Print | Email  

Om and Shalom

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2006-08-31

Yoga

Yoga

Judaism and yoga seem to be at odds with each other – given that yoga is all about calmness and relaxation and Judaism prides itself on ‘ruach’ (spirit) and feistiness.

However, according to Sara BenIsaac, a Jewish Hampstead Garden Suburb resident who teaches yoga, North West London Jews of all denominations are interested in it.

Any one who believes that the two practices are mutually exclusive should know there is a group called Yoga Mosaic – an association of Jewish yoga teachers – and they have both an American/Canadian and a UK branch. On its website the organization encourages Jewish yoga teachers to “share ideas and ideals and to research further the many parallels to be found in both Judaic and Yogic philosophies.”

BenIsaac has been a yoga convert for 25 years, and likes to practice every day. “I feel much better when I do, it makes you feel calmer.  I feel totally different on the day s when I do yoga and when I don’t – when I  don’t I feel horrible.” she said.

She teaches in several health clubs in London, and gives private group and one-to-one classes too.  Some of her yoga sessions are held at the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC) in Golders Green.

A spokesperson from the LJCC explained why they offer the lessons: “The LJCC aims to provide a holistic approach to the needs of the community. We want to create an all round great experience, addressing the needs of the body, mind and spirit.”

This shows how yoga is compatible with Judaism – our religion clearly commands us to take care of our health.

Ronnie Cohen, executive director of the Masorti New London Synagogue, said: "There is a line in the Torah that says you must 'look after your life' - which is behind the argument made by some rabbis that people shouldn't  smoke. Practicing yoga would also be in keeping with this rule, as it helps to  keep your body healthy and flexible, and your mind clear."

Although yoga has its roots in ancient Hindu texts, people attending BenIsaac’s classes could easily think it was purely a physical discipline or sport, because she never mentions any kind mysticism. However, there is definitely a spiritual pay-off.

“The majority of people who do yoga and do it seriously can’t avoid the spiritual consequence– because it makes you feel different. This is due to the physical element – you become physically more relaxed and this makes you a more open and empathetic person,” she said. So can practicing yoga awaken an interest in eastern spirituality that would  interfere with someone’s Judaism?

According to Rabbi Alexandra Wright, senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood, yoga doesn't undermine Jewish beliefs. "I know of Jewish yoga teachers and quite a lot Jews who practice yoga. If a member of my congregation asked me if it would be OK for them to do yoga, I  would bring up Maimonides' principle - that we are commanded to look after our bodies and our souls."

It may be that yoga is particularly suited to a Liberal Jewish mindset - consider Wright's comment; "Judaism doesn’t exist in a vacuum - it is  expansive and inclusive."

However; would the orthodox view be different? Rabbi Aubrey Hersch, of the Orthodox Jewish Learning Exchange, commented: “It is an important part of Judaism that one’s health is maintained. The idea of physical discipline is present within Judaism – we have fast days,
and there is a concept of meditation. Yoga is allowed because Jews are encouraged to do exercises that relax their mind, improve their concentration and move them into a calm plane. It would be prohibited to repeat any phrases or mantras when doing yoga  that might be idolatrous (invoke non-Jewish deities.)"

BenIsaac agrees that yoga can bring about the kind of mind state that Rabbi Hersch is describing: “When doing yoga, if your body is doing something and your mind is doing something else it is no good. The point of it is to leave the outside world and become liberated from your thoughts. It is an ideal way to forget about the problems of life.”

For many Jews, this idea of becoming liberated from your thoughts is a difficult one, after all, as a race we love questioning and debate. “The Jewish people I teach find it difficult to stop their minds chattering.  They find it hard to relax,” Ben Isaac conceded.

Indeed she was first attracted to yoga because she wanted an alternative to the frenetic environment that you can find at Jewish gatherings. “I thought, there must be some way one can change one’s consciousness, and take control of your mind – which would make you feel very relaxed, and very different to being in the hyper Jewish mode.”

If you aren’t really interested in meditation and physical discipline, consider what Ben Isaac says: “How you are physically affects how you are  mentally. Yoga has a very stabilizing influence.”

With Rabbis with very different beliefs both giving it the thumbs up, yoga must be a discipline that enhances one’s Judaism even though lots of us would think it was the opposite.

To find out about the yoga classes at the LJCC, visit www.ljcc.org.uk or
phone 020 8457 5000.

To arrange private yoga lesson with Sara BenIsaac,
email Sara.Benisaac@gmail.com