Finding balance at the intersection of yoga and Judaism


Yoga means “union” or “union with the divine.” It doesn’t mean “contortionism,” “hippie commune” or “Lululemon.”

“Judaism” means “monotheistic religion [of the Jews]” or “belief characterized by one transcendent God.” It doesn’t mean “bagels and lox,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “big beard and black hat.”

And “Jewish yoga” certainly doesn’t mean “contorting my body to the shrill soundtrack of a Larry David monologue.” Nor does it mean giving up my Judaism.

Not even close.

My practice weaves yogic teachings and philosophies with Jewish teachings and philosophies. And while I don’t think such a practice is all that rare nowadays, it is sometimes dismissed by people on both sides without much understanding. Disapproving Jews say, “Feh! It’s a Hindu practice and it’s avodah zarah [idolatry].” Disapproving yogis say, “But how can you practice Jewish yoga? Yoga is for everyone!”

Here’s what I can tell anyone who holds either of those disapproving opinions: It works for me. I am part of a growing body of people who recognize deep, logical and undeniable links between yoga and Judaism.

By examining the basic tenets of yoga and Judaism separately, we can better see why so many people are drawn to “yoga with a Jewish twist.”

At its core, yoga is a practice that unifies practitioner with source, human with divine. While we are all human, yogis believe and revel in the notion that the common thread among all things — living and nonliving, animate and inanimate — is the divine. The asanas, or the actual poses, are just a tiny part of the much larger picture of the union that yoga explores.

In “The Yoga Sutras,” Patanjali illustrates the eight limbs of yoga; limb by limb, he spells out exactly what it means to practice — and it’s much more than downward dog and plank pose. In fact, the only real guidance on the actual poses that Patanjali gives is an admonition that they must be “steady, firm and comfortable.” Most of the text is devoted to extolling the proper virtues of a yogi (compassion, peace, honesty), and outlining specific ways to solidify the union with the divine (breathing, focusing energy on a single point, turning inward, following rules to live a pure, proper, balanced, non-disturbed life), with a huge emphasis on the importance of acknowledging, praising and ultimately melding with the divine.

At its core, Judaism is a religion based on the belief, eloquently stated by Maimonides, that “all existence depends on God and is derived from God.” It follows that in Judaism, while inhabiting this temporary body, we are obliged to perform tikkun olam (repairing the world) through the fulfillment of 613 mitzvot, or commandments. The mitzvot spell out exactly what it means to be an upstanding Jew: Recite prayers of thanksgiving for food, do not engage in hurtful speech, give charity, honor your parents, keep your word, don’t covet, etc. By following the commandments, performing acts of reparation and engaging in acts of loving kindness, we indeed become closer with God. And while “poses” are not at the crux of any Jewish practice, there certainly are specific movements that a Jew in prayer performs: bowing, standing, swaying — all in the name of creating oneness with Hashem.

Unfortunately, mainstream “Jewish practice” in the modern world is often understood to take place only in cavernous rooms with stained glass windows, filled with people clad in designer suits and dresses.

Similarly, the phrase “yoga practice” has become largely synonymous in the modern Western world with “asana movement practice.” It evokes images of ripped, toned 20-somethings sweating it out on rectangular rubber mats laid over pristine hardwood floors. In reality, one can practice yoga anywhere: on the bus, in the home, in the middle of that important meeting, during a conflict with a family member … especially during a conflict with a family member. That’s where kshama (patience) and daya (compassion) — two “non-asana” aspects of yoga — are truly needed. Yoga and Judaism, two ancient practices that seemingly share so much, have been narrowly interpreted to a fault. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

To be clear, yoga is not a faith. Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice, and not a religion. Practicing yoga does not mean it must be to the exclusion of practicing Judaism, or vice versa. 

While classes that talk about Ganesh and chant “Om Namah Shivaya” are nice, these themes are just not mine. They don’t tap into my deeply held beliefs as a Jew. What has made my practice more emotionally connecting, meaningful, comforting and enriching has been the introduction and exploration of text, Torah and Jewish prayer into my yoga practice. 

Practicing unity with the divine and fulfilling God’s commandments can (and should) be done simultaneously; if you’ve never done it, try it before you knock it. You might find that both experiences become more profound. Perhaps you’ll see that you can repair the world with a stronger intention and effect greater change. Plus, it just plain feels good.

So practice your vinyasa. Pray. Move. Meditate. Sweat. Study Torah. Keep Shabbat. Live the yamas. Clear your mind. Read “The Yoga Sutras.” Be healthy and prosperous, inside and out.

Namaste and Shalom.

Israel, Gaza terrorists enter cease-fire


Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza reportedly agreed to a cease-fire.

The agreement came late Sunday night and was followed by a Kassam rocket fired on Ashkelon and ten mortar shells that hit southern Israel. Israel did not respond to the rockets, showing that the cease-fire was holding, according to reports.

The agreement came hours after government ministers ordered the army “to continue to act against those responsible for terrorism.”

The cease-fire came after a weekend in which more than 120 rockets were fired at Israel, including one that struck a school bus seriously injuring a teen, and in which Israeli retaliatory strikes on terrorism sites killed 19 Gaza Palestinians.

