Taffy Brodesser-Akner (April 2) presents yoga as a discipline that “may very well be a violation” of her Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. She suggests that the best way for Jews to practice yoga without committing the sin of idol worship is to use it as mere exercise devoid of any spiritual or historic context. How sad. And how misinformed. To “dumb yoga down” to “just exercise,” is to rob it of its time-honored benefits. There is a better way.
At our yoga center, there are no statues of deities and we do not chant Hindu or Buddhist chants with the names of gods. Over 50 percent of our students and a number of the instructors affiliated with our center are Jewish from all streams of Judaism. There is no conflict between our yoga practice and our beliefs. When we greet each other with “Namaste,” we are saying, “I salute you.” Brodesser-Akner’s translation (“The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you”) is incorrect. There is nothing “treif” about wishing each other “Shanti,” the Sanskrit word for peace.
Just as we, as yoga teachers, adapt the yoga poses for our students’ needs, so too do we adapt the spiritual aspects of yoga so that everyone can comfortably practice yoga without feeling that they are violating their Jewish (or other) beliefs. At our center, we are careful to respect the beliefs of all our students.
At many yoga centers, there are statues of deities, and it is traditional to bring the hands to the heart in Anjali Mudra (Prayer Pose) during some sequences and at the beginning and end of classes as a way to center one’s thoughts, create intention, or acknowledge one another. However, yoga never demands that its practitioners worship the Hindu pantheon of gods, nor does the bowing that is done in Child’s Pose, forward bends, or toward one another in greeting have to be practiced as worship.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – a pivotal yogic text – invites practitioners to worship their “ishta devata” (their own god); it never once suggests that yogis worship Hindu gods. Patanjali further asks that yogis practice “ishwara pranidhana,” self-surrender to God – again, never once mentioning the name of a single deity. For countless Jewish yoga students, these wisdom teachings have led them closer to HaShem.
Anyone seeking to understand yoga would discover in its ancient texts a remarkable respect for each individual’s beliefs. Yoga provides its practitioners with a roadmap for personal development that includes yoga poses and so much more; it presents an ethical lifestyle with principles for proper behavior toward oneself, one’s fellow man, the planet, and all of creation, without requiring students of yoga to do anything that violates their sense of safety, be it physical, mental, or spiritual. We are invited to use the yoga poses, breathing, meditation techniques (which bear an uncanny resemblance to “Hitbodedut” meditation), relaxation techniques, and other guidelines to reduce stress, create well-being and vitality, and become the best that we can be – healthy, kind, caring, considerate, giving. In other words, yoga invites us to practice tikkun olam – to be a mentsch.
Our prayers, whispered with deep kavanah, are meant to awaken us to our highest spiritual potential. Let’s keep our hearts open to yoga, a discipline that – when practiced with knowledge, sensitivity, and mutual respect – can give us another gateway to those same spiritual goals.