The shadow side of Shabbat


We went to a float tank this weekend. An interesting sort of Shabbat like experience in that you rid yourself of EVERY sensory experience by floating in warm salt water in a tiny dark, enclosed space.  This might absolutely freak you out, which it did me this time. In my youth when I had done these tanks, I found them freeing and calming. Now, as a full fledged adult, my task oriented brain was much more reticent to let go into the floating space, so busy was I with planning and details of the future. When I finally decided to ACTUALLY surrender, I panicked. I cheated and opened the little door to let in some light and touch that outside reality. So difficult for me was this pause, that it made me appreciate the difficult gift that Shabbat can be, or any kind of meditation, cessation from work kind of experience. It’s scary to unwind. Maybe this is why we DON’T necessarily DO it sometimes! We don’t know necessarily what is behind the need to be busy. The distractions of our lives seem impossible to live without: the need to make money, to show up for the co-workers and the others to whom we are responsible. Even the pursuits of the hobbies and activities we count on to unwind us or to inspire us become priorities.  What happens to the “other” things though… The relationship issues we might be covering up? The hurts or the discomforts that arise from glitches in our communication with others. The wounds that need attending sometimes get tossed to the back burner as they may be too painful to address in the moment. Then conveniently we get busy enough to ensure that a “better” moment for dealing with them never comes.

This Saturday morning was unique in our house. No one had to be anywhere. Services, rehearsals, performances these were only in the LATER category of our day. This part of the day was to contain us as busy family coming off an extremely busy couple weeks in peaceful rest.

Not so. Somehow the pause of this Shabbat brought out an underlying complexity that the “busy” had been covering. The reality of the day was less than that peaceful glow I’d personally anticipated. For whatever it DID turn out to be though unexpected, and certainly un-fun, it was a necessary occurrence . I am a big lover of Shabbat. I love the idea at least of the total cessation from work. From using things we consider necessities during the week- car, phone, computer, television, and the list only goes on and on. I love the idea that this then means we can enjoy just the passing of time with people that we care about. This kind of time spent though is not synonymous with ease. True, deep communion with ourselves and others someone is filled with many other colors sometimes that have to be gone through in order to truly allow ourselves to freely float.

May this week allow for both, the shadow and the re-integration.

See you on our mats!  WEDNESDAY @ 9:15 am  AND  FRIDAY @ 8:15 am

in peace,

Michelle

The rabbi and the yogi


My husband, Jeremy, and I first met Rabbi Moshe Greenwald and his wife, Rivky, at a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in Pershing Square in 2010, when we were just dating. Two years later, when we talked about getting married, I decided to convert to Judaism. Jeremy was born Jewish and I was eager to join the tribe. So, I looked up Rabbi Moshe (the only rabbi I had ever met at the time). I was prepared for a very traditional experience — like Charlotte from “Sex in the City” — with the three refusals and all. But that’s not what I got. 

The rabbi and I met, and he heard me out, and then he suggested I set aside the idea of conversion for the moment and start by learning as much as I could about Judaism. 

But then I mentioned I was a yoga teacher. He said he was trying yoga for the first time in hopes of getting in shape. He’d chosen Bikram yoga — a practice completely void of any religious teachings with an emphasis on physical stamina. For those who aren’t familiar, Bikram yoga is intense. And he was struggling with it.

He proposed a trade. He would make himself available to answer all of my many, many questions if, in return, I would act as a kind of yoga consultant, offering him explanations, tips and context to help make the practice more accessible. This sounded like a really good deal to me. He would offer me guidance in whatever I wanted to learn — prayers, Hebrew, Jewish culture, whatever. And I would help him deepen his yoga practice.

But here’s the thing: I’m me. And he is an Orthodox Chabad rabbi. 

So there would be rules. I would just have to figure out what they were. 

I had no way of knowing this agreement would evolve into a limitless exchange of emails, texts and sidebar conversations during Shabbat dinners. And in those exchanges a friendship was born. We shared experiences as a way of cracking open the wisdom and traditions in which we were each versed. 

He taught me about the importance of drawing spirituality into the physical world.

And I taught him to be patient and compassionate with himself. 

This wasn’t like any friendship I had ever known. Usually, when you become friends with someone, you are drawn together by a common experience — like school or work. We seemed to come from two polar-opposite worlds. And yet, when we shared yoga and Judaism, our very different worlds didn’t highlight the ways in which we were different. They did the opposite — they showed us how much we were alike. I was a daydreaming, soon-to-be-engaged, L.A. yogi. He was family man leading a congregation in one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles. 

But, at the end of the day, we were just two people trying to figure out life in the best way we knew how — two people trying to balance obligations and forgive ourselves for being imperfect. 

Despite connecting on a very human level, there were these rules that seemed to draw boundaries around our relationship. Like, touch. In case you aren’t familiar with the rules of Orthodox Judaism, an Orthodox man will not touch a woman unless he’s married to her. To Rabbi Moshe, touch was reserved for his wife only. 

But I’m a really affectionate person. I hug my friends. A lot. Shoot, I’ll hug a complete stranger. In the time we spent together, I felt the impulse to hug him as I would any of my friends, male or female. Because touch wasn’t allowed, and my primary concern was always acting out of respect, I became clumsy and stupid around him, literally leaping out of the way when he passed by, or dropping books because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my fingers when handing one to him. Over time, I was able to relax because I realized it wasn’t all that hard to live within this boundary. 

There’s this other rule. As an Orthodox Jew, not only was Rabbi Moshe prohibited from officiating at my wedding, he couldn’t even attend the ceremony because I ended up converting to Judaism under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, not an Orthodox rabbi. I learned this long before my husband and I were engaged, so I never even asked. Though when we finally announced our engagement, he called to congratulate us and wish us a lifetime of blessings. He expressed a desire to be there. But he couldn’t be. 

Though I wasn’t surprised at all by this, I was disappointed. People asked if I was offended. I wasn’t. 

I don’t need to be an Orthodox Jew to relate to one. I don’t need to live in that world or follow those rules. 

To take this one step further — I don’t need to be gay, or Asian American, or transgender, or living below the poverty level to connect to those experiences. I only need to be human. 

I may not agree with all the rules of Orthodox Judaism. But I can respect them. And that’s enough.

The truth is, we all have rules we live by. We may not be wearing outward signs of them everywhere we go, but they’re there. And sometimes we hate the rules. Ask any teenager, and she’ll tell you rules suck. But without them, we wouldn’t know what’s important, what’s sacred, what’s worth drawing a boundary around. Whether we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, or speeding down a highway or exploring a relationship, without rules, we might not know when we’ve gone too far until it’s too late.

This year, on the first night of Passover, my family gathered in the ballroom of the Alexandria hotel to celebrate with the entire downtown Jewish community, with Rabbi Moshe at the helm. I witnessed one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen — Rabbi Moshe swooped up my toddler son in his arms and began to sing “Oseh Shalom.” My husband joined, and very soon a small group of men were circling in the center of the room. 

But then a young woman approached the circle of men to join in. So, right — women cannot dance with Orthodox men. Without missing a beat in the song, my rabbi kindly told her the circle was only for men. It was an easy mistake to make. She was moved by the spirit of the moment and wanted to join. Her only mistake was in not knowing the rules. 

An embarrassing moment for sure, but a human one. Looking back, I wish I had jumped up to dance with her. Women can start their own circles and dance separately.

But it was OK. She’s learning the rules. We’re all learning the rules. And in doing so, we often come right up against the edge of our comfort zones. Sometimes we even step out of them. 

Shoot, I practically live in that space, teetering on the edge of my comfort zone. And I’m happy for it. Because as a result, I have a lifelong friendship with, yes, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi that both thrives within the boundaries and transcends them. 

Jazmine Aluma is a Los Angeles-based writer, yogi and mother. Her blog, WritingInBold.com, is where she explores and shares all the ways in which she gets life wrong and the truths she discovers along the way. Her work has been seen in The Huffington Post, Bust.com, LA Weekly and LA Yoga magazine, among others.

Y7 yoga is less meditation, more rhythm nation


Tucked between the organic pressed juiceries and high-end fashionista boutiques of West Hollywood, Y7 Studio puts swagger into stretching, offering hip-hop-themed yoga classes where instructors double as disc jockeys. 

During one recent class on a Wednesday evening, the instructor told the packed room of about 20 people, “Tonight’s theme is Beyoncé.” The quaint studio was pitch-dark, except for the flickering light emanating from a row of candles strategically lining the floor. And it was hot — set to a toasty 80 to 90 degrees via infrared heating technology (but much less intense than Bikram).

All the yogis faced toward a black wall branded with “A Tribe Called Sweat” in bold, white letters. Forget about a soundtrack of waterfalls and Buddhist chants; the mantra tonight came care of Queen Bey: “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag.” 

Y7 Studio in West Hollywood. Photo courtesy of Y7 Studio via Instagram

The class of yoga practitioners went through their traditional vinyasa sequences: downward dogs, crows and half-moon poses. There were no mirrors, no artificial lights; it was just the yogis, their mats, and Beyoncé supplying the tunes. 

“We aren’t a peaceful, typical yoga experience. It’s like the furthest thing from it,” Mason Levey, Y7 co-founder, said. 

When he moved from Michigan to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009, he started looking for a studio to fill his yogic void. There had been one in suburban Detroit run by a dear friend, who has since passed away, that really jived with him — low lighting, heated room, a badass soundtrack — but he couldn’t find anything like it in the Big Apple.

So Levey, 28, who was raised in a Reform household and has a background in digital advertising, started one in 2013 with his wife, Sarah, 29, whose background is in fashion. Through the studio, he said he keeps his friend’s memory alive. “I think about that all the time. Tons of inspiration from him,” Levey said.

At first, the couple rented a quaint eight-person pop-up space down the block from their apartment. That filled up quickly, so they upgraded to a 20-person space.

“And it just kept growing and growing and growing,” Levey said during a phone interview. 

Y7 now has three locations in New York: Williamsburg in Brooklyn, SoHo and the Flatiron District. Last summer, Y7 did a pop-up in Los Angeles, at retailer Rebecca Minkoff’s new Melrose Avenue location, where they converted her store into a studio. 

“We had an awesome time,” Levey said. Six months later, they opened their first West Coast studio a block away from Minkoff’s store. And soon, they’ll open another location in New York’s Union Square. 