“We will judge the other side over the next few days. The extent to which Hamas controls the other militant groups will affect the way we choose to act,” a senior Israeli official told Reuters.

A senior Palestinian source quoted in the international Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Aswat said that Egypt is working to seal the current unwritten cease-fire and asked the United Nations envoy to the Middle East Robert Serry to help in negotiations

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday decried the ceasefire, telling Israel Radio that “Hamas is fighting a war of attrition against us. We won’t come to terms with a situation in which they decide when there’s quiet and when the area heats up.”

He accused Hamas of taking advantage of the recent months of relative quiet to smuggle in more and farther-reaching rockets.

Israeli military strikes on Gaza began April 7 after Hamas fired an anti-tank rocket at a school bus, critically injuring a teenage boy and the bus driver.

Israeli army calms Palestinians over order


A new Israeli military order will not lead to the deportation of large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank, an Israeli army major said.

Avichai Adrai, the Israeli army spokesman for the Arabic media, In a conference call Tuesday with Palestinian journalists said that the military order designed to prevent infiltrations into the West Bank by requiring that residents have proper identification will actually help legalize the presence of Gaza Palestinians who fled the coastal strip and now reside in the West Bank. The call was sponsored by The Israel Project.

Americans for Peace now charged that the new order, which went into effect Tuesday, could lead to the arrest of an unknown number of Palestinians residents of the West Bank, as well as internationals living and working there.

“This move is bad for peace and bad for Israel,” APN President Debra DeLee said in a statement. “At a time when Israel is worried about an international campaign to de-legitimize it, one is hard pressed to understand why Israel’s leaders would implement a new policy that can only paint Israel as a country that tramples on Palestinian civilians and is determined to stamp out peaceful protest.”

Doctor Calms Radiation Fears With Nature Photos


The walls of Dr. Bernard Lewinsky’s office resemble the pages of a National Geographic calendar: sweeping lake vistas and verdant forests brush up against sculptured rock formations and sun-mottled Yosemite hills. Looking at his photographs, patients remember vacations, times when they felt relaxed and at peace. It takes their minds off their cancer.

Lewinsky, medical director of Vantage Oncology’s West Hills Radiation Therapy Center, found that serene landscape portraits tend to calm patients’ fears as they face the harrowing realities of living with cancer. So the avid nature photographer created a Healing Art Gallery at the center featuring 80 of his images to put patients at ease when they come in for treatment.

“Nature tends to soothe your mind,” Lewinsky said. “The treatment room is often full of hustle and bustle. Patients are scared and upset — they have been given a diagnosis that means life or death. To walk into an environment that’s full of chaos is not what they need.”

The soft-spoken doctor, 66, began taking pictures at age 8. Born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and raised Jewish by his German émigré parents, Lewinsky grew up near the coffee plantation his father owned. He would often go out to photograph the coffee trees and flowers.

The idea that a radiation therapy center could have a calming effect on patients had been with Lewinsky for decades, ever since his 1974-76 stint as chief of radiotherapy at Letterman Army Hospital.

“We had one of the old radiotherapy machines that was a monstrosity,” he recalled. “It looked very much like the early atomic weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

The generator was an intimidating two stories high. Lewinsky didn’t want his patients to feel any more frightened than they already were, so he obtained funding to redecorate the radiotherapy department. He had the interior painted the same color as the machine and placed large, majestic images of Yosemite landscapes around the treatment room.

In recent years, Lewinsky’s concept has taken off — his art now adorns the walls of 20 medical centers across Southern California, including Vantage Oncology’s five regional locations and the company’s corporate office in Manhattan Beach, the Breast Center in Van Nuys and the Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center at USC.

Lewinsky shoots landscapes mostly in the American West — Utah, Mexico, Arizona — traveling with 20 to 30 pounds of equipment, including 4×5 film and a large-format field camera. His favorite places are Yosemite National Park and Zion National Park, which “puts humanity in place, it’s so big.”

People derive a sense of tranquility from natural settings, he said, which stems from similarities we perceive between the natural world and our own bodies.

“A normal person wouldn’t look at a photograph and see the shape of his thyroid, for example. But I think there is a subliminal connection,” Lewinsky said.

That connection shows up time and again in conversations with patients, he said.

“I spend more time talking about photography to some patients than I do about their disease,” Lewinsky said with a laugh. “They talk about how much relaxation they feel.”

For Lewinsky, photography has also been a form of personal therapy. The doctor was thrust into the spotlight in 1998 after news broke of the sex scandal involving his daughter, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and then-President Bill Clinton. “My salvation through that was photography,” Lewinsky said, adding that the time he spent in the darkroom that year produced images that were “very black and white.”

In his West Hills office, however, Lewinsky points out richly hued images on the walls and explains their back-stories with obvious fondness for the locales in which he took them. He greets patients waiting for treatment with a smile and shakes their hands as they leave.

His methods, he said, are expressions of a simple and intuitive philosophy: “You have to treat the tumor and also the soul.”

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