There are wonderful resources from Rabbis and other learned people in the Jewish tradition that speak to spirituality of the body (Nachman, Finkel, Michaelson) and the holiness of movement (Michaelson, Bloomfield, Nachman and students). There is an emerging field of Jewish yoga and creative dance (Bloomfield, Klotz, courses at Elat Chayyim, the dance program at the religious women’s college Orot in Elkana, Israel). And, there is still a gap between those ideas, which prove a more movement-filled Jewish origin (dancing after crossing the Red Sea, David dancing wildly by the Ark, the daily shuckling by minyans across the continents and centuries, Psalms which uphold dancing as a glorification of the One), and … reality.
The other weekend I taught a four-day course at Elat Chayyim on Embodied Relationships, relationship to oneself, to others, to prayer, and to G-d. Embodied prayer was the first idea I had for the course and I focused on that in many of the sessions. As per usual at Elat Chayyim, the spiritual wing of the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, there were many inspiring teachers and leaders of heart awakening and love-filled Shabbat services. Shabbat morning, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Executive and Artistic director of Storahtelling, led a rousing Dvor Torah which included Bnai Mitzvah teenagers and their parents. In the beginning of the services, Amichai said something quite simple that complemented my Jewish yoga practice and helped uplift my Shabbat teaching that day.
Simply put, the morning services, and the morning in general, as we wake, start with Thank You.We say Modeh/Modah Ani upon waking, which is one big Thank You for keeping me alive and waking me up, and go on to the morning prayers which say Thank You for opening eyes, mine and others, for straightening the bent, my body and others, for guiding my steps, etc.The prayers can be seen as an analogy for all humanity but also for getting me out of bed and just, well, thanks.
Then, after the grateful blessings, we say “Wow”. All the Songs of Praise follow, the “wow” of the wonder of it all, and of G-d. Isn’t that amazing? We say thank you BEFORE we say wow. We don’t say, wow, thank you. We say thank you, wow. It’s not so new age after all to have the “attitude of gratitude” and then magically we have the eyes to really see, to really receive the wonders that exist, that we “have”.
So, what does this have to do with Jewish Yoga?I use this map, this framework already handed down to Jews for thousands of years, to thematically and literally order the class.First, is thank you.Even if we are tired, cranky, or have the early morning body stiffness.We say thank you.We actually speak our thanks as we begin our class.We become aware of our bodies, sitting on our cushions or mats, and as we stretch and moan we also say thank you for the arms to stretch, for the breath that runs through us, for straightening our bent bodies and even for the pain we experience, since the pain will lead us to our own relief of pain if we learn how to listen.
Then, as we move more into the first postures of the class, we say “Wow.” Wow, we can stretch that much more, wow, we can balance in that lunge, wow, we can be like a cat or dog, and wow, we can stand.
Then, as in the service of our tradition, after the wow, is the most important prayer of Judaism. It is said that if you cannot study Torah on any given day, then at least you must say this prayer, in the morning, and in the evening. This is the Shema. The most important prayer of a highly verbal (people of the Book) tradition, a tradition of arguing and wrestling and questioning, is the prayer that tells us to listen. Listen, O Israel, the Lord is Our G-d, the Lord is One. This is what Jews brought to the world, monotheism, and to truly hear this, and live by the example of its teaching, is supposedly the life’s work of all Jews.
The Shema in the body is a wonderous practice. I have developed a whole morning tradition just on this practice alone. When do you actually listen to your body? What are the results when you do, and when you don’t? At this point in the yoga class, we are standing, and we begin to listen. What does my body need now? Right now? And now? The repeated question is always answered if you let the body speak, and release from your mind making the choice. I don’t believe that the body and mind are separate, but I do believe that in our 21st century western culture we have created a separation that often is detrimental to the body.Rumi, a poet mystic of a much earlier century, agrees: “If you start doing something against your health, your [body] intelligence will eventually scold you.”The question of what my body needs now, not what my mind thinks it needs, can lead to surprising results.When we “think” we are tired, we think that our response will be to lie down.Often if we really hear our bodies, our “tiredness” is our body’s way of asking for attention, and when we give it, our fatigue may give way to joyous opening or soft soothing swaying.Surprise is what happens; we allow ourselves to go into the unknown.And, isn’t that where G-d is?
This practice is like a known practice in the dance world, Authentic Movement ™. However, we don’t always use a partner as witness, and I bring in questions and images at times into the practice to work with. However, it is interesting that the last letter, ayin, of the Hebrew word shema, the first word in the shema, and the last letter, daled, in the Hebrew word echad, the last word in the shema, spell ed, which means witness. We witness our own silence, our own listening, and our own G-d.
After the Shema is the Amidah, which literally means standing. We stand to bless G-d, and then hear our thoughts alone, our own connection to the Divine. And, we listen. The Shema practice can bring such great insights that I often bring these two parts of the service together as one on the mat. And in the Amidah, we finally get to, except on Shabbat when all is perfect and we don’t need anything, ask G-d for what we want. That is also perfect; we listen, and then ask, instead of asking, then listening. Just as we say thank you before saying wow, we assert our connection to G-d through listening, and then ask for what we or loved ones, or the world at large, needs.
On certain mornings, the Amidah is followed by study. We study the words of the Torah. Here, if there is a theme for the class that is based on the parsha shavua, or another text, we work with that text in movement and in words. For instance, with parsha Toledot, we may work with partner counterbalance movements and perhaps a bit of contact improvisation to look at the relationship between Jacob and Esau. We might find the warrior poses in yoga correspond to one of the brothers, while the child’s pose corresponds to the other. Which one corresponds to which is a question of interpretation, and everyone on the mat is encouraged to find their own interpretation based on their movement discovery.
Finally, at the end of a Jewish prayer service we say Kaddish. This is the prayer that is said for anyone who has died recently, or for an anniversary of someone’s death. Some people say it for those who didn’t have anyone to say it for them, such as those who died in the Shoah, the Holocaust. Interestingly enough, at the end of a yoga class, we do savasana, the corpse pose. We practice dying. In both traditions the body knowledge of death is honored and given a place. It is notable that the Kaddish doesn’t speak of death, but is more praise for G-d. I recently heard a beautiful teaching that the words of praise are actually the words of those souls for whom we are saying Kaddish, rising to their Creator.
The above is a general outline of what my version of a Jewish yoga class is like. The movement to combine these two traditions is relatively new, considering the age of the traditions, and the field is open and growing. What is your experience?