As a result of these expansions, they have become bicoastal, hopscotching between the two major cities every two weeks on a whim. “I buy my tickets last minute,” Levey said.

The world of downward dogs is a dog-eat-dog business, but Y7 appears to be more than persevering. The studio’s clothing line featuring its slogans flies off the shelves, its classes ($25 each) are filled, and celebrities like model Gigi Hadid and actress Jessica Alba are among its patrons.

A typical class has three sequences, each performed in three different flows. The first flow is slow, the second one is faster and the third is free-flow, up to the practitioner to move at his or her own pace, adding or removing steps at her own leisure.

At this particular class, a medley of Beyoncé singles assisted the yogis in their practice, a repertoire that spanned the superstar’s whole career, from Destiny’s Child jams to Sasha Fierce alter egos to Black Lives Matter anthems. Other Y7-worthy artists who get a class dedicated to them include the likes of Drake and Rihanna, holla! 

Despite such heart-pumping energy, the class doesn’t forget what yoga’s all about. During the final moments of the class, the yogis slow down, stretch and prepare for savasana, or corpse pose. Beyoncé sings “Halo” in the background and it’s kind of perfect as yogis settle into their mats, letting their hourlong practice soak in.

“Everyone is super happy and we’re on this rollercoaster,” Levey said, reveling in the unexpected success of a booming yoga studio chain. “We want to go to every major city, so we’re just getting started.”

Minutes after the completion of the recent L.A. class, students filtered out as another class of yogis patiently waited to enter the single-room studio. With drenched shirts stuck to their backs, a group congregated on Melrose, energized from their practice, discussing where to grab drinks — “because we deserve it, dammit” — sauntering down the crowded street, their yoga mats strapped to their backs.

Chanukah gets hip


On the night of Dec. 6, the group known as NuRoots is kicking off the Chanukah party to end all Chanukah parties: 35-plus events taking place over eight days all over the Los Angeles region, from Venice to downtown to Woodland Hills. 

And while there will be latkes and candle lighting — the name of the event, after all, is Infinite Light — the festivities will bear little resemblance to your bubbe’s celebration. Instead, think dinner by the L.A. River, a holiday-themed alternative comedy performance, an evening of yoga to nourish participants’ inner light and even a glow-themed party at a Pico Boulevard tavern where, according to the Infinite Light website (infinitelight.la), “You might leave with fluorescent body paint.”

This is by far the most ambitious event ever hosted by NuRoots, which focuses on engaging young adults in their 20s and 30s and is part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — the hippest part, you might say. In the past, NuRoots has offered up smaller, more intimate events, such as a meditation workshop for the Jewish New Year. But Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson thought it was time for the 2-year-old program to do something big, according to Scott Minkow, vice president for NuRoots Grants and Partnerships at Federation.

A scene from a Rosh Hashanah dinner held in the courtyard of a NuRoots fellow’s apartment complex in West Hollywood. NuRoots is expanding its reach with “Infinite Light.”

“Jay’s concept was we have dozens of organizations that we bring together for a monthly NextGen Engagement Initiative breakfast, a network of over 70 organizations and individuals who work with young adults,” Minkow said. “We have this successful fellowship program. What could we do that is NuRoots flavored?”

Over the summer, Sanderson, Minkow and half a dozen or so of NuRoots’ core partners, including representatives from the spiritual communities IKAR and Open Temple, sat down to brainstorm what that might be. They talked about doing something for Sukkot, but Chanukah bought them a bit more time and, ultimately, made more sense. 

“Young adults are looking for opportunities to get out and do something fun during the holidays,” Minkow said. “Every young-adult group around town does their own Chanukah event. What if we gave an incentive [to participating organizations] and curated a festival that highlighted all the opportunities around town? What if we shine a spotlight? What does that spotlight look like? It’s about light, miracles, wonder. We decided to title it Infinite Light.” 

In fact, the word Chanukah doesn’t even appear on the Infinite Light home page. Nor is it on the cover of the 5,000 brochures that have been distributed in synagogues, yoga studios, coffee houses and juice bars. This was a deliberate decision to make the event more universal and to appeal to an audience that wants to “create their own Jewish experience … and chart their own course,” Minkow said, adding that “we also know that people bring their friends who are not Jewish.”  

Once the group decided on the Infinite Light name, the NuRoots leaders put out an appeal to their partners. They offered micro-grants of up to $2,000 to organizations whose events made the cut to offset the costs of hosting the events. Minkow had figured they’d have 15, maybe 18 events in the end. But the response was tremendous, with organizations submitting event ideas well into November. 

Some of the events on the Infinite Light calendar are carryovers from past years. For example, Temple Beth Am’s latkes and vodka potluck is an annual event. And last year, the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU) joined forces with Worthy of Love, which hosts blowout monthly group birthday parties for the youth residents at Union Rescue Mission downtown, to throw a Chanukah bash. 

According to Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Program at AJU, partnering with Infinite Light for this year’s Chanukah party gave them “the chance to think bigger and more creatively,” as well as “broadcast to a broader audience.” This is exactly what NuRoots intended.

“The idea behind putting this all under one umbrella … is that every event will rise in profile because of the sheer mass of people looking at it. Everyone will get more attention,” Minkow said. 

“We have inspired more than 15 events to take place that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he said. These include a Tunisian-style Shabbat dinner hosted by YALA (Young Adults of Los Angeles) and Petit Takett; a fashion show starring regular folks modeling outfits they have purchased at the National Council of Jewish Women thrift stores; and a miracles-themed “Kinda-Jewy Holiday Show” courtesy of Mortified, which regularly hosts riotous storytelling performances in which adults share their very real and very embarrassing diary entries, love letters and poems from childhood.

Infinite Light’s official launch event on the first night of Chanukah, Dec. 6, at Sambar in Culver City, is organized by Dinating, which does ticketed dinners at local foodie favorite eateries and donates a portion of funds. Dinating usually supports SOVA, but on this night, 100 percent of the $50-per-person cover will go to “Federation programs that support the most vulnerable and needy,” Minkow said. The menu, by Sambar chef-owner Akasha Richmond, is a mash-up of Indian and Jewish dishes and includes vegetable pakoras (a fried snack), sweet potato and butternut squash latkes, and Baghdadi Jewish biryani (Basmati rice with vegetables, golden raisins and pistachios). There will also be specialty cocktails — some inspired by chocolate gelt and others made with
etrog liqueur.

Many of the events, including two in conjunction with PJ Library and aimed at families, are free. Some cost between $10 and $20. NuRoots is also offering an all-inclusive festival pass for $100 per person. But Minkow expects most attendees to go the à la carte route. All events require an RSVP.

Not surprisingly, given the target audience for the bulk of Infinite Light events, social media have played a big part in getting the word out. “So excited for this super RAD Shabbat Dinner,” reads the Facebook page for the Tunisian feast.

“We’re asking all our partners to participate,” Minkow said. “Their agreement gives them a social media guide. You should be tagging, Instagramming, linking. And one of our partners, Eastside Jews, is running an Instagram scavenger hunt.”

Minkow said the barometer of success for Infinite Light will be organizations seeing new faces at its events — “folks who are not their core constituency.” Also: “Are people experimenting and trying new things? Some people will be able to tell via social media. Are people tagging? What are [attendee] numbers for these events? And, really, do our partner organizations feel positive about the experience? Are we providing a range of options for people to experience Chanukah? And I think we already are giving new attention to a holiday that can often be about lighting a candle and eating a latke, showing people there are a variety of ways to celebrate, that L.A is diverse. 

“We want it to be a positive experience for everybody. Just thinking about the potential to ignite and partner with a variety of organizations gives us real excitement.”

Is a new Jewish Portland rising in the east?


Until recently, Jo Borkan was thinking about leaving Portland.

She had lived in the city almost her whole life and owns a house on the city’s east side. But Borkan craved a connection to Judaism, and she couldn’t seem to find one that fit with her spiritual explorations into yoga and meditation. Despite her love for Portland, she mulled a move to New York or to the Bay Area.

However, in August, Borkan began co-leading Havdallah Yoga, a group that gathers each Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month, for a combination of yoga and Jewish ritual. Participants meet in a converted industrial building, and are guided through a yoga practice that incorporates Jewish themes and rituals. In December, for example, yogis were encouraged to bring Hanukkah menorahs, which lit up the otherwise dark space. A Havdalah service follows the month’s routine.

These days, Borkan, 30, says she no longer thinks about leaving Portland to find her Jewish community.

“Honestly, at least for now, [Havdallah Yoga] has totally filled that need,” she told JTA.

And Borkan is far from the only one connecting to Jewish practice in nontraditional ways. Portlanders can celebrate Jewish holidays with ice cream sundae tasting menus; fill their growlers at a kosher, community-supported nanobrewery; or take part in a Jewish “gap year” program for recent high school graduates that combines social justice work with Jewish study.

In addition to embodying Portland’s famously quirky and creative culture, these points of connection represent a deeper transformation in Portland Jewish life. After decades in which Jewish life was concentrated on the city’s more sedate west side, a new, grassroots-oriented brand of Judaism is now taking form east of the Willamette River, reshaped by the people who live there.

Historically, Portland’s Jewish community has largely lived on the west side of town and that is where the mainstream Jewish institutions — the JCC, the federation, the community day school and most of the major synagogues — still reside. This, traditionally, has been the prosperous side of town, which includes the downtown business district, a number of upscale suburban neighborhoods and Portland State University.

However, in 2011, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s population study came out — and the findings were shocking. At 47,500, the number of Portland Jews was nearly twice as large as previously thought. What’s more, the vast majority of these previously unaccounted-for, and largely unaffiliated, Jews resided east of the Willamette River.

The ensuing communal discussions over outreach to Jews on the east side seemed to divide the city’s Jews into two categories: traditional vs. innovative, established vs. unaffiliated, older vs. younger.

There is even a divide over whether or not such a divide exists.

“I’m not sure there’s any difference — I think there’s a perception that it’s different,” said Marc Blattner, chief executive officer of the Portland federation, who helped publish the study that has kicked off so much discussion. “I just worry that the east side gets a lot of play because it’s the sexy side of town.”

Sexy, as in when the foodie website Eater recently listed its Essential 38 Portland Restaurants, 32 were east of the Willamette. When Jerry Seinfeld came to town to film his show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with comedian and “Portlandia” star Fred Armisen, they got coffee, lunch, and even visited a high-style taxidermist/toy shop, all without venturing to the west side of town.

