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For many, merger of yoga, Judaism a natural connection

Stephanie Shapiro Baltimore Sun

As she perfected a yoga pose demanding a balance of strength and surrender, Myriam Klotz “understood in a flash,” she says, a parallel principle developed by spiritual master Baal Shem Tov, founder of Judaism’s Hasidic movement. The principle stresses the importance of remaining both firm and supple in one’s spiritual explorations.

“Once I got that in yoga through a bodily experience, I saw insights into that teaching and vice versa,” says Klotz, a yoga instructor and rabbi trained in the progressive Reconstructionist movement. Over the years, she has created an art form that merges yoga and Judaism into what she calls Torat haGuf, or “Torah of the body.”

The sense of discovery that motivates a prayerful or intellectual search for the divine also might be manifested in a person’s physical life, says Klotz, 41, a teacher at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, based in Northampton, Mass. Torat haGuf is what she calls a “different expression” of the same impulse.

For Klotz and a growing number of yoga adherents in Jewish communities around the country and abroad, the ancient practice of yoga delivers not only physical well-being, but a deeper connection to their faith through mind, spirit and body.

“Organically, (the two traditions) complement each other,” says Klotz, who lives outside Philadelphia.

As a practicing Jew and as a yoga instructor, Dayna Macy sees no conflict between the two traditions.

“It does not surprise me in the least that there are (observant) Jews who will find a sympathetic partner in yoga,” says Macy, communications director for Yoga Journal, based in San Francisco.

Not everyone would agree, she says.

“I could very well imagine that an Orthodox Jew or a very orthodox practitioner of yoga (would resist a merger),” Macy says. For such traditions to maintain their vitality, though, they must “adapt themselves to the culture and time in which they live without losing the foundation of the teachings,” Macy says. “Both yoga and Judaism are doing that beautifully.”

Practitioners of Torat haGuf and other methods of integrating yoga with Judaism speak to the obligations of Jews “to care for our bodies as part of a continuum of overall health,” says Klotz, who released an audiocassette called “Each and Every Day: Yoga and Meditation for Jewish Spirituality” and is completing a book on Torat haGuf.

Diane Bloomfield, a former classmate of Klotz’s, has written “Torah Yoga: Experiencing Jewish Wisdom through Classic Postures” (Jossey-Bass, 2004, $19.95) and teaches workshops in the United States, Europe and Israel. “Every yoga posture (is) a gateway to greater Torah consciousness,” she writes. In each chapter, Bloomfield demonstrates how a Torah concept may be internalized and experienced through the practice of various yoga postures.

In “Leaving Egypt,” for example, Bloomfield explains that the concept of exodus is a living dynamic within our minds and bodies. Every “place you are tight, constricted, or in pain is your own personal Egypt,” Bloomfield says. “You join the exodus from Egypt when you discover areas of tension and release them.

“Yoga teaches you how to leave Egypt.”

Others, such as dance therapist and yoga instructor Joyce Wolpert of Baltimore, have found their own common ground between the two ancient practices. Through movement therapy as well as yoga, Wolpert helps her clients get “geared up to make a prayer in a deeper way,” she explains.

Jewish liturgy brims with images of physical activity, she says.

“We are supposed to use our breath and our body in a full prayer,” says Wolpert, who would like to start a synagogue where movement is the basis of prayer.

Another book, “Aleph-Bet Yoga: Embodying the Hebrew Letters for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being” (Jewish Lights, 2002, $16.95), combines hatha yoga with the shapes and meanings of Hebrew letters. Among other lessons, the book describes how to “weave together the meaning of each Hebrew letter with the Sanskrit word for the yoga pose and a biblical phrase in meditation,” according to the Jewish Lights Publishing Web site.

Otiyot Hayyot, or “living letters,” is a tai chi-influenced form of movement that also emulates Hebrew letters. Invented by Yehudit Goldfarb, Otiyot Hayyot is “the latest effort to blend the martial arts of the Far East with the spiritual letters of the Near East,” wrote Alana Newhouse in a 2003 issue of the Forward, the Jewish weekly newspaper published in New York.

Just as there are many forms of Judaism and schools of yoga, there are multiple ways of intertwining the two.

“One needn’t be monolithic either in Judaism or in yoga,” says Klotz, who directs a certification program in yoga and Jewish spirituality at a Catskill Mountain retreat center with Bloomfield and yoga instructor Ida Unger.

At Baltimore’s Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist congregation, a Yoga Minyan (prayer quorum) service is held four times a year. Recently, 20 participants gathered at a Saturday morning service dressed in loose clothing. They removed their shoes and spread yoga mats, blankets and towels on the floor.

The visitors were welcomed by Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton.

“Whether or not you are Jewish, whether or not you practice yoga, this is a place of rest and connection for you,” she said.

The service began with a wordless melody called a “niggun,” and then yoga instructor Patricia Fradkin led the group in a yoga sun breath (a breathing exercise through the right nostril that stimulates warmth and energy).

Based on that week’s Torah reading, the service continued, an interwoven series of readings, prayers, benedictions, corresponding yoga poses and breath work.

Beit Tikvah is “hardly the first in the country to offer yoga in a synagogue setting,” Bolton says later. Increasingly, Jewish religious leaders and yoga instructors use yoga “to enhance the embodiment of Jewish spiritual practice,” she says.

As a rabbi, Bolton says she is not advocating a “watering down” of Jewish beliefs or of yoga. While combining the two, both are “treated with a profound respect,” she says.

Yoga enhances every aspect of her life, Bolton says.

“I need to pay attention to my body or I’m not a whole, healthy person,” she says.

“I’m not big into aerobics. I like the gentle movements of yoga.”

Yoga also serves Bolton’s goals as a rabbi and teacher.

“I see that many members of this community dislocate mind and body,” she says. To move and practice yoga breathing techniques is a way of bringing them together again, she says.

Certain prayers and poses can bring “literally a physical sense of comfort.”

When Bolton asked Jude Asher, a yoga instructor for 17 years, if she would like to collaborate with her during Yoga Minyans, Asher welcomed the opportunity.

“It was such a great idea,” she says. “It really connected.”

Asher, who is Jewish, uses Beit Tikvah’s Yoga Minyan service, planned by Bolton, as a “framework” for her instruction. She chooses a series of simple yoga poses and lessons in “mindful, full-body breathing” to demonstrate various lessons and prayers. She keeps it simple.

“I find a happy medium,” Asher says. “I don’t want to leave the newbies behind, but I want others to still be learning.”

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