The Long Search for a Comfortable Position as a Jew Who Practices Yoga
I felt guilty finding spiritual fulfillment outside my faith, until I realized that Judaism and yoga don’t have to be mutually exclusive
For the past two decades, yoga and Judaism have been the two poles of my search for a spiritual identity. But I haven’t always embraced them at the same time, nor have they always been in harmony with one another for me.
I haven’t had a linear, continuous relationship with yoga; I’d call my engagement with it “on-and-off.” “On” when I had lower back pain that craved gentle, mindful movements. “Off” after attending classes that had overly competitive vibes—or when there was too much “Om” required for where I was emotionally or religiously comfortable at the moment.
This is not so different from the story of my engagement with Judaism: It was “on” when I was studying comparative religions in college and graduate school and was eager to feel rooted in my own faith. It was “off” when four years of infertility treatments overwhelmed my ability to feel rooted in anything. Then “on” again when my son was born and personal gratitude and community connectedness seemed in order.
More than once, yoga stepped in during a Jewish “off” period, which eventually started to seem more than coincidental. During the infertility years, for example, I couldn’t bring myself to pray or to read from the Torah—a skill I had proudly acquired during my previous “on” period. But I did discover deep solace in the meditative movements and mindful breathing I found in yoga class.
That solace was complicated, though, by a struggle that floated around both my yoga practice and my Jewish life: Could I engage with both practices at the same time, without betraying the tenets of either one? I toggled between the two for years, being enthusiastic about one for a time, then being drawn back to the other. But now, after all this time, I’ve learned to find simultaneous meaning in both my religious background and a spirituality-based fitness practice that I consider “kosher” enough for a Jew to embrace.
When I was a child growing up in a Reform home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Judaism offered me a framework for making decisions, opportunities to expand my knowledge of our ancient tradition, and feelings of connectedness with the generations of my family. I wasn’t ever a youth-group or a synagogue person, but my family celebrated the holidays, I worked at my Hebrew school after my bat mitzvah, and my Jewish identity was unwaveringly proud, especially when it came to social justice issues like the plights of Russian and Ethiopian Jews that dominated the headlines during my teen years. My Jewish education had been so focused on social justice, and on taking a “never forget/never again” look at the Holocaust, though, that I got to college feeling fiercely protective of my Jewishness but rudderless when it came to personal spirituality. Judaism lived in my head; my heart was not yet spoken for.
Then, my freshman year at Cornell, I signed up for yoga as a gym class. My friend and I snickered childishly at the way the teacher—from the Iyengar tradition, which is known for encouraging precision and alignment in yoga poses—used phrases like “now, let’s come into our feet.” But I soon found that yoga offered me relief from emotional tension and physical pain. It also gave me a deeply meaningful way of experiencing my body as a metaphor for balance, strength, flexibility, and inner quiet, something that was becoming increasingly important as the stresses of starting a new college life started to manifest themselves as pain, even in my young, otherwise healthy, body.
But something seemed off about how connected I felt in the class. With the benefit of years, I can now look back and understand, to invoke a Jewish cliché, that those rumblings I was feeling were guilt that I was finding inner peace and serenity outside of the faith.
That struggle followed me as I moved from school to work and adult life. For instance, when I started a new yoga class six years ago, the teacher would ask us at the end of each class to press our palms together at the centers of our hearts and bow our heads, either to the light in our hearts or to an idea or teaching that had guided our practice that day. The first few classes, after sneaking my eyes open just long enough to see that everyone’s head was lowered, I joined in and bowed mine. It didn’t feel good. Not only did I feel like a yogic poseur, I also felt a sense of Jewish betrayal. “There are statues of deities in this room,” I thought, “so why, Jewess, are you bowing your head prayerfully?” I nervously approached my teacher and told her my quandary. Her answer was immediate: You should never do anything in yoga that hurts your body, your mind, or your heart. No bow? No problem. She remains, and will remain, my trusted teacher.
Yoga also involves the chanting of “Om,” which, like the bow, is done with the hands pressed together and held against the heart. I remember vividly the first time I participated in the chant, the stirring shiver I experienced as my voice melted fluidly into the pool of the other voices in the room. My “heart center,” a yoga term, tingled and vibrated against my hands as a surprisingly (to me) clear and strong voice seemed to float out of my mouth. I felt so clean and calm when my lungs had no more air to give to the chant. It felt real—pleasantly mysterious in the way only a spiritual practice can be. Still, a twinge of guilt raised its ugly, complicated head; I know “Om” is a mystical syllable and a sacred Sanskrit mantra—not so OK for a Jew—yet I began to look forward to it at the beginning of every yoga class.