Unlike Blattner, many of the city’s Jews insist that the divide isn’t limited to geography.

“There really is a sense that there’s a different energy on the east side,” said Ariel Stone, rabbi of Shir Tikvah, the sole synagogue on Portland’s east side. “What we joke about is that it’s an east side attitude or a feeling. You can be a west sider and have it.”

Jewish life on the east side has a long history of ups and downs. For 75 years, up until 1986, the area was home to a synagogue, Tifereth Israel.

“It was a dying congregation,” said Eric Kimmel, 68, a children’s book author, who moved to Portland’s east side in 1978, lured by the then-cheap real estate. “One of the older members would lead the service, and he didn’t see so well, so he would skip pages, and we would be so jumbled up.”

After Tifereth Israel closed in the 1980s and was absorbed into another congregation, Jewish life on the east side was sparse. A havurah started in the 1990s, called the Eastside Jewish Community of Portland, but it has since closed.

However, the east side of Portland more generally was experiencing a revival, as transplants helped mold the freewheeling, do-it-yourself ethos that has become central to Portland’s image.

Some congregations began to notice that a growing number of their members lived on the east side. When the Reconstructionist synagogue Havurah Shalom bought its own building in the 1990s, it made sure to buy in the Pearl District, on the west side but close to the river, so as to be accessible to its burgeoning east side population.

Then, in 2002, several members from a west side synagogue split off and founded Shir Tikvah, a nondenominational synagogue. They rented space from a local church.

“We found out there was an east side Jewish population before the study was done, because we put out a shingle and they started coming out of the woodwork,” said Stone.

In response to the population study, the federation and several west side synagogues began hosting events on the east side. However, while some initiatives, like the PJ Library — a program that distributes free Jewish-themed children’s books, including Kimmel’s, via local Jewish institutions — have transitioned over successfully, some of the efforts have seemed more successful at bringing west siders to the east than at galvanizing unaffiliated east side locals. And two years after a family foundation helped arrange a $35,000 grant to help support Jewish life on the east side, there’s still money left — waiting to be used, said the federation’s Blattner.

One boon to east side Jewish life came in the form of Nate DeGroot, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, who fell in love with the city while working there one summer. Struck by what he saw as a lack of engagement among many younger, east side Jews, DeGroot, with the help of some federation funding, returned the following summer to focus full time on founding and organizing Mikdash as a center for east side Jewish life.

DeGroot focused on identifying and talking to Jews — urging them to connect other passions in their lives to their interest in Judaism. For example, when he found out that east sider Jared Goodman was staging dessert events with multi-course tasting menus of ice cream sundaes, built around various themes, DeGroot worked with him to develop a series of sundae events for the Jewish holidays. He also helped Jo Borkan, along with co-founder Yael Pidnosky, to develop Havdallah Yoga, and he still talks with the two via Skype every month.

“Nate was so instrumental because he continually repeated back to us, ‘I’m glad to be a support, but you guys know what you’re doing,’” said Borkan.

However, DeGroot has since moved to Israel to pursue his studies for a year, and he will not be ordained for another year after that, leaving Mikdash’s board members to carry the torch in his absence.

And yet his work, and his support from the federation, has also spurred some resentment from some long-time east siders.

“It’s interesting that an outsider is getting [federation funding] while people who live here and have made a commitment to the community are not getting that kind of support,” said Sonia-Marie Leikam, an east side resident, Shir Tikvah board member and co-founder of Leikam Brewing, a kosher-certified community-supported nanobrewery. She stressed that she likes DeGroot personally and thinks he has done valuable work, but she wondered why the federation turned to him, rather than active members of the Jewish community already living on the east side. “It’s more like – ‘Hey guys, we’re right here in your backyard.’”

Despite some tensions, Jewish life is undeniably burgeoning on the east side. Two new Jewish preschools have opened in the past several months. Shir Tikvah, at 165 families, has expanded by 10 percent in the past year and is looking into purchasing a building of its own, though it may take the form of a flexible community space rather than a traditional synagogue structure.

Still, Blattner says it is too early to tell what the future of the east side will be and how well the recent burst of new activities can sustain itself.

“They’re all so brand-new that I’m hoping in five to 10 years not only that they’re there, but that they’re mainstays all over town,” said Blattner. “That would be a blessing. But let’s see.”

Doing downward dog in Ramallah


Inhale your arms up into warrior one. Exhale and extend your arms into warrior two.

I followed the instructor’s soft but firm voice as she led me and five other women through the yoga poses, and the deep breathing helped to calm my nerves. The large tiled room was gently lit through white curtains that masked the busy city life outside Farashe Yoga.

Farashe is Arabic for butterfly, and the busy city outside the studio’s walls is Ramallah.

Exhale into your reverse warrior, the instructor guided us. I complied, letting out a long-held breath.

Ramallah is just six miles north of Jerusalem. But to get there from Jerusalem requires passing through the Kalandia checkpoint, which can take anywhere from 10 minutes to two hours. A red sign outside the checkpoint reads “This Road leads To Area ‘A’ Under The Palestinian Authority/ The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.”

Area A is under Palestinian jurisdiction. Cars like the one I was in, rented in Israel, are not insured there. But my American passport pacified the Israeli soldier manning the checkpoint and we were waved through without delay.

Farashe is near the center of Ramallah, through a lively marketplace, where fruit and vegetable vendors shout out the prices of persimmons, dates and the largest cabbages I have ever seen. Past the famous stone lions of the Al Manara Square and across the street from the Stars & Bucks Cafe (its motto, according to a server, is “Let Starbucks come to Ramallah and sue us”) sits the stone building that is home to the studio. Behind a green door, up a stairway littered with cigarette butts and fast food wrappers, is the yoga studio. The class cost 20 shekels, or about $5.

When I initially reached out to Farashe, I was told by a man named Ibrahim that I would be “more than welcome to attend.” But when I told them I was a journalist from a Jewish publication, Ibrahim responded, “Farashe has a very strict policy about which media channels to talk (sic), as we are an organization that abides by BDS regulations,” referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which attempts to place political pressure on and economically isolate Israel.

My request for an interview, he told me, had been denied.

Knowing I was not welcome, I kept a low profile as I inexpertly made my way through the Vinyasa yoga practice.

But the atmosphere inside put me at ease. The instructor was accommodating and generous, and she and my fellow yogis — a mixed-age group dressed in linen or yoga pants, hair uncovered — were oblivious to my failed negotiations with the studio’s media representative. The instructor asked my name and if it was my first time at Farashe.

“Batya,” I told her, and yes, it was.

Farashe opened in November 2010. Everything — the space, the mats and the five instructors’ time — had been donated by volunteers and benefactors “within Palestine and from abroad,” according to the studio’s website.

Yoga has long been trendy in Israel among urban sophisticates and religious Jews. And the practice has been found to improve mood and enhance productivity among Israeli schoolchildren impacted by war. There are dozens of yoga studios and yoga practices in and around Tel Aviv, including classes offering vocal yoga,which involves singing, and Acroyoga, which incorporates acrobatics.

And now yoga is increasingly popular among Palestinians, too. In Gaza, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society offers yoga classes to help with stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are also some private yoga enthusiasts, like a woman from Gaza City whose Twitter feed @WhateverInGaza has 13,000 followers. But there are no known designated studios in the Hamas-led strip.

Yoga can provide great benefits for war-torn areas. Robin Carnes is co-founder and executive director of Warriors at Ease, an organization that brings yoga and meditation to military communities. Carnes in a phone interview explained the effects of traumatic stress on the brain — how it can impair judgment and internal monitoring of emotions.

“With a good trauma-sensitive teacher, you can slowly begin to re-enter, re-inhabit your body in a way that isn’t overwhelming and feels safe again,” Carnes said.

To meet the growing demand for yoga in the Palestinian territories, Anahata Grace International, a nonprofit based in Washington, partnered with Farashe to organize a training session in 2013 for 20 women in Ramallah. The same year, a Canadian organization, the Olive Tree Yoga Foundation, offered two 200-hour teacher-training sessions in the Ayda refugee camp in Bethlehem.

“We see it as a form of empowerment and a way to create space in your own life for possibilities,” said Paul van Wijk, the president of Olive Tree, which has trained instructors who now teach classes to Palestinians in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron.

Olive Tree has separately trained Israeli instructors.

Most recently, two Palestinian women are in the process of opening a yoga studio in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, called Beit Ashams, or House of Sun. The studio has already started offering classes — some gender segregated (including prenatal yoga), some coed and some geared to children.

Eilda Zaghmout, one of the founders, was trained by Olive Tree.

Her family fled Beit Jala for Amman, Jordan, in 1967 following the Six-Day War with Israel. Her father always dreamed of returning home. But when they finally came back in 1999, they were faced with what Zaghmout called the “ugliness” of the deadly Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Like other Palestinians, the family faced restrictions on movement, curfews and long lines when they were permitted to leave their homes.

Zaghmout, who comes from a “Christian background,” sees yoga as particularly beneficial in a land marred by a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

Indeed, she had long intended to begin practicing yoga. But with two young children at home, life kept getting in the way. But, she said, “there’s a point in your life when you’re like, ‘hallas,’ that’s it, I’m going to ask for help.” Her husband was supportive, and within a year she had her yoga teacher’s license.

Eager to share her newfound practice with her community, Zaghmout was faced with a common “misperception” in her community — that anything associated with the Far East was shunned for being atheist or Buddhist. Zaghmout had to find the right language to introduce yoga to Bethlehem. She invited members of her community to come and experience yoga for themselves, and she spoke about yoga as a tool for releasing stress.

She believes that the reason yoga is taking off now has to do with increased awareness about the awareness of self-care.

“People are getting more aware of stress, high blood pressure, breast cancer,” Zaghmout said, noting that especially women and activists struggle with finding time and allowance to take care of themselves. Doing so “challenges perceptions about women in my community, where women are supposed to sacrifice,” she said.

She added: “This land has suffered heavy blood. It’s time we start realizing peace inside of us so we can realize it outside.”

Meanwhile, back inside at Farashe, the class ended with the instructor calling for Shavasana, or the “corpse pose,” which has practitioners lying flat on their backs, arms to the sides, palms up. As I lay there, I found myself wishing for fewer corpses in this troubled land, and for warriors on both sides of the checkpoint to reverse direction and find a new practice.

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.

