering from BDS paranoia, and whether this could be a genetic predisposition, inherited from my grandmother, focusing on the most recent manifestation of the same anti-Semitism that traumatized her as a child. Or not. What do you think?

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic.
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