Yoga and My Jewish Sensibilities

By: Rachel S.

In the spring of this year I underwent arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. As an athlete accustomed to a variety of activities, this year was a year on the shelf. A couple months after finishing physical therapy, I enrolled in a local yoga studio which has helped improve flexibility, fascia tissue tightness, and general body maintenance. On my fourth week of yoga I went to a morning class with an instructor I liked who had helped me modify poses to reduce stress on the hips. This class however was slightly different. I noticed a candle on the floor arranged amid a glass petal-like dish that represented the lotus (what exactly is a lotus?), and there was a whiteboard with words spelled out, presumably from Sanskrit. The instructor explained the words and impressed upon us how they were from a 3,000 year-old prayer which was still in use today. At least I think she meant to impress us, although I was only mildly intrigued. As someone with a connection to a 4,000 year-old religion, the concept of ancient practice in modern life is not foreign. She continued to explain that it had originally been used for sun worship. When she mentioned something about the seven shakras and Indian gods, I could feel my inner-self rising slightly in protest.

The yoga instructor started the class with ten minutes of chanting the mantras and proceeded to add mantras to our poses and breathing. I only half participated in the chanting and felt annoyed by the lack of hip openers. I contemplated whether this was a form of idol worship—a big biblical no-no. At a fundamental level in a different time or place it certainly would be. But in a Pawtucket warehouse turned yoga studio and meditation center? None of us were actually engaging in worship. Was I being ridiculous? The biblical words of a jealous God surfaced in my brain. I imagined explaining to the instructor with the other yogis listening in, “Excuse me, but I serve a jealous God.” I considered that the three cardinal transgressions in Judaism are murder, incest, and idol worship (i.e.: the worship of people or other gods.) I wondered if this concept was due to the penchant for old time pagans to engage in human sacrifice or strange sexual behavior. Today, would my participation in a church service or yoga class really equate with the killing of another human being? I was sitting in a yoga studio which bases itself on openness, tolerance, and peace and I was feeling a large degree of discomfort.

To provide some context, I am not unfamiliar with eastern forms of activity or medical practice. I have practiced yoga on and off for six years and I have used acupuncture as part of my hip therapy. I also did Tae Kwon throughout high school. In each class, while pairing up with partners for sparring, students must bow to each other as a sign of respect. I considered it a Korean handshake, though I typically only bowed with my upper body and slight incline of the head in contrast to some of the deep bows from the waist that others performed. As someone with a strong connection to the Jewish tradition and the Kadosh Baruch Hu, I respect the existence of other ancient cultures that date back thousands of years with their own sages and sagas (as long as there’s no proselytizing or killing nonsense). Yet what is mine is mine and what is theirs is theirs. I have no inclination to leave my own backyard in search of spirituality and belonging in eastern religions and philosophies, as a portion of my brethren seem to be doing.

At the conclusion of class, we were told to gather near the candle and focus on our breath and the light, letting the luminosity within shine. I ignored the candle and focused on my breathing. When I left the studio I politely thanked her, deciding that I would simply check beforehand to see whether mantras would be part of her next class.

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