Exercise your options


As the holidays roll around, so, too, do days spent cooped up indoors with kids and relatives, braving rainy weather (or even snow, for those who head East) and moving very little, except perhaps to the dining room table and back.

It might seem like a time to abandon all hope of exercise, but the truth is that there’s no need to head to a gym or a studio for those looking to keep their heart rates up — according to fitness experts, plenty of effective workouts can be done from home.

“There are so many things you can do, whether you’re inside or outside,” says Jonathan Aluzas, owner of Arena Fitness in Encino. “There’s an infinite variety; the challenge is that it requires a little bit of creativity, work and research.”

Over the next few months, for many of us that will mean modifying our usual routine to accommodate a living room, a hotel room or a guest room at a family member’s house. But as we succumb to our 10th latke in one night, that extra effort will no doubt feel worth it. 

Exercising at home can seem daunting, certified Pilates instructor Shana Stark says, because we may think that we need to go full bore for an hour, like we would in a fitness class. Instead, it’s important to remember that a little goes a long way.

“If you give anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes of concentrated, focused work, it should be enough to get your circulation going, get your body oxygenated and wake yourself up,” she said.

Workouts also needn’t be done all at once, Aluzas says.

“You can put together a few 15-minute blocks of exercise in a day, and it has the same value as if you had done it all at the same time,” he said. “The cumulative amount is just as effective.”

In other words, fit in whatever you can between breakfast and lunch, shopping and more shopping, or cooking meals and wrapping Chanukah gifts.

Whenever you’re working out — and particularly in cold weather — it’s important to spend some time warming up. Here are a few exercises that Stark teaches in her Pilates classes, and from a series of workout videos created by Aluzas:

Warm Up the Whole Body

Lie down on the floor and stretch your arms and legs out, keeping your arms beside your body. Pull your knees to your chest, then return them to a straightened position.

Medicine Ball Chop Squat

Holding a medicine ball overhead (or “anything that weighs anytwhere from 4 to 8 pounds — you could literally grab an encyclopedia,” Aluzas said), with legs shoulder width apart, squat and carry the ball down past the front of your body, with straight arms, until it’s between your legs. Stand and lift the ball overhead again. 

Hamstring Stretches

Lying on your back, wrap a towel or resistance band around the bottom of one foot. Keeping both legs straight, use the band or towel to pull the leg up toward your chest. Release back down and switch legs.

Alternating Lying Crossovers

Lying flat on your back with your arms outstretched in a “T” shape and your legs straight, lift one leg until it’s perpendicular to the floor, cross it over your body, lift it back up and place it down again. Repeat on the other side.

Rolling Like a Ball

Sit up and pull your knees toward your chest. Lift your feet a few inches off the floor, and keeping yourself tucked like a tight ball, use your core muscles to roll onto your spine and roll back up.

Glute Bridges

Lying on your back with your knees bent, lift your hips up off the floor while digging your heels into the floor and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Lower back down.

After finishing the warm-up, Stark says, your body should feel toastier, and it’s time to get to the bulk of the workout. Aluzas notes, though, that for people who are newer to working out, a warm-up can be enough exercise on its own.

“It depends on the degree of fitness of the person involved,” he says, adding, “People have to be patient with themselves,” and do as much as they are able to do without overexerting.

The following exercises can be done using dumbbells, or using household items of the same weight. Best of all, they can be done any place where there’s enough room to “lie down on the floor and stretch your arms and legs out,” Stark says.

Arm Circles

Standing up, lengthening the spine and holding 2- to 4-pound weights, lift your arms straight out in front of you, keeping the elbows straight. Do not lift beyond the shoulders. Lower back down. “The key is not to swing your arms but to resist, almost as if you have to push your arms through water,” Stark said.

Squat Curl Press

Holding dumbbells in each hand and standing with your feet shoulder width apart, squat down with your arms hanging by your sides. As you stand, bend your arms at the elbow, curling the weights up to your shoulders. Finally, press the weights over your head, twisting your palms to face forward and keeping your arms shoulder distance apart.

Triceps

Standing with your feet hip distance apart, bend your knees and push your tush behind you like you are in a downhill skiing position. Lean forward, bring your elbows back behind you and straighten your arms back behind you. Bend the elbows back to return to starting position.

Mountain Climbers

Starting in a plank position, face down with both hands on the floor and your tush slightly lifted, bend one knee up to your chest and place that foot on the floor. Keeping your hands on the floor, alternate your legs with a slight jump.

The Hundred

Lying on your back, lift your legs about a foot off the floor, keeping the knees straight. Lift your head and shoulders until you feel the tip of shoulder blades come off the mat. Keeping the arms straight, lift and lower the arms from the shoulders rapidly, moving the arms only about five inches. Inhale and pump for five counts, then exhale and pump for five counts, until you reach 100.

Crunches

Lying on the floor with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, place your hands behind your head and lift the shoulders, pressing the lower back against the ground. Lower the shoulders to return to starting position, keeping the head lifted.

In addition to maintaining your existing level of fitness, working out over the holidays can have particular benefits for travelers.

“The best thing for jet lag is exercise,” Stark says. “Even if it’s cold or you’re in a new place, throw on a coat and some gloves and go for a brisk walk for five to 10 minutes.”

Aluzas adds that those who are able to push themselves to exercise on their own, especially during the holidays, deserve a pat on the back. People get caught up in berating themselves for what they aren’t doing, he says, rather than commending themselves for what they are doing.

“You should applaud yourself for being willing to work out on your own in your living room,” he says. “That’s not easy to do.”

The skin game


Most of us have one body part that we’d like to change, be it our double chin, our tuchis or our belly. And as a quick fix, plastic surgery has become pervasive – according to the American Academy for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 1.6 million surgical cosmetic procedures were done in 2010; a 9 percent increase from the year before.

But it’s not a solution that appeals to everyone; the cost can be prohibitive, and the possibility of going under anesthesia and being sliced open in the name of vanity may seem extreme.

For those looking to take off a few years without breaking the bank or risking their health, though, there are alternatives, including yoga, massage and noninvasive skin procedures that don’t even require a needle.

Of course, no amount of downward dogging can make your breasts two cup sizes larger or help you drop 100 pounds overnight, but to treat saggy or splotchy skin, wrinkles and other signs of a life well lived, here are some suggestions.

FACIAL YOGA

When we think of yoga, we may imagine deep, cleansing breaths and stretching tired muscles. But a growing number of yoga instructors believe that the practice can have cosmetic results that go beyond a firm behind; that with the right exercises, yoga can be used to tone the muscles in the face.

“Facial yoga combines five simple facial exercises with a simple yoga workout,” said Michael Glen, who owns the company Facial Yoga Online, based in San Diego.

When muscles get weak, Glen said, they sag, causing the skin above them to do the same. The exercises he teaches work the 57 facial muscles to keep them in shape. “The result is that you tone up the muscles, which helps remove the wrinkles,” he said.

The facial workout, which takes about five minutes altogether, targets three areas: the neck and chin; the face; the forehead and the area around the eyes. He encourages clients to tack on some traditional yoga moves as well, which adds about six or seven minutes but has the benefit of reducing stress. That can, in turn, reduce lines generated by worry.

The workouts should be done a minimum of once a day, and twice if possible. 

“Look at the things you do that you can be doing facial exercises at the same time,” he said. “When you’re driving, watching TV… you can do a dramatic job of lifting the areas.”

MASSAGE

Getting a massage doesn’t sound quite as invasive as going under the knife, right? In addition to being relaxing, massage can have results that are similar — if less dramatic — to those of a facelift.

The primary goal of massage isn’t to look younger, said Brian Reder, the owner of The Massage Place, which has locations in Encino, Sherman Oaks, the Westside and South Pasadena. But, by its very nature, massage boosts circulation and improves muscle tone, thereby reducing wrinkles and cellulite.

“Massage can keep your muscles from becoming stiff,” he said, “[and] it improves skin’s pliability, making it less likely to wrinkle.”

Kneading the skin — not just on the face but throughout the body — helps to improve blood flow and circulation, which can bring about a glow, and in some instances reduce cellulite. Massage therapists often tell their clients to come back once a month for the best results, Reder said — not too tough a prescription to follow.

THERMAGE

One of the primary causes of sagging skin is the breakdown of collagen, a protein that helps keep skin looking young, and of elastic fibers in the skin, said Dr. Debra Luftman, a dermatologist with practices in Beverly Hills and Calabasas and co-author of the book “The Beauty Prescription.”

To help reverse the look of aging, she said, a new procedure called Thermage is gaining popularity.

“I truly believe that the future of plastic surgery is something like Thermage,” Luftman said. “I don’t think that in 10 years we will be cutting people’s faces.”

Through radio frequency, heat is applied to the lower layers of the skin to stimulate collagen, while the outer layers are cooled at the same time. The procedure is completely noninvasive and takes about an hour, depending upon how much of the body and face is being done.

According to Luftman, Thermage is nearly painless, with no topical or oral pain medication needed. The treatment can lift skin, making a once-sagging jawline, for instance, become more taut. The results can last up to three years.

LASERS

Using the same premise as Thermage, lasers target small areas of the skin, causing it to tighten around the area that the laser hits, says Luftman.

In her practice, Luftman uses two kinds of lasers: Fraxel, which can be used to treat wrinkles, sun damage and scars, and intense pulsed light, also called a photofacial. Intense pulsed light can be used to treat a wider range of skin issues, including age spots and protruding veins.

Both are long-lasting, so after an initial series of two to five treatments, patients can go up to a year before having another touch-up.

Whatever alternative to plastic surgery you may opt for, you should do the research to be sure that you’re in good hands, Luftman said.

“It’s important to go to a practitioner who is very experienced,” she said, advice that applies not just to dermatological procedures but to all health-related therapies.

Wrap mind, and body, around Holy Days prep


Traditionally, the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days are a time of account settling for Jews, marked by personal reflection, repentance and prayer.

But how about some Jewish yoga to get the ball rolling? Why not try some visualization exercises or Jewish meditation?

About 30 Angelenos will gather Sept. 23-25 for a preholiday regimen of spiritual tuning at the Shalom Institute Camp in Malibu, featuring an eclectic tour of holistic healing arts with a Jewish flavor. Hosted by Judaism by Choice, the weekend spiritual retreat aims to prepare newly converted Jews by choice — and spiritually seeking Jews by birth — for the metaphysical plunge that marks the Days of Awe.

There are still a few signup spots left for the program, which boasts an itinerary of introspective, communal and nature-based activities that organizers hope will put participants in the mood for righteous transformation.

