Yoga & Judaism. ~ Zack Lodmer

Via on Mar 1, 2012

“Yoga” means “union” or “union with the divine.”

Yoga
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It doesn’t mean “contortionism,” “hippie commune” or “Lululemon.”

“Judaism” means “monotheistic religion [of the Jews]” or “belief characterized by one transcendent G-d.” It doesn’t mean “bagels and lox,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “big beard and black hat.”

And “Jewish yoga” certainly doesn’t mean “contorting my body to the shrill soundtrack of a Larry David monologue.” Nor does it mean giving up my Judaism.

Not even close.

My practice weaves yogic teachings and philosophies with Jewish teachings and philosophies. And while I don’t think such a practice is all that rare nowadays, it is sometimes dismissed by people on both sides of the coin without much understanding. Disapproving Jews say “Feh!  It’s a Hindu practice and it’s avodah zarah (Hebrew for “idolatry”). Disapproving yogis say “…but how can you practice Jewish yoga?  Yoga is for everyone!”

Here’s what I can tell anyone who holds either of those disapproving opinions: it works for me.

I am part of a growing body of people who recognize deep, logical and undeniable links between the practice of yoga and the practice of Judaism. My Jewish-infused yoga practice is where I draw inspiration, seek silence, challenge my ego, find understanding, share community and tap into connection with G-d, Hashem, Adonai….or whatever you want to call the divine source that connects us all. Rabbi Myriam Klotz has said, “Yoga is a means through which I can come to ‘sit in the House of God’ ” [Psalm 27].  I couldn’t agree more.

By examining the basic tenets of yoga and Judaism separately, we can better see why so many people are drawn to “yoga with a Jewish twist” …….oh…and puns? Definitely Jewish.

At its core, yoga is a practice that unifies practitioner with source, human with divine. While we are all human, yogis believe and revel in the notion that the common thread among all things—living, nonliving, animate, and inanimate—is the divine.  The asanas, or the actual poses, are just a tiny part of the (much) larger picture of the “union” that yoga explores.

In his text The Yoga Sutras (literally “the book” on yoga), Pantanjali illustrates the eight limbs of yoga. Limb by limb he spells out exactly what it means to practice—and it’s much more than downward dog and plank pose. In fact, the only real guidance on the actual poses is an admonition that they must be “steady, firm and comfortable” (sutra 2.46). Most of the text is devoted to extolling the proper virtues of a yogi (compassion, truthfulness, non-violence, non-stealing) and outlining specific ways to solidify the union with the divine (breathing, focusing energy on a single point, following rules to live a pure, proper, balanced, non-disturbed life, turning inward), with a huge emphasis on the importance of acknowledging, praising and ultimately melding with the divine.

At its core, Judaism is a religion based on the belief, eloquently stated by Maimonides, that “all existence depends on G-d and is derived from G-d.” It follows that in Judaism, while inhabiting this temporary body, we are obliged to perform tikkun olam (“repair of the world”) through the fulfillment of 613 mitzvot, or “commandments” (also often loosely translated to mean “good deeds”).

The mitzvot spell out exactly what it means to be an upright Jew: recite prayers of thanksgiving for food, do not engage in hurtful speech, give charity, honor your parents, keep your word, don’t covet, and 607 other various and sundry commandments. By following the commandments, performing acts of reparation, and engaging in lovingkindness, we indeed become closer with G-d.

And while “poses” are not at the crux of any Jewish practice, there certainly are specific movements that a Jew in prayer performs: bowing, standing, swaying—all in the name of creating oneness with Hashem. In the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic discussion, analyses and musings on Jewish law and ethics), it is written that Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel would “bow down and put two thumbs into the earth, suspend his body in the air, kiss the ground, and straighten up” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Succot, 53a).

Unfortunately, mainstream “Jewish practice” in the modern world is often understood to take place only in cavernous rooms with stained glass windows, filled with people clad in designer suits and dresses, void of any movement or breathing. The swaying, meditation and exaltation that used to accompany Jewish prayer on a wide scale have all but disappeared outside of Chasidic and Jewish Renewal communities. When was the last time you saw someone bust out a handstand in shul?