In trying to understand why yoga was resonating for me as a Jew, I realized that the only other time I consistently felt that wash of calm, connectedness, and openness was in synagogue, when we’d reach the moment in the Aleinu when I’d straighten from my bow and sing, “ … lifnei Melech … ” I was getting a single spiritual need met in two places, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that realization. Either my cup runneth over, or I was cheating somehow. But if I hoped to continue to grow spiritually and not get mired in a tangled web of guilt and over-thinking, I had to figure out which.
I knew I couldn’t resolve this by reaching for the “we’re all climbing the same mountain, we’re just taking different paths to the summit” refrain many spiritual seekers cite. That felt unfair to the complexity of the questions I was struggling with, and to the particularities that make different “paths” full, rich, and independent worldviews and ways of living. Even though yoga was becoming important to me, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to reconcile it with a meaningful Jewish identity.
As I read and thought about this, I started to hope that Judaism and yoga didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Many Jews have made great efforts to establish a relationship with yoga that eases the qualms of traditional believers who worry about idol worship and immodesty; for instance, the women-only yoga classes being taught in the Hasidic neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where “sun salutations” rooted in the worship of Hindu deities are referred to as “warm-ups,” and mantras and chanting are verboten. Some progressive Jews like me, on the other hand, see yoga addressing a dearth of personal spirituality in Jewish life: Check out Aleph-Bet Yoga: Embodying the Hebrew Letters for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, which connects traditional yoga poses with the physical shapes of Hebrew letters and Jewish insights to contemplate while practicing.
Obviously, yoga and Judaism are not spiritually equivalent. Yoga in America is firmly entrenched outside the boundaries of Hindu religious life: American yoga culture walks a fine line between spiritual practice and physical fitness, and every yoga teacher, studio, and student chooses a spot along that spectrum, selecting elements from each. My spot is, unlike my politics, just right of center (if “spiritual practice” is the far left of the yoga spectrum).
In some ways, yoga and Judaism actually have much in common. Both are ancient—some scholars date Hinduism, the religious foundation of what we know as yoga today, back to 1500 B.C.E. Both use languages that are exotic-sounding to outsiders, and often one gets the sense that someone who says, in Sanskrit, tadasana instead of “Mountain Pose” is embracing aloud her sense of belonging within the yoga community, much the same way someone who says yasher koach instead of “congratulations” or “well done” in synagogue feels Jewishly connected. There are also multidimensional greetings in each tradition (the Sanskrit greeting namaste, or “I honor you,” and the Hebrew shalom with its meanings of hello/goodbye and “peace”). Even the teacher-student relationship in yoga is traditionally sacred, reminiscent in some ways of a rebbe and his devoted pupils.
But my fretting and questioning continued until I heard two of my fellow yoga students discussing their High Holiday plans as we all walked out of class. It was all so seamless for them, I thought, such an unconflicted transition between yoga and Judaism. So, why was I worried that there was something wrong with the way I enjoyed both, needed both, felt fulfilled in different ways by both?
And there it was, the epiphany I had yearned for: I do yoga. I am Jewish. The two are not mutually exclusive, they are a Venn diagram, and my heart is the roomy center.
When I was planning my wedding 14 years ago, I had a strong desire to have a ceremony that my great-great grandparents, had they been there, would have recognized as Jewish. I feel the same way about my home, my Shabbat table, and my son, all of which I would proudly show them and say, “Look. Your faith survived. You survived.” But I wouldn’t need my ancestors to recognize or approve of my yoga practice any more than I would need them to “get” Facebook or Zumba or Modern Family or anything else I turn to for enjoyment, comfort, or even meaning.
I don’t claim to connect with God during a yoga chant in the same way that I do on Yom Kippur. But neither can I demote the role yoga has played in my life because it’s not “supposed” to feel spiritual for a Jew. Yoga and Judaism can coexist in a meaningful, connected life, I know now. Because no one—especially my yoga teacher—was bothered when I started holding my chin steady instead of lowering it in a bow in yoga class. And because my life is delightfully multidimensional, and there’s room in it for both religion and spirituality, stillness and movement, meditation and prayer.
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In their faith, Talmudic rabbis kept contradictory thoughts, believing in both the reality of miracles and their unreliability