“The whole concept of the High Holy Days is teshuvah — to return to the self,” said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, founder and rabbinic director of Judaism by Choice. “We have to know the self in order to properly get back in touch with it.”

Many of the goals of yoga and meditation — self-awareness and soul-searching — echo what the High Holy Days are about, Weinberg said. Teshuvah, the scriptural term for repentance, literally means “to return” to oneself, just as yoga and meditation refocus the practitioner’s eye inward in hopes of personal improvement.

If ideas like Jewish meditation and visualization sound a bit “out there” at first, look closer: Spiritual pursuits are actually grounded in core Jewish values, said Miri Weinberg, a Hebrew instructor and event coordinator with Judaism by Choice and Rabbi Weinberg’s wife.

The Weinbergs founded Judaism by Choice to provide classes, Shabbat services, holiday parties and an annual trip to Israel that would resonate with Jews by choice, a niche that is often underserved by the Jewish community, Rabbi Weinberg said. Judaism by Choice creates a social network for converts to the Jewish faith, he said, where they can find a sense of community.

But the spiritual retreat is not only intended for Jews by choice. Registration is open to all members of the Jewish community, regardless of spiritual fluency or yogic flexibility — anyone seeking an alternative to the customary Selichot prayers as a means to access a place of self-knowledge and forgiveness.

The retreat will begin Friday evening with a traditional Shabbat dinner at which attendees can get to know one another and their teachers for the weekend. At night, Sinai Temple educator Richard Weintraub will lead a discussion on Jewish spirituality, including visualization exercises. The most mysterious of the weekend’s activities, this session will employ symbols found in nature to better illuminate areas of participants’ lives that need improving.

After breakfast on Saturday, Zack Lodmer, founder of Om Shalom Yoga, will lead an energizing session of Joga (Jewish yoga). The attorney-cum-yogi, who teaches classes monthly in Santa Monica, will have students practice asanas to an original soundtrack Lodmer composed that blends hypnotic electronic music with Shabbat prayers. This will take the place of a traditional Shabbat morning service, as the prayers are already incorporated into the yoga.

“The arc of the yoga class mirrors the arc of the service — the Barchu before the Shema and so on,” Lodmer said. As in davening, he added, participants can conduct their own personal prayer experience in a collective space.

Scheduled after yoga, fittingly, is lunch and a Shabbat afternoon nap. Activities resume with Jewish meditation led by Sara Lederer. Although the form of meditation will resemble that found in Eastern religions, she said, the content, concepts and vocabulary will all be Jewish. Lederer will first give a talk on “how to stop and tune in,” and will then lead her audience in exercises and a meditation session, she said. She plans to discuss questions like, “Why do we even have the High Holy Days to stop and reflect? What can we get from that?”

“Doing this helps people get out of here” — the head — “and into here” — the gut, said Lederer, a psychologist and professor at Argosy University. “It’s about heart-opening, listening to yourself, feeling and knowing your intuition.”

Meditation will be followed by a nature hike, allowing guests to soak up scenic Malibu vistas for the remainder of the afternoon. After dinner, the group will hold a Havdalah service under the stars and gather around a campfire for an old-fashioned, guitar-led ruach session with song leader Jenni Alpert. The weekend will conclude Sunday morning after breakfast.

“This will be an intimate way to nurture people,” Miri Weinberg said. “The spirit of the weekend that is so powerful and significant is togetherness — eating, singing and sharing the magic of Shabbat.”

The Weinbergs hope to make the retreat an annual event before the High Holy Days to put people in a teshuvah frame of mind. “Even if we follow the letter of the law all the time, we may still be wound up internally,” Lodmer said. “Sometimes it takes visualization and meditation and maybe even Tree Pose to tell your mind to slow down.”

For more information or to register, visit www.judaismbychoice.org or call (888) 539-2924.

Mind, body and sole


The Grinberg Method, named for its Israeli founder, Avi Grinberg, is described as “a structured way of teaching through the body.” But a better way to explain it is through an example. Let’s take a universal source of anxiety that most women can relate to: waiting for the guy to call after a date.

It’s something Marcela Widrig, one of two L.A.-based Grinberg Method practitioners, encounters often among her female clients.

“First she can get angry with the person — ‘He’s such a jerk,’ ” Widrig said during an interview at her Atwater Village studio, Bodies That Work. “She could feel bad about herself — ‘What did I do wrong?’ She could constantly be checking her e-mails, phone calls. All of a sudden, he becomes the center of her life, after one date.”

The anxiety is often accompanied by physiological changes: tightening of the stomach muscles, tensing of the jaw or erratic breathing.

Through a combination of touch and dialogue, the Grinberg Method practitioner calls attention to what is happening in the woman’s body when she thinks about the anticipated phone call. In doing so, she can break the pattern and allow for fresh ways of experiencing, perceiving and reacting to the situation.

A holistic approach reminiscent of other mind-body therapies — like Hellerwork, the Feldenkrais Method, the Alexander Technique and Rolfing — the Grinberg Method aims to foster self-awareness about limiting beliefs, often inherited from childhood, and sources of pain and fear that often express themselves through the body.

The method combines elements of foot reflexology, acupressure, breath work and deep-tissue massage to treat emotional issues. The method is also intended to treat physical injuries, although its promotional materials carry a disclaimer that it is not intended for serious conditions.

A few days before this interview, Widrig sprained her ankle and planned to treat it with the guidance of Rachel Putter, whose Grinberg Method Center of Activities practice is based in West Hollywood.

“Any time the body gets injured, there’s fear,” Widrig said. “The energy from that is what we use to heal.”

Putter, who grew up in Israel, discovered the Grinberg Method 19 years ago, soon after earning her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. She has taught the method for 12 years throughout Israel and Europe.

“When I got sessions, I saw the effect on my life,” Putter said in an interview at her studio. “Every session would bring me to experience myself in reality in a more authentic way. That is what made me interested in this work, until today. Touch cuts the bull——. You can have a belief of who you are and what you want in your mind. But when you shift your attention to the experience in your body, you can really know what you want and don’t want, what is the thing you are fighting against, and be honest about it.”

The Grinberg Method is new to the United States and is currently offered only in Los Angeles. Local medical and mental health professionals contacted by The Journal were unaware of the treatment. Results of a study conducted by Grinberg practitioners, The Pain Project, are awaiting publication; no independent studies evaluating its effectiveness are available. The method, Widrig and Putter said, reaches clients largely through word of mouth.

Practitioners do not position themselves as a replacement for traditional therapists, although costs could render complementary treatment pricey. Widrig’s sessions go for $120 per hour; Putter’s for $150 per hour. Group classes on wellness inspired by the Grinberg Method are available at lower costs.

Grinberg, born in 1955, developed the method after studying and practicing various healing arts, including working as a paramedic and as a reflexologist. He established a school for his method in Haifa in the late 1980s, and has authored a book on his method, “Fear, Pain and Some Other Friends,” which presents its basic concepts and ways of incorporating them into daily life. After giving a series of lectures in Switzerland to an enthusiastic audience, Grinberg moved his headquarters there, expanding with branches in Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Grinberg’s training in reflexology is reflected in the method’s “foot analysis,” which begins the process. While examining the client’s feet, the practitioner asks questions about beliefs, character and/or circumstances.

“How you walk and move through life is reflected through the feet,” Widrig said.

The technique impressed Josh Kartsch. “I had no idea what to expect, and in the first five minutes I was blown away by what she was saying to me while she was looking at my feet,” the 37-year-old L.A. designer said. “She said so many things that were in my attention but which I couldn’t articulate.”

After several sessions with Widrig, Kartsch signed up for the three-year training course but dropped out when his business took off, thanks, he said, to improved communication the Grinberg Method fostered.

“When I would go through the traditional therapist, it was boring,” he said. “It was nothing compared to what I was getting from the Grinberg Method. … This was totally revolutionary and very immediate — the effects and the changes I was making.”

But trying the method may require a leap of faith for some, Kartsch said. “The Grinberg Method is not for everybody, and it’s not a cure-all. It’s for people who are really willing to try something new and powerful. Not everyone is willing to do that.”

For more information about the Grinberg Method, visit ” title=”bodiesthatwork.com” target=”_blank”>bodiesthatwork.com

Rachel Putter
Grinberg Method Center of Activities, LA
7327 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood
(310) 855-3368

Classes bring a bit of shul to yoga


In a dimly lit room overlooking Santa Monica’s bustling Third Street Promenade, prayers set to electronic music float between bodies in motion. Barely audible over the melodies are the deep exhales of students.

“Shabbat Shalom,” said Zach Lodmer, walking around the room. “That’s something you don’t usually hear in yoga, isn’t it?”

It’s January, and Lodmer is leading the second monthly installment of his Om Shalom Yoga class at The Yoga Collective in Santa Monica, a class that sets traditional yoga sequences to Shabbat prayers.

An attorney by day, Lodmer knows that the concept might sound eclectic — “Some people are skeptical” at first, he admits with a slight grin — but since finding his own connection to the combined practices of yoga and prayer, the 31-year-old hopes to help others in the Jewish community put a new twist on traditional worship.

Lodmer wasn’t always the picture of health. Several years ago, the now-fit yoga instructor smoked, was 75 pounds overweight and was unhappily employed as a prosecutor. It was the birth of his son, he said, that served as the impetus for change and, ultimately, the creation of Om Shalom.

Craving a healthier lifestyle, Lodmer changed his eating and drinking habits and took up yoga. At the same time, he was playing clarinet for Shabbat services at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. He soon realized that his desire to practice a more personal brand of Judaism was in line with his changing health habits.

“We were sitting in a circle, moving through prayers by singing” and playing music, he said. “I began to get interested in including not just [song] but yoga in the Shabbat experience.”

From there, Lodmer, who was raised Reconstructionist, consulted with rabbis and enrolled in a yoga teacher-training program. All the while, he worked on creating the soundtrack for Om Shalom, which would prove to be the linchpin of the class.

“It was a lot of work,” he said, “but as time passed, I made it my own.”

Om Shalom isn’t the first yoga class to incorporate religions other than Hinduism, which is largely credited with the ancient origins of the practice. Rather, Lodmer’s class is part of a growing movement to meld the physical practice and some of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga with Judaism or Christianity.