Similarly, the phrase “yoga practice” has become largely synonymous in the modern Western world with “asana movement practice.” It evokes images of ripped, toned twenty-somethings sweating it out on rectangular rubber mats laid over pristine hardwood floors. In reality, one can practice yoga anywhere: on the bus, in the home, in the middle of that important meeting, during a conflict with a family member…especially during a conflict with a family member. That’s where kshama (patience) and daya (compassion)—two “non-asana” aspects of yoga—are truly needed.

Yoga and Judaism, two ancient practices that seemingly share so much, have been narrowly interpreted to a fault. We’re simply not seeing the whole picture. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

I’m not a rabbi, but I know that the trend in modern rabbinic authority makes it abundantly clear that the practice of yoga is not avodah zara. I’m not a guru, but I’ve been to enough yoga classes with themes on Shiva, and chants of “Hari Bol” and “Shri Ram” to know that infusing a religious practice into a yoga classes is totally acceptable and enjoyable for a great many people. And while I’m not a nutritionist, I do know a thing or two about vitamins.

I know that if I limited my vitamin consumption to fish oil and only fish oil, my body would certainly appreciate the introduction of Omega-3s and all the positive effects that would follow: better heart health, cancer prevention, vibrant skin, etc., etc. But if I limited my vitamin consumption to fish oil and fish oil only, I’d surely miss out on the digestive benefits of my probiotic, the rise in bone density concentration and the  mineral infusion from my coral calcium, etc., etc.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said,

“We’ve gone about as far as we can go as separate and isolated faiths.  G-d has given each faith some vitamins that the others need, and we won’t be able to survive in health unless we exchange those vitamins.”

While I agree with the spirit of Reb Zalman’s sentiment, I don’t fully agree with his word choice. I wish he would’ve said “spiritual practice” instead of faith. To be clear, yoga is not a faith. Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice, not a religion. Practicing yoga does not mean it must be to the exclusion of practicing Judaism, or vice-versa. Yoga works well in concert with any faith; yogis do not give up their religion and become apostates the minute they get into standing splits.

While classes that talk about Ganesh and chant “Om Nama Shivaya” are nice, these themes are just not mine. They don’t tap into my deeply-held beliefs as a Jew. What has made my practice more emotionally connecting, meaningful, comforting and enriching has been the introduction and exploration of text, Torah and Jewish prayer into my yoga practice. The synergy has made my yoga practice more personal, and my Jewish practice more relevant. It feels authentic and powerful. Spiritually, it feels like a potent mix of diverse but complementary vitamins at work for the betterment of my soul.

Practicing unity with the divine and fulfilling G-d’s commandments can (and should!) be done simultaneously; if you’ve never done it, try it before you knock it. You might find that both experiences become more profound. Perhaps you’ll see that you can repair the world with a stronger intention and effect greater change. And if you’re asking my opinion? It just plain feels good.

So practice your Vinyasa. Pray. Move. Meditate. Sweat. Study Torah. Keep Shabbat. Live the Yamas. Clear your mind. Read the Yoga Sutras. Take your spiritual vitamins. Be healthy and prosperous, inside and out.

Namaste and Shalom.

~

Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zack Lodmer teaches yoga to his own cadence of life. As the founder of Om Shalom Yoga, Zack weaves electronica versions of Jewish melodies, composed and recorded for this flow, and Jewish and yogic philosophies and teachings into an all-levels, uplifting Vinyasa flow yoga class. Zack will be teaching at the Tadasana International Festival of Yoga & Music. His class, Om Shalom Yoga, will feature live music by Kirtan Rabbi. To save $50 off a 3-day pass to Tadasana, use his promo code Lodmer.

