To be an orthodox religiously practicing jew it could be considered controversial by some to state that I am forever grateful to yoga’s modern postural practice. In my late teens I began to have epileptic seizures and not only did my seizures stop, free of meds from my practice of yoga, but the yoga changed my life for the better. I was launched into a lifelong journey and career as a lover and teacher of this life-affirming movement form given to us from our friends in the East. So why should this be an issue?
Some believe that Jews should not engage with yoga’s modern postural practice, because it has its roots in a Hindu religious system that’s contradictory to monotheistic Judaism.
This question has been resolved for many of us observant Jews practicing yoga, who understand that yoga, as Matthew Remski states, is “like the story of the self: developing endlessly along variant trajectories.” As Meera Nanda states in her article, ” Not As Old As You Think”, “modern yoga was born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism, in which Western ideas about science, evolution, eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the ‘mother tradition’.”
Yoga’s modern postural practice developed with many modern influences, and later became a secular physical practice. Yoga postures for many have become a practice with the power to disassociate from theology, and so brilliantly inform the way we move and breathe.
So with this secularization of Yoga, the question remains, can Jews practice it? To answer that I would like to explore the notion of what I would refer to as a form of Jewish body post exile trauma. With the traumatic ghettoized history of the Jewish people, came the exile of the body. Pre exile Temple times , Jews expressed their religious passion for the Divine with dance and drums & physical expression. These Jews were not confined to small spaces like the post exile Jewish body that suffered the traumas of anti semetism. Jews had the land, and with the land they had space, physical freedom and the body.
There are many examples where Jewish history took on a body revival and informed movement revived the body & healed Jewish trauma. Although Talmud and Torah refer to events related to dance, and contain over 30 dance terms, for many years post exile ,dance was banned by the Rabbis as a sign of mourning. The chassidic period of the 18th century changed this ban claiming that movement had the power to purifiy the soul, foster spiritual ecstasy, and promote unification.
Another example of the Jewish movement revival has been documented in the book by the author Cia Sautter who describes the forgotten medieval Sephardic dances of Jewish women of Mediterranean descent. She describes the story of the Sephardiyot dancing through the ages where Judaism’s deepest values where embodied and where dance performance succeeded where words failed.
Lastly another movement revival was the Israeli nationalistic folk dancing of post aliyah which became a physical expression of Jewish freedom. As well, Jewish prayer liturgy itself,in it’s most central prayer called the Amidah, offers movement gesture moments to embody a call to the Divine.
So can the popularity of Yoga in Israel be a viable option for Jews to come into greater physical alignment and embodiment when this practice comes from the east and a non monotheistic tradition?
It was this question that birthed my KinneretYoga teachers training programs in Jerusalem, New York & Toronto & the starting of the Jewish Women’s Yoga Network ( a Facebook group ). All designed on how to stay rooted in Jewish observance while exploring the benefits of yoga.
To the Jews who believe we are practicing idol worship, I would say: Would you stop people from practicing sports or dance even though sports came from Greek notions of body worship and many dance forms evolved from deeply philosophical reflections on life and the body ? Do you fear the philosophy of these physical practices is going to draw Jews away from their moral and spiritual mission as Jews when this philosophy is absent ? If one is practicing the modern postural practice of yoga without any Hindu religious theology, which itself was modernized in the gymnasiums of India by a hybrid of secular influences,is it not the same as this analogy to sports and dance?. Instead of being paralyzed by this fear, why not instead join our fringe yoga community of Jews who research what it means to stay on the path of Judaism, but practice informed movement that helps our Jewish community foster healthier embodiment, and at it’s best, even heal the possibility of illness. This was the story of my yoga journey.
Kinneret Dubowitz is the director and founder of KinneretYoga and manages the Jewish Women’s Yoga Network. You can check out www.kinneretyogatraining.net or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org *check out the Facebook group “Jewish Women’s Yoga Network”.