Ida Unger, who owns Yoga Garden Studios in Tujunga and also teaches, according to her Web site, “yoga with a Jewish bent,” has been studying yoga for several decades and began incorporating components of Judaism into her practice about 10 years ago. She believes that interest in Jewish yoga began gaining steam in other circles at around the same time.

“I think many Jews found yoga as a physical practice, and after a while it just connects to the soul,” she said. “If you have a Jewish soul, it’s very easy to connect to.”

Like many others, Unger sees parallels in the teachings of Judaism and the teachings of yoga. The basic tenets of both, says Rabbi Avivah Erlick, who teaches private Jewish yoga sessions, are very similar.

“The teaching of Judaism involves Torah, mitzvah and study,” Erlick said, “and the four types of yoga are basically study, prayer, holy action and meditation.”

Unger points out the similarity of savasana, or resting in corpse pose by lying still on one’s back, which concludes most yoga classes, and the practice of resting on Shabbat, which is derived from the Hebrew word shavat, in Jewish culture.

In addition to the overlap in ritual and philosophy, many teachers see yoga as a way to add a needed physical element to Jewish worship.

“Judaism is lacking a movement-and-meditation practice,” Erlick said. “I think people can get that from yoga, as a teaching tool as to how to calm oneself, center oneself and be present in prayer.”

Om Shalom — and Jewish yoga in general — is not necessarily for everyone. Lodmer notes, for instance, that he breaks halachic tradition by playing music on Shabbat, which might turn off Jews looking to adhere to the letter of the law.

But for those who are interested, he believes the combination of yoga and Jewish prayer can help people connect to Judaism in a more personal way.

“People are looking for fewer barriers to prayer and to Judaism,” he said. “People are moved by [Jewish yoga]. And if Judaism is not engaging, we’re losing people.”

Within the Jewish yoga community, Lodmer has been welcomed and admired. Unger sees his work as the continuation of a new brand of Jewish worship.

“He’s almost a generation younger than me,” she said. “I think what he’s offering is very exciting.”

Lodmer’s class follows a traditional yoga prototype: sun salutations, standing poses and a flow that builds steadily in intensity and then tapers off into a cool-down. What sets it apart is the music.

Layering prayers like the Sh’ma and Shalom Aleichem over a soothing but vibrant beat so that they correspond with the trajectory of the class, Lodmer creates the music for his class in his free time. It’s no small task — much of his time outside of work is spent either with his family, he says, or refining the Om Shalom playlist.

“Making the music is a second full-time job,” he says.

It seems to be a worthy cause. Back in the studio on that Friday night in January, students leave glowing and happy. Wishing them all a “Good Shabbos,” Lodmer sees them out the door and back into the world.


Om Shalom Yoga
facebook.com/omshalomyoga

Rabbi Avivah Erlick’s Gentle Jewish Yoga
gentlejewishyoga.com

Yoga Garden Studios
11257 Deneville Place
Tujunga, CA 91042
(818) 353-8050
yogagardenstudios.com

Turning the world upside-down on Purim


When was the last time you stood on your head?

If you don’t practice yoga, and you’re not a 2-year-old, it’s probably been quite a while.

Noting that my toddler couldn’t get enough of being upside down on his little sister’s infant seat, I understood the allure. Seeing the world in a completely unexpected way is titillating. Subverting the natural order of things is energizing.

When your world is turned upside down, it’s time to reconsider your place in it.

Being upside down is nothing new for Jews on Purim. It’s a holiday known for the expression “nahafochu,” which is Hebrew for “to be turned on its head.”

Purim, which this year starts on March 19, is a subversive story about how Jews reversed the destructive decree against them by the wicked prime minister, Haman. The intended victims became the victors, and their oppressors, Haman and his family, were punished with a death sentence.

We read about nahafochu in the central passage of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther, which describes how the holiday should be celebrated. It reads, “… [The Jews] should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar, and the fifteenth day … year by year, as the days on which the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned (nahafokh) for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to holiday: that they should make the days of feasting and joy, and of sending choice portions to one another and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:21-23)

“Feasting and joy” is celebrated by Purim parties and meals, or seudot, and by drinking alcohol until you don’t know the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.” Through this obligatory merrymaking, Purim creates an escape valve, especially for religious Jews who spend much of the year in study and prayer. On Purim we can let loose, drink, be joyous and even mock our most venerable institutions and scholars.

But there are two other ways of celebrating Purim: mishloach manot, sending gift packages to friends, and matanot l’evyonim, or gifts to the poor.

What’s so subversive about that? What could it mean for us to apply the lens nahafochu to these two activities as well?

When we take the lesson of Purim to heart, living in a world turned upside down can mean taking on roles as foreign to us as if we were garbed in masks and costumes, acting in a way that on any other day would seem absurd.

Let’s start with mishloach manot. One explanation of this mitzvah is that we are meant to celebrate the victory of the Purim story with our entire community. It’s a way of proving Haman wrong when he claimed that the Jews were a “divided and scattered people.” And because we can’t literally invite everyone over for the meal, we share some part of it with others—traditionally the gift package should contain at least two kinds of food.

Consider applying nahafochu to this mitzvah. Don’t just give to the friends you see all the time. Think about a friend who used to be part of your community but no longer is, or someone from whom you have distanced yourself over the past year. Send them your mishloach manot this Purim as an invitation to repair a distant or broken relationship.

And what about matanot l’evyonim? To ensure that both rich and poor could partake in a festive meal on Purim, Jews were obligated to provide a meal for a minimum of two poor people. Nowadays, many people write checks to charities that work for food relief. But with nahafochu in mind, consider sharing that meal with them.

For those who live in cities and pass by poor people every day, instead of simply giving them a handout, consider buying them a meal. In the time that you are standing in line getting the meal, use that time to ask them about themselves. Relate to them as a human being. If you live in the suburbs or a small town, consider volunteering at a soup kitchen around the time of Purim.

This Purim, turn your world upside down. Maybe the experience will linger beyond the day itself and alter your perspective for days and weeks to come.

(Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish life-cycle consultant in New York.)

Warrior pose: The battle for 21st century yoga


If you thought that yoga was all about peace and love, think again. The vitriolic fight that has erupted within the world of this ancient meditation system gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “Warrior Pose.”

The co-founder of the American Hindu Association, a relatively small organization, has been complaining that people should become more aware of yoga’s Hindu roots. The association has mounted a Take Back Yoga campaign in New York, and has publicly lamented the fact that there weren’t trademark lawyers in place when modern yoga was being developed in India.

For a nonviolent religion, it’s ironic that the Hindu group’s leader, Aseem Shukla, should write an article as provocative as “The Theft of Yoga.” It first appeared in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog and led to a vicious online debate with modern guru Deepak Chopra, whose mind-body healing headquarters is right here in sunny Southern California.

For Jewish yoga enthusiasts, the debate raises long-simmering, uncomfortable questions about a practice they have long seen as healthful and spiritually uplifting but not religious.

If you look around almost any yoga studio in Los Angeles, you’ll find it is full of Jews. This reality first really struck me during a Sunday morning session at a studio in Santa Monica, where the teacher was leading people through a series of sun salutations and occasionally stopping for the traditional call-and-response kirtan chanting. He used phrases in various languages, but when he said “Shalom,” the room suddenly came alive. I looked around and realized that half of the people in the room were likely People of the Book. 

Despite the vast number of Jews getting comfortable in downward-facing dog, there is still a certain level of discomfort. We remember our early Hebrew teachers explaining the story where Abraham smashes his father’s idols, and we are genetically programmed to avoid bowing before statues. This raises a problem in the many yoga studios that are full of shiny Buddha, Ganesh and Shiva statues. Sanskrit chanting makes people a little more uncomfortable, and all of this makes it an easy target for some Orthodox authorities to classify yoga as forbidden.

Story continues after the jump.

” title=”www.bibliyoga.com” target=”_blank”>www.bibliyoga.com.

For a few good laughs


It’s not often I get to celebrate Shabbat right by the ocean waves, howling with laughter.

It started innocently enough, on a lazy Shabbat afternoon last week in Laguna Beach.

I was feeling a little guilty that I had missed the two-mile trek to the local Chabad for Shabbat morning services. My family and I were hanging out in a cozy beach house we had rented for the week, and I was still hung over from the previous night’s Shabbat meal celebrating my daughter’s graduation.

We could stay inside and read and play board games, or we could walk to the beach.

We walked to the beach.

I’ll find a quiet place there for some Shabbat meditation, I thought to myself.

But the beach was crowded. I strolled and played with the kids for several hours, and as the afternoon wore on, it didn’t look like there’d be any moment of Shabbat tranquility. Little did I know, however, that another kind of moment was about to hit me.

Not a moment with God, but a moment with crazy laughter.

“I think I have an interesting activity for us,” my sister said. “There’s a guy out there who’s got this laughter yoga thing going on.”

How does anyone say no to a “laughter yoga thing”?

So, minutes later, there we were, the whole clan, standing in a semi-circle near the crashing waves, moving our bodies in strange motions — and laughing hysterically. Most of us were oblivious to the people walking by who were making strange faces and holding their children real close.

We had been corralled by Jeffrey Briar, a world-renowned expert laugher.

Briar is the director of The Laughter Yoga Institute and founder of the Laguna Laughter Club. He was a traditional Yoga instructor for 35 years until, in 2005, he studied in Switzerland with an Indian doctor named Madan Kataria, who had developed the practice of “Laughter as Exercise” with his yoga-teacher wife, Madhuri.

Kataria’s Laughter Club movement began in 1995 in a public park in Bombay with five people. Today, there are more than 6,000 clubs in 60 countries, with an estimated 300,000 people laughing regularly at laughter clubs throughout the world.

Briar is a bohemian Jew who had his bar mitzvah at a Reform synagogue in Los Angeles in the 1970s. He is a thinner, less hyper version of Richard Simmons.

For about 30 minutes, he took me, my mother, my sister, my five children and a few others through a series of laughing exercises, one sillier than the next. The whole idea, he said, was to laugh for no reason.

Well, actually, for one reason: Because remarkable things happen to the human body when it’s in a state of laughter.

As he later explained to me, laughter relieves stress; it enhances the immune system; it improves respiratory and cardiovascular functions (by bringing fresh oxygen to the blood and brain); it relieves pain (by producing endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killer); it activates digestive and eliminative systems; and it encourages relaxation, boosts self-confidence and deepens creativity.

In other words, Briar doesn’t think we should wait for the new Ben Stiller movie or the next “Saturday Night Live” episode in order to have a good laugh.

