by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
A reader included me in an email conversation with an orthodox Jewish religious organization that advertised an offering of a new kosher yoga class for women. Here’s my response...
We appreciate our reader’s enthusiasm, and you note well that many yoga programs - some of which are clearly inappropriate and violate halacha just from their description - are being held at different orthodox Jewish organizations across the U.S. (as well as some in Israel), particularly at Jewish outreach organizations (those organizations trying to share Judaism with Jews who have little background in their heritage).
We understand the strong goal of drawing unaffiliated Jews into outreach organizations, and can certainly relate that trying to present modern hip and seemingly new-agey practices in a Jewish context can be effective. But many of these programs and approaches present spiritual and religious problems and general incompatibility with orthodox Judaism. Yoga is one of the worst, as we’ve shown extensively, providing various aspects of hindu oriented spiritual experiences.
The religious leader of this organization replied that he’d take the question to a posek (a halachic decisor). A good posek will dig, investigate and keep asking questions until he thoroughly understands what's being asked and the areas of halacha to apply.
That said, how the sha'a'lah is asked definitely affects the answer and approach. There's a big difference in asking "hi, we'd like to host a gender segregated kosher yoga program that's had all the hindu aspects removed" from "hi, we'd like to host a yoga program in a way that's kosher, and the teacher assures us she's done her best to remove the hindu stuff". As more poskim are being asked such sha'a'lot and researching this topic, we're hearing a growing chorus of "absolutely not" answers.
Yoga remains an incredibly difficult topic. Clearly exercise isn't assur (prohibited), nor could we say "you can't hold your arm a particular way because another religion does so". But the particular combination of things done in yoga - body positions combined with breathing patterns combined with meditation-like-controlled thinking has a specific psycho-spiritual impact. That impact is a hindu-style religious experience.
So, exercise program - ok. Stretching exercise program (example - Pilates), ok. Hip exercise dancing program (gender segregated with appropriate music), probably ok. Breathing relaxation program (example - Lamaze), ok.
Meditation (Jewish version), more problematic though there are indeed Jewish meditation approaches that are fine and the Lubavitcher Rebbe specifically wrote meditation, except for use by educated focused Jews in a proper religious context, should ONLY be used for medical benefit where significant health problems exist and the (neutral) meditation is shown to be medically effective.
But meditation + breathing + stretching/body positioning = hindu psycho-religious experience. To be avoided by Jews, especially religious Jews.
Unfortunately most of the Western world, and this includes the Jewish world and rabbis, have little experience or contact with Eastern religions, meditation or spiritual practices. When they’re told it’s just exercise or just stretching, it’s been kosherized or limited, it all sounds fine. BUT EVERY TIME we get a full description, it ALWAYS involves the 3 foundational aspects of yoga and result in a psycho-spiritual impact.
And that’s the bit that those without deeper knowledge miss in evaluating it.