By Elyse Glickman
In the late 1960s, popular culture introduced a generation to yoga as a way to “tune in and turn on.”
While yoga in its many forms (Hatha, Iyengar, Kundalini and Flow, among others) still carries with it that old-school caché of peace, love and harmony, it has turned into a contemporary way to reduce stress, get fit — and meet interesting people.
Like other “lifestyle” trends, it also comes complete with all kinds of nifty accoutrements, such as high-performance designer yoga clothes, specialty foods, chic mat carriers and jewelry.
However, there are some yoga instructors and “practitioners” who believe yoga’s original purpose — established thousands of years ago — should be remembered, but also adapted to a Jewish sense of well-being.
The late San Francisco-based rabbi Allen Lew is regarded as one of Jewish yoga’s pioneers. Disillusioned by his childhood Jewish experience, he considered becoming ordained as a lay Buddhist priest in the 1970s.
However, during his meditations on a Zen retreat in Carmel Valley, Calif., he felt “some sense of conflict between my being ordained as a Buddhist with my being Jewish.”
Sure enough, he completed rabbinical school, became a rabbi at a Conservative synagogue, and went on to broaden the definition of Jewish practice and meditation.
Word about Jewish yoga’s multilayered benefits has since spread throughout North America and many other parts of the world.
“Yoga is a universal practice geared toward putting the individual in touch with his or her spirit,” says Ida Unger, whose studio is based in Los Angeles www.kosheryoga.net and who has worked with Philadelphia-bred yoga instructor Rabbi Myriam Klotz, who teaches and studies the Anusara, Iyengar and Vinyasa methods of yoga.
In the beginning, Unger explains that, like many Jews who took up yoga for fitness or relaxation purposes, she kept her faith and yoga in separate compartments of her life.
After 15 years of steady practice, she notes that her “body started to open up and become more flexible,” (and she) had a Jewish revelation while in triangle pose (or Trikonasana).
It was, she recalls, the shape of aleph, “and the feeling of the letter was running through my body. Within seconds of that, I had another revelation that the oneness of the aleph is the oneness of the Shema, which in itself is the oneness of connection between body and spirituality.
“The principals align with Jewish traditions,” she says. What matters is “the person practicing it allows the yoga to help him or her connect with the soul.
“Yoga is thousands of years old,” but has found a home today as well, claims Unger. “In the present day, we are a generation of Jews working it into our spiritual practice. While yoga does not require that you believe in anything specific, it helps make the more spiritual part of life more tangible.”
Shana Meyerson, who is also based in Los Angeles but tours and makes her teachings available throughout North America www.YOGAthletica.com, concurs, and points out that some of the philosophies behind yoga originate from the same basic concepts that Kaballistic and Jewish philosophies are based on.
“Some Jews, especially observant ones, are leery of yoga, as it has Hindu roots, and fear the yogic tradition will clash with their religious beliefs,” explains Meyerson. “However, yoga does not ask you to be Hindu or Buddhist. It just asks you to be good. Within every practice, I offer a dharma (kindness) discussion that ties Torah and mitzvah into the mindful awareness of a Yogi.”
In her early days of developing Jewish/yogic courses, Meyerson was approached by Chabad of Malibu to teach classes. She developed an Aleph-Bet sequence that fused yogic philosophy with Jewish and Kaballistic theory.
“Surprisingly, most of my private clients are Orthodox Jews,” she says. “I think that they enjoy having a physical challenge that also allows them to get to their deeper roots.”
Ohio-based Cole Imperi www.yogajew.net will do a teaching tour of the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, in the coming year. She points out that her inspiration to teach came from a realization that Sanskrit mantras could be translated into Hebrew and shared.
“Spiritually, I think most Jews understand that Judaism is not limited to the two hours a week when you are in temple,” explains Imperi. “It’s a lifestyle, and you are Jewish culturally, ethnically and religiously. For many people, this kind of yoga helps you live a more authentically Jewish life.”
A popular figure in Jewish yoga is Rabbi Andrew Hahn, also known as the Kirtan Rabbi www.KirtanRabbi.com . While his form of the practice — call-and-response chanting — is sometimes seen as a part of the more familiar physical forms of yoga that involve the asanas (“poses”), he insists Kirtan is considered to be a higher form of yoga, bhakti yoga or “yoga of the heart.”
“Throughout much of our history,” he says, Jews “were regarded as a people who lived too much in our heads, in the air, and disconnected from the earth and their own bodies. One of the wonderful things happening as a result of Jewish-oriented yoga is that Jewish people are seeing their body as a good thing, and as a vehicle toward God.”