As he puts it: “If laughter is so good for you, why wait for something funny?”

Indeed, you look at the guy and it looks like plenty of oxygen is going to his blood and brain. He’s been on that same stretch of sand in Laguna Beach every day for the past three years. His mission in life is to help bring unconditional laughter to the world, or at least to everybody he meets. The ultimate vision of Laughter Yoga, he says, is world peace.

After the 30-minute exercise was over, he noticed that I was still cracking up.

“You’re a natural-born laugher,” he told me.

Yes, I am, I told him. What I didn’t tell him was that I had been hoping to get a little quiet Shabbat experience on the beach that day — and I certainly wasn’t expecting boisterous laughing exercises that would make my mother laugh so hard she’d have to sit down on a big rock and rest.

It’s true that I put a high value on laughter; I would say I’ve spent a good chunk of my life cracking up — often for no good reason. But when I think of the religious experience, I don’t think of wild laughter. In fact, I have sharp memories of being reprimanded by grown-ups when, as a kid, I would laugh uncontrollably with my buddies during Shabbat services — as my father was reciting every word of the prayers, lost in his own sincere bliss.

Synagogues are monuments to reverence; laughter is a monument to self-absorbed pleasure. In a synagogue, we are encouraged to take things seriously. With laughter, the less you take seriously, the more you laugh.

Having said that, I confess that the moment of crazy joy I had on the beach probably brought me as close to my family — and to God — as I’ve ever felt on Shabbat.

In fact, it struck me, after all that laughter-induced fresh oxygen pumped through my blood and brain, that Jeffrey Briar is a lot like your basic neighborhood rabbi — you know, the one who would love you to join his or her shul.

Think about it: They both look friendly and happy; they both believe passionately in their way of life; they both want to share their way of life to benefit you and your family; they both seek world peace, and, of course, they’re both Jewish.

I’m not sure what would please me more: To have Briar become a rabbi, or to have rabbis do an internship at his Laughter Club.

Either one would give us more than a few good laughs, not to mention activate our digestive and eliminative systems.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Balancing music and yoga


With his arms outstretched above his head, his left fist clenched and his right hand delicately pinching the baton, Brad Keimach conducts Brahms Symphony No. 1 with the fervent grandeur expected of a symphonic masterpiece.

Watching Keimach, 53, one might wonder whether it is the genius of the composer or the magic of the conductor that transforms a concert into an apotheosis.

So what is a Julliard-educated conductor doing teaching yoga in Venice Beach?
Brad Keimach“I thought I was going to be a rabbi,” Keimach said. “The rabbi at our synagogue let me lead Saturday morning services because I could sight sing the haftarah.”

But studying Holocaust atrocities diminished his faith, and fate had different plans for this chorale conductor yogi.

Keimach’s plans for a conducting career staggered with his move from New York to Los Angeles a decade ago, but in this digression, he found a vinyasa flow that allowed him to combine his passion for music with his penchant for healing. In a coloratura of musical and emotional possibility, he will conduct the Glendale Youth Orchestra on June 5 at the Alex Theatre.

After graduating Julliard, Keimach completed graduate school and an elite seminar series at Tanglewood, summer home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

There, he met his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, whose teaching methods inspired the burgeoning educator.

“He was the window through which [I was] able to see the interconnectedness of life,” Keimach said.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, providence intervened.

“Yoga happened most unexpectedly, and it organically grew into something that I do seven days a week,” Keimach said.

When a conducting student invited him to a yoga class, Keimach accepted. “I thought I was in good shape, but this was the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life.”

The physical challenges of yoga were an easy embrace, but what captivated Keimach was an aspect he describes as “a way of thinking, of choosing peace, calm and balance.”

He is reluctant to suggest his professions influence one another, but he does point out that the different but complimentary mediums cohere with the yoga philosophy of balance.

“In an orchestra, everyone has to be unified in their effort, but in yoga, each practice is interpreted through the prism of an individual’s life,” Keimach explains. “Conducting requires 100 million megavolts of energy and is about outward expression, whereas the breath-based yoga I teach is internal.”

Both music and yoga emphasize a “heart connection between participants.” Indeed, Keimach’s history reflects his proclivity for connecting with people. “No matter the age of my students, I think, ‘These are my children, and I have to take care of them.'”

Keimach believes yoga can illuminate “the essence of who one is — egoless, simple, peaceful,” and based on his experiences, feels it is “helpful in dealing with the challenges of life.”

In a gentle voice, Keimach concludes his classes with a resonant statement, “May our practice help us become kinder, more peaceful and more loving, in our thoughts, our words and our actions.”

Brad Keimach conducts the Glendale Youth Orchestra on June 5, 7:30 p.m. at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. For more information, visit http://www.alextheatre.org/gyo.html or http://www.glendale-online.com/gyo/

Enjoy Wedded Bliss in Lotus Position


Not every couple’s notion of the ideal honeymoon entails a hedonistic beach resort and lots of fruity drinks garnished with umbrellas. Some want to begin married life with yoga.

Some couples pursue tantric yoga, a form that includes a tranquil sexuality, in hopes of creating a powerful union of mind, body and spirit. The Institute for Ecstatic Living — (877) 982-6872; www.ecstaticliving.com — organizes tantric vacations to Costa Rica, Hawaii and cruise getaways.

If that sounds a bit too New Age, there are other benefits to learning yoga as a couple. First, one partner can help the other get into the asanas, or poses, sort of like using a spotter in weight lifting. Second, yoga helps with the pursuit of other sports and activities. Finally, it’s fun.

When planning a yoga honeymoon, consider how much yoga each of you is likely to want to practice. Most spa resorts include some yoga as part of their overall fitness program, while some retreats offer more intensive yoga instruction. Unless both of you are experienced yogis, you’ll likely want a getaway that combines quality yoga instruction with other activities. In many cases, a resort with a high-quality destination spa will keep both partners happy. Here are some getaways to get you started:

Pura Vida Spa — (888) 767-7375; www.puravidaspa.com — in Costa Rica has special yoga weeks with guest instructors throughout the year, including a tantric week for couples. You can book its "Mind/Body/Spirit Adventure Week" any time. It includes seven nights’ lodging, daily yoga classes, hiking and a rain-forest excursion from $1,100-$2,000 per person, double occupancy.

New Age Health Spa — (800) 682-4348; www.newagehealthspa.com — in New York’s Catskill Mountains has rates starting at $174 per person, per night, double occupancy, two-night minimum. That rate includes daily yoga classes. The spa also hosts weekend-long yoga programs for more intensive instruction.

In nearby Big Sur, Post Ranch Inn — (800) 527-2200; www.postranchinn.com — overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is decidedly deluxe. Accommodations start at $485 per night. Guests can join daily yoga classes in The Yurt, as well as sample tai chi and qigong. The inn is surrounded by scenic hiking trails.

Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa — (800) 422-2736; www.nemacolin.com — in Farmington, Pa., offers a "Couples Vacation." Accommodations range from lodge rooms to luxurious townhouse suites. Rates start at $185 per night.

Shambhala Spa at Parrot Cay — (877) 754-0726; www.parrot-cay.com — in Turks and Caicos, British West Indies, has special "Healing Weeks" scheduled throughout the year. Many feature guest yoga instructors. Prices vary, depending on the program, but one six-night yoga retreat is $4,610, double occupancy. That includes accommodations, three meals daily, five hours of yoga and meditation instruction each day, plus two hours of massage therapy during the week.

The new Mii amo Spa at Enchantment Resort in Sedona, Ariz. — (888) 749-2137; www.miiamo.com — is located right next to one of the seven "spiritual vortices" that make the area a mecca for New Age travelers. In addition to spa treatments, Mii amo hosts four-day yoga retreats that teach guests how to incorporate yoga into their daily lives. Four-night spa getaways start at $1,750.

Finally, one way to support Israel at this time is to honeymoon at a spa in the Jewish State, which offer yoga and exercise along with spa treatments. The Carmel Forest Spa Resort in the Carmel Mountains — www.inisrael.com/isrotel/hotels/carmel_forest_spa_resort — has Internet rates that range from $270 single on weekdays (Saturday to Wednesday) to $570 double on weekends for a deluxe suite.

Mizpe Hayamim, above the Sea of Galilee, offers a variety of treatments and massages. Internet rates at www.mizpe-hayamim.com — range from $179 single during the regular season (which is now) to $367 double for a two-person executive suite during the peak season, which includes the High Holidays and Passover.

Article courtesy Copley News Service.


Alison Ashton is a San Diego-based freelance travel and health writer.

Fierce Determination


I admit, it doesn’t sound pleasant. You enter a room that’s been heated to above 100 degrees. The heat isn’t as suffocating as the odor, a wall of smell that hits you like a thousand stinky shoes.

You inhale the scent of sweaty armpits and groins, of excreted toxins, byproducts of fast food and fast living.

Once you get past the stench, it only gets worse. Sweat beads on the fronts of your shins before you even begin to move. Your lungs are drinking in air like too-hot tea. Though it seems like the last place you’d want to work out, the teacher comes in, covered with Zodiac-inspired tattoos and leads you through an hour and half of poses during which you bargain with your maker to let you live through your 10-class series.

Welcome to Bikram yoga, an exercise regimen where you can gauge your success by answering two simple questions: "Did I pass out?" and "Did I throw up?"

The first time my friend took me to a Bikram class in Pasadena, there was every reason to see that his car be keyed and his e-mails blocked. Instead, I wanted to hug him (which would have been pretty gross considering I was dripping with sweat and basically marinating in my own filth). Instead, we walked to the car together in a Bikram haze, limbs stretched like taffy, endorphins seeping into all the cellular crevices, eyes bright white.

My friend, who had to leave class in the middle to splash himself with cold water, said simply, "I thought I was going to die. Every moment of life from here on in is gravy. Speaking of gravy, let’s eat. I just burned off 9,000 calories."

That was several weeks ago and I’ve just about used up that 10-class series without suffering any lasting heart damage. I keep going back. Imagine jogging in a sauna for 90 minutes, voluntarily. That’s what I’ve been doing without really knowing why.

I dragged my girlfriend to class last week. After class, she said, "I don’t like you very much. In fact, I hate you. Excuse me, but I have to cry now." She sobbed, like you do from physical exhaustion sometimes, eyes puffy and red, sweat matting her bangs to her forehead. She was back at Bikram the next day. She brought a friend and now that friend says she’s hooked. She hates it, but she’s hooked.

