Yoga as a Torah Shiur

One of the local synagogues posted an announcement recently about Yoga classes in the memory of the deceased, as if Yoga has replaced Torah as a way to raise his soul (le’ilui nismat). Here again we have popular culture entering unseen and modifying our basic assumptions. It also shows openness to a foreign culture/ another religion that passes under the radar. That yoga is now a practice that one can dedicate the way one dedicates mishnayot is fascinating, syncretism found in the oddest places.

Shalom Yoga with BNOT – Tuesday nights at 8:00 PM sharp in the Bnai Yeshurun Social Hall (Rabbi Steven Pruzansky]. Classes are dedicated to the memory of ———-.

American Yoga of the 1950’s was a form of calisthenics desiccated of its Indian origins, the new age brought some of the religion back into it and now the training of Yoga teachers in ashrams in India-or even MA programs in India- restore yoga to its original context. Any given yoga class can fall anywhere on the spectrum
Recently, the San Diego County Superior Court said, on July, 1, 2013, that kids taught yoga in school would not be aware of the religious elements, so it does not violate religion in a Public School- see here and here. I assume the synagogue accepts the court’s reasoning. On the other hand, the Hindu American Foundation while applauding the decision for distinguishing between two types of yoga, as a physical exercise and as a holistic spiritual path. Nevertheless advocates for Hindus in America to “Take Back Yoga” and generally find these kitschy titles like “Shalom Yoga” to be offensive. As a side point, we are now watching how Hinduism, like Judaism, which declares itself an entire way of life fit itself into the American Protestant concepts of religion.

This topic has come up on this blog several times, One, Two, Three, Medieval

And here is the article by Tzvi Freidman that went missing from Chabad.org when the BT’s went after him.

Is Yoga kosher? By Tzvi Freeman

Question:
Is yoga considered an idolatrous practice because it started out as a Hindu practice? What if one meditates on words of Torah or Psalms while practicing yoga?

Answer:
We’ve been getting this question quite a bit lately, most likely due to all the “Kosher Yoga” classes sprouting up.
The short answer is, no it is not prohibited. If it would be, the marathon, too, would be prohibited. So would wine and meat. In fact, so would any benefit from the sun, the moon, the ocean, the wind, fire and air, water and earth–all would have to be outlawed, since all of these have been either the object or device of pagan worship.

But they are all still kosher. Why? Because, as the Talmud rhetorically asks, “Because of fools, should we destroy G‑d’s world?”

Meaning that G‑d put all these things here with a function and a purpose. Unlike the idols and temples erected by idolaters, they were here before Adam was created. It was the mistake of Adam’s offspring to consider them autonomous beings—but that in no way changes the purpose for which G‑d made them.
The same with Yoga: When G‑d created the human being, He made innate to this creature’s nature that he would be able to stretch and relax in ways that would provide him greater resilience and mastery over his own body. While the Hellenists were running marathons and the Chinese were developing martial arts, the people in India developed this art of Yoga–each people according to their particular climate and social structure. It was inevitable that each culture associated these discoveries to their beliefs–just as they had associated wine and feasting. But because of this, should we outlaw a benefit G‑d placed purposely in His world for us?

Solomon the Wise wrote, “He made everything fit for its time.” Everything G‑d put in this world is necessary, nothing is extra. If the benefits of Yoga exist, it means that at some point in time people will need them—for good purposes, for the purposes for which we were created, to bring us and our world closer to our Creator and to an active connection with Him.

The same applies to those forms of meditation that can be useful in developing the mind and in relaxation. All of these must be used, stripped of their association with Hindu deities and the like, for the purpose for which they were originally placed in the world–to better serve its Creator and know Him in all our ways.

(It’s worthwhile to note that the true Hindu masters recognized that there is truly only a single oneness behind all of reality. Their mistake was principally in their presentation to the common people, allowing them to be misled into worship of literally hundreds of deities. Maimonides discusses this at length in the first chapter of his Laws of Idolatry.)

In Yoga, there are a few postures and sequences that are difficult to strip of their Hindu context. I’m thinking in particular of a sequence called the “sun salute.” None of these are indispensable.
In Transcendental Meditation, a commercialized hodge-podge of Hindu techniques and ideas, the initiated are assigned “secret” mantras. These are actually names of Hindu deities and are assigned according to age and gender. A Jew is prohibited from any mention of such names. But again, these can be replaced with kosher chants.