About Tadasana

The Tadasana Festival of Yoga and Music is a three-day transformative experience in Santa Monica, CA, held over Earth Day Weekend, April 20-22, 2012. Attendees will be able to choose from 50 master teachers offering 100+ classes, lectures and workshops with live, in-class musical performances by artists from around the world and an eco-conscious shopping market in an outstanding location, a mere five-minute walk from the famed Santa Monica Pier. Tadasana is a transformational festival uniting yoga, music and community bringing together like-minded practitioners and seekers through the practice of yoga. Stand Together at Tadasana and help transform your life on this planet, influencing and inspiring others to do the same in the creation of a more unified world.

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16 Responses to “Yoga & Judaism. ~ Zack Lodmer”

  1. Rachel Hershberg says:

    Hi Zack – I taught your sister Abby Torahin Jerusalem a few years ago. I'd like to share with you where yoga fits in with my Judaism and spirituality…I am strictly Orthodox. Head-covering, skirts, no ripping toilet paper on Shabbas, the works. I've been practicing yoga for almost twenty years, because I find it gives me such profound psychological and physical benefits. By nature, I am more of a "head" person than a "body" person, and yoga has greatly helped me integrate the two, helped me appreciate, value, love my body…helps me stay strong, healthy, happy, and calm. All these qualities greatly support and enhance my overall spirituality, which includes all aspects of my life, including, but not limited to, me being a happy, energetic wife, mom, and teacher. Wishing you all bracha for continued growth and progress in spirituality in general and Torah in particular. Rachel Hershberg, Beit Shemesh

    • Zack Lodmer says:

      Great to hear from you, Rachel! Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments. Glad to hear about the benefits of your practice, and I appreciate your well wishing and brachot!

      L'Shalom,
      Zack

  2. I was just talking about this with my students (college level eastern philosophy) yesterday. It is hard for the western mind to wrap its head around the idea of non-conflict when it comes to spiritual practice. I have written on slightly similar topics (here on EJ) since I have faced this tendency to want to divide, even in the context of Yoga and Zen, believe it or not. Incidentally, there are also a large number of Jews in the Zen temple. I enjoyed your humor about it all!

  3. The last time I saw someone bust out in a handstand in shul? It was at my son's wedding.

    I was spinning fire sticks. I don't do handstands anymore.

    Great article and a good start to the discussion.

    Shabbat Shalom Zack.

  4. yoga peach says:

    Zack, Thank you for an outstanding and well written. I look forward to sharing this with the Jewish community in Philadelphia. I have always respected and admired you. Hope to attend another inspirational Om Shalom again soon.

  5. Zack Lodmer says:

    YOGADELPHONIC, yoga peach, aka Keli! The respect and admiration is entirely mutual. Thanks for spreading the love and for your awesome work!

  6. Jonnie Dale says:

    Zack, I'll miss you at Tadasana as I'm planning on completing Saul David Raye's Teacher Training Friday eve till 7 pm. Where will you be for shabbos and/or Sunday? It would be awesome to practice and meet with you…

    • Zack Lodmer says:

      Hi Jonnie,

      Unfortunately, I'm only going to be able to be at Tadasana on Friday. I'll be there during the day Friday, then leading Om Shalom Yoga Friday night for Kabbalat Shabbat Flow. Shabbos day I'm with the fam, then out of town on Sunday. Where are you coming in from?

      Cheers,
      Zack

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  9. ommarathonlawyer says:

    Thank you for this article, it really hit the spot for me. I started practicing yoga regularly about 7 months ago and it has transformed my life in many positive ways. I have found that incorporating my Jewish faith into my yoga practice is not a stretch whatsoever. This last Yom Kippur was the most meaningful for me as I took breaks from constant prayer and incorporated my yoga practice (outside the sinagogue of course, it was a chabad shul – and this is a discussion beyond going anywhere with my rabbi). During the break between shachrit and mincha, I walked around a lake, one mile, it was pristine, I practiced a few sun salutations on the shore and then simply meditated using shema Israel as a mantra for about an hour. After going back for mincha, Mariv and neilah, I was in a state of bliss. Anyone who says that as a Jew I cannot practice yoga is just not there! Thanks again, and where can I learn more about on shalom yoga?

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