Yoga has steadily gained cachet in the West over the last fifty years. It is found in high school gym class. It was part of a family-geared Easter Sunday event on the White House front lawn in 2010, not to mention health clubs in some of our Jewish community centers.
Yes, yogis are everywhere, including Jewish ones, from practitioners to instructors.
While the root of yoga is found in Hinduism, many who practice it do so in a setting stripped of small deities’ statues, phrases and ritual chanting, and without an explanation for the poses involved. The term yoga means “union with God.” And if the goal is to become one with a god, particularly the Hindu gods for which poses are named and constructed, how “safe” might it be for Jewish exploration?
During the counterculture movement of the 1960s in the West, many young Jews, disenchanted with traditional Judaism, began to explore New Age and Eastern religions. They saw it as other: exotic and sensory with an atmosphere of music and chanting and scent (even if it is just the sweat of a neighbor on the floor). Completing a set of stances fits neatly into a morning, afternoon or evening as a workout. There are traditions and rituals in yoga, like in Judaism, but perhaps more enticing. Many Jewish (and non-Jewish) practitioners of yoga do not regard yoga as a religion, but a spiritual practice combining body, mind and spirit.. This feels uncomfortably similar to the v’hav’ta chant: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Judaism from the Tanakh mirrors a sensory, atmospheric experience: sweet incense, visceral animal sacrifice performed in a certain order, priestly rituals, and meditating on Scripture day and night (Psalm 1:2)—just no stretching.
In yogi wisdom, the divine resides in every person; uttering “namaste” salutes this quality. The emphasis is on the internal, rather than the external, biblical God, going against the Sh’ma, “Hear, Israel, the LORD is our God, the Lord is one.” Many Hasidic, Orthodox yogis, and even Conservative Jewish yogis from Brooklyn to Israel will refrain from saying the Hindu mantra. With yoga’s poses, is there a danger of opening up oneself to forces that are not God, and if they are not, can they be harah, evil? Avodah zarah, idolatry, is often an issue for more observant Jews who are interested in yoga. Many justify it. However, there are strict indications Jewish people are to avoid all idolatry (see the first commandment); this includes a prayer at Yom Kippur, repenting for the sins we unknowingly commit. Bowing or saluting the sun, for example, to open a session, is a rather blatant example of bowing to a god or the symbol (sun) for one.
Rabbinical Judaism is perceived by some as dry, with repetitive prayers stripped of meaning. The typical American, “High Holiday Jew” who may or may not have had a bar or bat mitzvah does not connect with it. This in part explains the Jewish Renewal movement. It combines Judaism with mysticism, liturgical inventiveness, and touch, evoking a joyful experience not typically found within the four walls of synagogue traditions.
One Jewish woman, Diann, discovered yoga as a young adult. She amped up her practice just after high school. She was on a spiritual search. She sensed the peripheral Judaism with which she grew up could not offer her the dynamic truth she sought. As a dancer and creative person, the transition was natural.
Diann lived for a year in a yoga studio in New York City, practicing and eating within that lifestyle along with several other Jewish, young people. She chanted the names of many gods and was not bothered by the miniature god statues around her. Ultimately, a woman she encountered who seemed to have true serenity shared with Diann about Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. “Receiving him centered my life perfectly for the first time,” Diann noted. She no longer felt she needed yoga to strive for completion and spirituality. Having found the Jewish Messiah, she returned to a full understanding of the faith with which she had been raised, with one path to the true God rather than many.
In the secularized practice of yoga, what is the spiritual root? If there is physical openness, what spiritual forces might walk through that door? If physical openness creates a spiritual openness, how might this be guarded against?
Part of this pervasive Jewish affinity to yoga shows the longing for the mind, body and spirit to be in unity. This is a universal truth that is found in the Torah. Some Jewish people, like Diann, see Jesus coming to earth as the ultimate example of the spiritual becoming physical, and vice versa. His life, death and resurrection hold the promise of union with the one true God for now and eternity. Are you willing to stretch your mind around that?