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Yoga For Jews?
How are we to
understand the Torah's appeal not to follow the ways of other nations,
to desist from idolatry or worshipping other gods? In the Torah portion
I'm currently studying, Vaetchanan, Moses reiterates the prominent laws
and ordinances saying, "Do not follow other gods, any gods of the
people about you. (Deut. 7:14) In this day and age are we to ignore
this cherished ordinance at the backbone of Judaism? Yet in the current
surge of interest in yoga, Jews are some of its most ardent followers.
What is it that yoga offers us that's so appealing?
"Yoga makes me
feel better", "Maybe it can cure what ails me", assert its devotees.
These claims led researchers to scientifically inquire into the
benefits of yoga, to see if it could be measured by conventional
medical standards. There still remains much controversy between the
medical establishment and the Hindu tradition that first introduced
yoga into this country.
At first, yoga
signaled a spiritual practice of cleansing and rebirth, a non-toxic way
to get high. Then it was seen as a kind of preventive medicine that
helped manage and reduce stress. Yoga relaxes you, and by relaxing,
heals. at least that's the theory. The autonomic nervous system is
divided into sympathetic system, which is often identified with the
fight-or-flight response and the parasympathetic system, which is
identified with what's been called the Relaxation Response. When you do
yoga--the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release
muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body--you
initiate a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the
Relaxation Response on. This has a dramatic effect on the body. The
heart rate slows; respiration and blood pressure decreases. The body
seizes the chance to turn on the healing mechanisms.
In daily life,
pressure is intense: our jobs, our marriages, our lives are at stake.
We know that a high percentage of the illnesses that people suffer from
have at least some component of stress, if they're not overtly caused
by stress. The demand for relaxation is peaking when noise and
agitation are everywhere. We work longer hours with blaring TV's and
radios shattering our nervous system. No wonder there is such a demand
We, as Jews,
need to ascertain whether yoga is forbidden worship or if can we accept
it as a form of health promoting exercise? Most gyms today offer
classes in a very secular strain of yoga for those who understand the
health benefits of stretching. If you believe yoga interferes with
Jewish tradition then you have to ask what does Judaism have to offer
our shattered nerves?
To answer that
question, it might be wise to take a glance into Hinduism. The word
"yoga" shares a similar meaning to the Hebrew word "devekut", a bonding
with God. Both traditions are among the oldest in the world and
together share certain concepts in common. The one that seems relevant
here is that both understand the same four levels of consciousness: the
physical, the emotional, the mental and the spiritual. In order to
"bind" with the Divine, Hinduism has ritualistic practices that rely on
each of the four levels. Yogis practice hatha yoga, the yoga of the
body, which is considered the starting point on the quest for
enlightenment. There are also the higher forms: Bhakti yoga, the
practice of devotion; yoga of meditation and yoga of studying
interpretation of sacred literature, such as our Torah, propels the
mind closer to God than any other spiritual practices. A well-known
adage among mystical traditions states that energy follows thought; if
you contemplate an idea long enough, it becomes a reality. With the
proper intention, the study of Torah focuses our attention on God,
materializing into a trusting nature that enables us to withstand the
pressures of the outside world. Torah study, then, is the Jewish yoga,
which leads to the performance of mitzvot, holy actions that further
keep our mind on God.
Parshat Vaetchanan, the words in chapter four caught my attention where
Moses declared, "And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules
that I am instructing you to observe so that you may live to enter and
occupy the land that the Lord the God of your fathers is giving you".
The Promised Land, The Garden of Eden, the Relaxation Response, utopia,
nirvana, paradise, are all metaphors for the land God gave to us. Did
the biblical children of Israel ever really cross the Jordan to enter
the land? When we reach that point in the Torah, the story ends
abruptly and starts anew with Genesis 1. Perhaps the Promised Land is
never to be entered, but it’s the journey that counts.