by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
I'm going to be starting a Jewish yoga class here in (anonymity preserved) and was wondering about talking to you regarding your position on certain things. For starters, our class is going to be all men. Second, unless I slip, I have been asked NOT to use Sanskrit at all, and to avoid poses that, in particular, are named after any avodah zara. Third, our goal is to infuse a Jewish theme into every class, along with sprinkling different Jewish concepts and ideas into various poses. Our music will be entirely Jewish music as well. Thoughts?
Regarding running a yoga class for the Jewish community, I think the problem is a good bit harder than just not doing a few things. Let me try to focus my thoughts in a few points...
1. Exercise and stretching exercise is fine. If you just taught people to stretch, all would be well (kind of, see point 4 for a concern).
2. Yoga combines the physical exercises with what most would probably describe as relaxation techniques (focused breathing and concentrations or meditations). Again, one certainly can't argue that relaxation is bad, and we all have to breath!
But the problem starts here. Yoga's focused breathing with certain physical positions facilitates certain mental states.
It's not just the focus of the yoga meditation. It's the actual body positioning together with the breathing patterns enable certain mental states - and those mental states align well with yoga meditative goals - which are Hindu religiously oriented. (This is why every Hindu guru starts his meditation cycle with yoga and remains in a yoga position during Hindu meditation.)
3. Clearly any references to yoga anything is problematic. First, some of the names include references to Hindu deities. Others are worship positions. And just using yoga terminology will lead people who find it valuable to go do additional research, picking up full yoga books or videos, etc (leading them right into full practice). This is easy to avoid by using only English and eliminating any yoga references. (If you need ways to describe things, take a look at Pilates for their terminology - since the exercises have some similarities).
4. Yoga has a demonstrable unusual effect on women in particular. It seems to directly enhance the female libido. (See several recent articles on this in the New York Times, written by yoga experts and noting practically every yogi at the top of the primary systems has accusations of major, um, interaction, with his female devotees.) This information struck me as really odd, but apparently yoga has a strong multi-century history in this area.
5. There are a couple of positions and system focuses are are especially problematic. The thumb and forefinger circular position while in a lotus position is a spiritual energy preservation move. Anything dealing with Kundaline power, heck anything that focuses on any power, is an outright giant red flag.
How to you filter through all that and end up with stretching exercise and some relaxation without all the dangers? I don't know.
I would suspect though that it's not about trying to replace yoga techniques with Jewish ones or trying to infuse yoga with some Jewishness. Rather, it's about extracting the core physical and relaxation components of yoga out of it, and dropping the rest. For example, don't try to include a Jewish meditation focus, just don't meditate as part of the yoga.
Let me see if I can give an example I have more personal experience with...
There's a Jewish Karate program called Tora DoJo. It mixes moves from a few different karate systems and drops the bowing. But it still includes some focus on chi, and at the higher belt levels gets more and more involved in focusing thoughts for punches and so forth - almost meditative.
Then there's the Israeli martial arts system Krav Maga. Krav Maga is fully as effective as Karate, actually more so. It's a 100% secular system, focuses on the moves and the training approach to learning them only. No chi, no focusing thoughts or meditation, just positioning for the best move force and training in a variety of ways to build the muscle memory to make it smooth and almost automatic.
Tora DoJo, even though it's designed as a program for Jews, gets into a Chinese spiritual-cultural perspective at the highest levels. Senior levels of Krav Maga are just dangerous, no spirituality in the mix.
Can you strip down yoga so people get the physical benefits of the stretching and positioning, and the relaxation benefits of easy repetitive breathing - without any of the rest? If so, you will have created a "neutral" yoga with no worries. But we haven’t seen such yet in any kosher or Jewish yoga program to date.
Parallels/similarities definitely exist between all meditative systems - including Jewish meditation - so I'm not sure I agree that removing anything meditative is the answer or necessary. Why not have JEWISH meditation combined with physical movement? Movement that lends itself toward JEWISH meditation (and/or other meditative techniques) doesn't seem to be the problem...what seems to be the problem is the end goal.
As for the women's libido thing: every exercise can be related to sexuality. Lost weight, increased heart rate, endurance, flexibility, strength - all of those things matter during intercourse. It can be argued that running, or Zumba (ever so popular in the frum world now) do the same thing. In terms of a teacher taking advantage of his (or her) position, that seems to be a reality or pose a problem in many, many situations. My opinion: it's not about yoga, it's about the balance of power, guidance, etc. Anyway, this is a men's class.
I'm also wondering if any of this/your research is based on written Torah sources, or if it's primarily first-hand experience. I learned Rambam Hilchot Ovdei Kochavim and I've also learned Mishnayot Avodah Zarah. Very little seems to touch upon this sort of thing.
I agree there's various forms of Jewish meditation that are good. But Jewish meditative forms have no tradition or instruction of being combined with exercise movements or specialized body positions.
On the libido thing, there's certainly a history of hatha yoga being based on tantra, which hatha focus on and many practices associated with "to unite the cosmic male and female principles in a state of ecstasy." That's (as far as I know) not the focus of modern yoga, but it's an interesting conjecture that some of the practices that had enhancing effects in this area are continued, stripped of their focus. Regardless, as you said your focus is teaching men, and if your exercise regime enhances their marital relations in a kosher relationship, nothing wrong with that.
The Gemora Avoda Zarah goes into much more detail of practical types and activities of avoda zara.
But I'm personally more interested in the focus, and comparing the meditative and spiritual goals of such approaches versus the Jewish spiritual and meditative goals. This takes one into seforim of chassidus and kabbalah.
The avoda zara aspects of eastern meditation styles are not physical actions, they're mental actions. Both Jewish and non-Jewish approaches describe meditative states and goals - and the states at different points are the same steps along the way. It's the goals and ways of moving along the paths that are different. And that is where they are very different. For an example, take a look at the sefer Tavarat HaRivash (attributed to the Baal Shem Tov).