More on Spirituality and secularization: Yoga, Jewish Yoga, and Hasidism

The Immanent Frame has a posting on     Taxing yoga: exercise or spiritual practice?

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on a controversy that erupted over the decision by Missouri tax authorities to require yoga centers to collect and pay a sales tax on their classes. Yoga instructors have argued that they should be exempt from the tax “because the lessons include spiritual elements.” In this week’s off the cuff feature, we’ve invited a small handful of scholars to comment on the legal and cultural status of yoga and on the right of states to levy taxes on yoga centers.

Courtney Bender, Associate Professor of Religion, Columbia University

While the yoga teachers interviewed in the article are quite concerned that the state of Missouri considers yoga to be “entertainment” or “exercise” (unless, presumably, it takes place in a temple or a church), the category confusion surrounding yoga is nonetheless generative and valuable for those who teach it. The yoga teachers I met during a series of interviews I conducted in 2004 moved back and forth easily in spaces where they taught yoga as primarily exercise, primarily meditation, or primarily stress relief. These multiple capacities actually made it possible for yoga teachers to make a living. Likewise, it seems to me that they reveled to some degree in this possibility. They could argue that even if you didn’t “believe” in yoga it could help you.
Of course, not everyone thinks that this separation is possible—some teachers, and many outside observers, agree that it is not. But in this regard, yoga’s “spirituality” surfaces as a concern, or a danger. This Monday morning’s New York Post gives us a clear example. Several years ago New York City’s Department of Education contracted with an independent group to teach yoga and movement in dozens of elementary schools. When the Post got wind of this, it ran a story with a headline reading “‘Cult’ program in NYC schools.” Even though the techniques described seemed innocuous (if not downright silly), the reported dredged up fears of yoga as a plan to infiltrate the schools and brainwash innocents (not surprisingly, the article links the “guru” to a sexual harassment case). Within several hours of the publication of the story the city suspended this program.

1] How does this relate to our quandaries over self help and Neo- Hasidism? If I have any criteria for Hasidism of the eighteenth century  is an immanence that is enthusiastic, devekut, and mindfulness of God. The 21st century versions the immanence is about self, expression, exercise, and marketing.  Midpoints are more confusing.

2] There are now studios claiming to teach “Jewish Yoga” to emphasize that it is not foreign and to incorporate it under Jewish spirituality and Neo-Hasidism. They will do a renewal chant instead of a Sanskrit chant at the end.  I have no problem saying it is not Neo-Hasidism. But is it Jewish, Hindu or exercise (as Missouri thinks)? I ask becuase there are teachers of the dharma who find the term Jewish Yoga as offensive as Hindu Kabbalah or Christian Talmud. When the Swamis wrote to the Jews, they received a reply that this yoga is Jewish. The swamis are going Huh?!? it is our India tradition. The Jews respond it is Hasidism. My Jewish-Hindu encounter  article elicited emails to me from the Dharma side to help fight the degradation of their tradition.

Which brings us back to The Immanent Frame

Stuart R. Sarbacker, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Oregon State University

That there should be tension between the spiritual and material culture of yoga is not surprising, given its modern history. Modern yoga, especially the posture-driven variety that is popular in North America, is the product of a particular historical moment in which premodern forms of yoga (such as hathayoga) were merged with Indian traditions of martial arts and wrestling, European physical culturalist thought and callisthenic practices, Hindu universalism, and emerging ideas of “modern science.” The shift towards scientific and secular frameworks and the focus on the body (often through intense attention to the finest of alignments in posture, such as in the Iyengar system) broadened the appeal of yoga while often pushing its metaphysical moorings into the background. As a result of this, the contemporary yoga community in the United States represents a spectrum of traditions that extend from sectarian tradition-driven studios and ashrams to “free-floating” yoga courses offered at fitness centers such as Bally’s Total Fitness.

The fact that yoga brings together the exotic overtones of Indian spirituality with the more familiar exertions of Euro-American callisthenic and fitness traditions has certainly been a driving factor in the success of yoga in North America

One response to “More on Spirituality and secularization: Yoga, Jewish Yoga, and Hasidism

  1. As you know there is this Jew Bu phenomena…three books and 10 yidines …they might argue the way you described. And there are the Zalman disciples who climb mountains Shabbus morning to meditate, they too would agree. But if you willing to put Boulder and Berkley aside, it seems obvious to me that you are correct…when a Jew practises yoga, it is just that, and not chassidus or Jewish yoga.

    Nevertheless I would maintain yoga would be of geat benefit to mekubalim and chasidim everywhere.Belz with yoga would be a deeper and more meaningful chasidus. And in such a world people would find new paralles and connections.

    Here’s one. Tantric yoga has similar views about motzi zerah levatalah as Zoharic kaballah. The famous 16th century obsession with nocturnal emissions and the possibilty of wasting semen, which today is almost incomprehensible, takes on new meaning in the light of tantric yoga. Furthermore the large number of themes in kabbalah dealing with zivugim both below and above as well as the associated yichudim begins to become understandable in the light of a sexual yoga with real bodies. OTOH if you think of kabbalah as psychological you might agree with R. Green that E. Wolfson places too much emphasis on sexual themes.

    How yoga will be developed if at all remains an open issue for future generations of religious Jews. Who knows?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s