Several years into becoming shomer Shabbat, Sabbath observant, I found Jewish practice to be profound but frustrating. I had been learning a basic yoga practice and it began unsettling my now-comfortable understanding of the Jewish milieu.
The basic problem was that although Judaism is deep and far-ranging, there seemed an obvious gap in practice. Our spiritual experience was all centred around the head rather than the heart, and there was no obvious way to pray with your body, short of a little walking back and forth (three steps only), knee-bending, bowing and doing the occasional circle-shuffle around the bimah.
Yoga is a powerful approach to balancing body and soul. Deriving from the Sanksrit word yog, meaning “to yoke/connect/join”, it is about bringing harmony between our physicality and spirit, a kind of active version of the Hebrew word for oneness, echad. Seen as a form of echad-in-action, the physical language of yoga can fill in what appears missing in Jewish practice.
Except it is not missing. I began searching for clues within Torah teachings, as my yeshivah rabbis had taught me the importance of unearthing good source material to back up any argument. A complete system seemed hidden in broad daylight: references to physical meditation were littered throughout the liturgy.
The morning prayers refer to awakening and stretching every part of our anatomy with blessings for “straightening the bent”, “strengthening our footsteps with vigour”, “opening our eyes”, and there are even references to beginning the day with a pure breath and bursting with potential.
King David referred to “praising God with all of our bones” (Psalm 35), although if you have ever been to a kiddush, you will know that the majority of congregations interpret this as “praise God with our stomachs”.
I was inspired to find every reference to the physical prayer, and unearthed material throughout the Talmud, Kabbalah, Midrash and more. Not only was there a solid basis for a new angle on old material, but there were people thirsting to learn about it.
My real journey began when I staged a workshop at the then-nascent Limmudfest conference in Sussex. “Bibliyoga and The Kosher Sutras” was presented to a packed room of enthusiastic yogis, and it soon led to classes with thousands of students in over 15 countries. The most powerful way of experiencing this material emerged in what I called a kosher sutra.
A medical suture is a thin strip, a plaster, designed to bring healing to two pieces of skin. A kosher sutra is a thin strip of text, a Hebrew verse, designed to bring healing to the body and soul. Each class or essay is based on one of these kosher sutras, with the aim of bringing a deep restorative balance to our physical and spiritual aspects.
My book The Kosher Sutras — The Jewish Way in Yoga & Meditation is effectively the world’s first Torah commentary through yoga — with lessons for every week of the year based on the weekly Torah reading, and an accompanying physical meditation.
There are spiritual seekers everywhere and England has been ahead of the game for many years, since Estelle Eugene began running a yoga programme at Yakar in Hendon back in the 1980s. Estelle founded the Jewish Yoga Network, which has an active international community, informative website and busy Facebook group.
There are various books which address the gap, including Diane Bloomfield’s classic Torah Yoga which offered the first integrated approach to a Jewish/yogish experience, and Jay Michaelson’s God In Your Body, presenting one approach to a philosophical framework. Yet we need look no further than the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, whose introduction to the kabbalistic Sefer Yetzirah (“Book of Creation”) boldly stated that “meditative Kabbalah is a form of yoga”.
These days there are teacher training programmes for Jewish yogis in the USA, Israel and Canada. There are Shabbat yoga services in Los Angeles, Tefilah (Prayer) Yoga in Chicago and retreats in upstate New York. London has its fair share of meditators — sitting meditation being an important aspect of the yogic tradition —and the Makom centre for spirituality presents regular retreats under the auspices of rabbinic student Danny Newman.
What interests me now is the deeper and more authentic levels of the integration. This is not an either/or question, deciding between my mindfulness practice and my spiritual practice, as the Talmud even mentioned that “the pious ones would spend an hour in meditation prior to prayer” (Berachot). I start each day with 30 minutes’ silent meditation, followed by my physical asana (yoga) practice and tefilah (Jewish prayer).
Just as my spoken prayer is lacking something if my body has not been engaged, my spirit is missing out if I only include a physical practice without the spoken prayer. This need intensifies during Jewish holidays when we seem to become ever more entrenched in sedentary activities and the only workout seen by most Jews is with their digestive systems, which are struggling to cope with the calorific onslaught.
As I tell my students, this isn’t about being physically flexible and you don’t ever need to touch your toes to benefit from the practice. Instead of just reading about it, put down the paper and go and stretch.