In general, any of these practices to the extreme will be detrimental. They have a place in healing, attuning and empowering the human being. But they must not be made an end in themselves. The Torah teaches us that a soul is sent into this world to act, to create change, to transform the physical reality–not to escape it. If any of these practices assists you to do so, good. But when they become a means of escape, disassociation or “transcendence” of this reality in which we have been placed, they become counter-productive–and often psychologically hazardous.

You suggested meditating on words of Torah while practicing Yoga. However, much of Yoga practice demands releasing the mind from attachment and focus, while at other times, the focus is directed toward the activity at hand. My suggestion is that you immerse your mind in Torah study before practicing Yoga, so that thoughts of Torah will be ringing around in your mind spontaneously as you practice. The Rebbe gave this advice to someone whose doctor advised him to exercise each day.
Since, as I wrote, many people are asking this question, I hope you don’t mind if we post this answer for all to read. Undoubtedly, we’ll get some more suggestions on kosherizing Yoga.

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3 responses to “Yoga as a Torah Shiur

  1. I have seen at least one Orthodox synagogue offer T’ai Chi Chu’an before shabbat prayers. It is consciously scheduled as preparation for the mainstream synagogue service. It’s a step beyond the Toradojo classes that commonly use space in Greater NYC synagogue buildings (although the t’ai chi chu’an leaders often come from that organization).

  2. Very interesting. It needs to be asked whether the Yoga class dedicated to the rising of the soul is considered by its practitioners as exercise devoid of spiritual meaning. I would guess otherwise.
    I wrote a bit about Yoga’s adoption in the west in Ma’ariv a few months ago, translated into English here: http://tomerpersicoenglish.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/spirituality-athletics-yoga-pizza/

    At the end of February this year a woman named Ronnie Abramson went to a yoga class. Amidst the positions and stretching exercises she was dismayed to realize that the instructor was telling her about the month of Adar, the Book of Esther, the feast of Purim and the Almighty. Abramson, who sought only a standard yoga class, felt that she was not getting what she paid for, and was in fact suffering a minor assault of religious coercion. She wrote a short account of the experience for ‘Haaretz’ in which she asks that secular folks be allowed to practice yoga without being forced to listen to religious sermons.

  3. I have been in gym and yoga-studio classes where they dedicate the practice, or the teacher asks the students to dedicate the practice, especially to a loved one, so it seems to be a common thing in non-Jewish yoga classes these days, and I do recall specifically a dedication in memory of the deceased. Maybe the instructors got this from some of the many yoga teachers of Jewish origin, who knows?

    I generally agree that yoga’s background in a polytheistic way of thinking shouldn’t be passed over lightly, even if I feel that asana/hatha yoga itself, or even some of the other “branches” of yoga, may not be so problematic. Yoga Journal had an article about how the late 19th and early 20th century originators of modern hatha yoga were studying Swedish and perhaps other European physical-culture publications, and adapted “asanas” from them.
    Who knows if modern hatha “yoga” derives more Patanjali’s sutras or from the tantra tradition, or from the remnants of martial arts stamped out by the British, but Patanjali does seem to come out of samkhya and hence is more monistically philosophical rather than “religious.” Patanjali is also very self/soul/psychologically oriented. Anyway, “Down dog” certainly doesn’t sound like a name a Hindu would invent (K. Pattabhi Jois tried to insist on naming the pose after Mt. Meru instead).

    I can understand why Jewish yoga students would prefer to practice in environments free of Ganesh statues, statues which have little to do with yoga per se, but are just part of the “baggage” a practicing traditional Hindu sage brings along, and often passes on to his students. It is good, I think, overall, to encourage Jews to explore these things in a sophisticated way, in some depth, among Jews, and synagogues lend themselves as good places to do so, but that isn’t always possible for all of us. And all too often, things are taught very superficially (disappointingly so at JCCs) and swathed in pop culture, although there are really good, deep teachers out there.

    But most Jews I find are quite aware of the alienness and Hindu background of yoga, unlike modern psychology (which has had interesting connections with Western and Eastern pagan and Christian religion all the way through), which claims to be “scientific” and universal. Most yogis and those New Agers influenced by them are “up front” with the background of what they practice (even Shlomo Carlebach admitted his indebtedness to yoga), unlike the psychologists, social workers, and those influenced by them whose hiding of their “baggage” I find to be far more insidious.

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