Now, we’ve taken to carpooling to Pasadena together in a car filled with towels and bottles of water and trepidation about our very survival. On the ride home, we break it all down: whether we could regulate our own heartbeat, whether we liked the teacher, what students around us were showing off or making weird bodily noises.

Yesterday, the teacher had one of those hard-to-place, maybe her dad was in the-military, Kathleen Turner kind of accents. She said, like most teachers do, "Look at your own eyes in the mirror." She added something new, saying, "You are here for yourself today, to heal yourself from the inside." I looked at myself and a little tiny door opened in my head. Other than in yoga class, I wasn’t working very hard for that person in the mirror. I pictured the three library books on how to write a book proposal that I had checked out but hadn’t read, the calls not made on my own behalf, the lazy way I was looking out for myself.

A few poses later, I knew why I was there. "To do this practice requires fierce determination," said the teacher, sounding both Canadian and Irish. That’s what I had come to hear. I was doing every pose, in the sweltering, swamp-like atmosphere, to the very best of my ability. I wasn’t judging myself against the other students. I was pushing myself, taking risks, not giving up, stretching — all of the things I could be doing more of in my life.

Fierce determination. I think I got it. You try your hardest, and if you fall off-balance, or have to sit out some poses so you don’t die, you don’t sweat it. You just grab your towel and water and keep heading back into the fray.

Unwind With Yoga


Americans are in the process of healing from the events of Sept. 11. Most of us are under additional stress that shows up in our bodies by lack of sleep, headaches, overeating and irritation. To combat the symptoms of stress and fatigue I recommend a good dose of yoga.

Yoga has been around for about 5,000 years. It is a meditative, stretching-based workout that originated in India. Literally translated, it means, to solder a union between mind and body. The regular practice of yoga can increase energy levels, flexibility, strength, relaxation, and decrease stress. (Sounds like a wonder drug!) Other benefits of a regular program include improved circulation, improved blood pressure, improved lung capacity and pain relief — need I say more?

There are eight major schools of yoga, but Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced in the Western world. This style of yoga emphasizes different body positions (asanas) combined with breathing techniques. Have you ever done the “Downward Dog?”

One of the most commonly used progressions in Hatha yoga is the Sun Salutation. It is often used as a warm-up, and can be repeated over and over again to build strength, flexibility and balance.

The following exercises make up the Sun Salutation. If you try these at home, make sure you have a clear space and a soft surface, such as a mat or carpet, to lie on. Remember to consult with your physician before starting any exercise program.

Mountain Pose

Stand with feet together. Body is upright and hands are clasped together in prayer position close to the heart.

Arching Back Pose

Stretch arms overhead and slightly arch your back, keeping your eyes to the ceiling. Inhale deeply.

Standing Forward Bend

Reach arms forward and down to the floor. Place hands beside your feet, your head to your knees. Exhale deeply.

Lunge Position

Keep your right leg stationary; reach your left leg behind you in lunge position. Your right leg should be bent and your left leg should be straight. Inhale deeply.

Plank Position

Bring your right leg back to meet your left leg so that both legs and arms are now straight. (You should look like you are ready to do a push-up). Exhale deeply.

Cobra Pose

Lower your hips and legs to the ground, lift your chest to the ceiling. Arms should be straight, and hands are pressing firmly into the floor. Inhale deeply.

Downward Dog Pose

Tuck toes under and straighten your legs, pushing your hips back and up to the ceiling. You should look like an inverted V. Press arms and heels into the floor. Exhale deeply.

Deep Lunge Position

Bring your left foot forward between your hands, keeping your front knee bent and back leg straight behind you as in the first Lunge position. Inhale deeply.

Forward Bend

Bring your right foot forward to meet your left foot. Both legs are straight as in the Standing Forward Bend. Relax head and neck area, dropping your head to your knees. Exhale deeply.

Arching Back Pose

Reach arms forward and bring your body to an upright position. Extend arms overhead while you slightly arch your back. Inhale deeply.

Mountain Pose

Back to the beginning. Pose with feet together. Body is tall, and hands are clasped together in prayer position. Exhale deeply.

It is important that during times of stress we listen to our bodies. Sleeping longer hours, drinking more water, eating the right foods and exercising at least three days a week are important to maintain balance. The Sun Salutation is a great way to start your day with energy and vitality.

If you have any questions or comments, contact Ani at Ani_Dumas@jcc-gla.org  

Meditations on Yoga


The doctor said that the best thing for my injury was yoga. It would increase blood flow, reduce stress, open my chakras (whatever they are) and make me more limber. I went to get a second opinion but that guy said the same thing.

That week, I left work a little early, sped across town through rush-hour traffic listening to the latest horror story on the radio, circled for a parking spot, ran for the elevator, raced to get changed and then went inside to have someone tell me to hurry up, close my eyes and relax.

The first thing you do is in yoga class is lie down on a little plastic mat and breathe. That sounds easy enough, but I keep doing it wrong. Imagine being told you don’t know how to either lie down or breathe. Midway through a difficult pose, the instructor — or maybe she’s a yogi, but Barbara doesn’t sound like a very yogish name, if you know what I mean — says: “Don’t forget to breathe,” and the whole class grunts out an exhale as one. I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m not alone.

Then, after twisting my spine into a pretzel for an hour or so, she sends us back into the maelstrom and, presto, my murderous road-rage impulse is gone. Some people say you can’t put a price on peace of mind. I say it runs $15 for about 90 minutes.

I’ve now spent a total of 24 hours in something called “down dog,” but I’m still terrible at yoga. (All of the postures have deceptively cute, organic names — there is “tree” and “turtle” and another that I hope will some day be outlawed by the Geneva Convention called “pigeon.”) Fortunately, the way yoga works is that it’s okay to be terrible. In fact, admitting that you suck is a big step in becoming balanced in your practice. You don’t actually want to become “good” at it, because good is an ego thing, and that’s bad. Even the really good people in yoga class are only practicing, and they’re not even practicing for anything. Unless you’re doing it with my sister, yoga is not a competitive sport. There is no big game, no playoffs, no standings are listed in the paper. You never have any idea if you’re winning or losing because there’s nothing to win.

Frankly, I think the whole idea is un-American. I sometimes wonder why we, at the pinnacle of technological progress and human achievement, look to ancient Oriental health and fitness practices from cultures that have disappeared into history. If these guys were so clever, how come they’re not around any more? Why aren’t they ruling the world? Got an answer for that one? Were they too busy doing yoga to keep the Huns outside the palace walls? We’re taking a page from the losing team’s playbook. Knowing how to reduce stress doesn’t necessarily help you if your entire civilization is extinct.

At some point it dawned on me that I was surrounded by agile women. (Bonus!) Women love yoga. This is what they do. This is where they hang out. A man going to yoga class is like a woman going to a driving range. You want to catch fish? Fish where the fish are. It’s like a singles bar where no one drinks and everyone wears revealing clothes and demonstrates what they’re capable of if called upon to perform the “bow” pose as a party trick.

Some of the women in my class have no bones in their joints and limbs that seem to be made of spaghetti. There’s one lady who, near as I can figure, must have grown up as a contortionist in the Cirque du Soleil. I’m a little afraid of her. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t think you should be able to put your toe in your ear. Then Yogi Barbara instructs us variously to “get on all fours,” “spread your thighs” and “go a little deeper.” It doesn’t require an especially active imagination to get intrigued by the possibilities of applying this learning outside of class. I have to remind myself to breathe.

If someone tells you about a good yoga class, it’s one you can’t actually do. I go twice a week now, and I’m happy to report that I hurt in so many new places — places that I didn’t even know existed a month ago — that I’ve forgotten why I started going in the first place. It’s like hitting yourself in the thumb with a hammer to get your mind off a headache.

My friend Karen moved around from class to class until, she said, “I’ve found one that’s so painful and humiliating, I don’t need a man in my life anymore.”

Exhale, Karen.

Exercising the Mind


As we enter the new millennium, fitness professionals are becoming more aware of the movement toward spiritual forms of exercise. Programs like Pilates, Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, and body work are common in fitness clubs and community centers. To keep up with today’s stressful lifestyles, we must do more than increase our heart rates and pump iron to maintain maximum health. Mind and body fitness can facilitate this by achieving inner balance and harmony in mind, body and spirit.

One way to practice mind and body fitness is through meditation. Methods of meditation were used in ancient Judaic times by focusing on certain words or prayers. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has written two books on Jewish meditation: "Jewish Meditation, a Practical Guide" and "Meditation and the Bible."

According to Kaplan, Judaism produced one of the more important systems of meditation. "There is also evidence that during the period when the Bible was written [until approximately 400 b.c.e.], meditation was practiced by a large proportion of the Israelite people," he maintains.

Today, meditation is becoming much more mainstream and has crossed religious barriers once associated with it. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, founder and rabbi emeritus of Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism, describes meditation as a "profound and demanding practice" which "clears the obstacles in our mind, to help us perceive the underlying realities, the divine."

Meditation produces a state of deep relaxation that has been known to reverse the stress process. Focus is key. By focusing on our breath or a mantra, we are able to quiet our minds and still our constant chatter. Meditation should be thought of as an exercise program. You would not run on the treadmill once a week and expect any results. The same is true of meditation. A regular meditation program of 10 minutes a day will produce psychological as well as physiological benefits.

The following is a basic meditation exercise for beginners:

Sit or lie in a comfortable position.

Close your eyes and relax.

Focus on your breath entering and leaving your body. (Place your hands on your abdomen; feel it expand and collapse with each breath).

At the exhalation, count each breath, from 1 to 10; repeat.

Repeat a phrase that has meaning to you. It could be a phrase from the Bible, such as Deuteronomy 4:15: "Take you, therefore, good heed of your souls." It could also be a single word, such as "Shema."

Continue the meditation for 10 to 20 minutes. If the mind begins to wander, calmly direct it back to the task.

Better Davening Through Yoga?


Ida Unger’s Yoga Garden studio in Santa Monica seems a far cry from a synagogue. Sticky mats in place of pews; oak beams above instead of an Eternal Light; open space and sunlight where a temple would have an ark. Yet for Unger and the many Jews who come to study Yoga with her, the experience here is profoundly Jewish. And combined with Yogic peace and sensuality, it becomes a powerful spiritual whole.

“What Yoga does, is it makes your relationship with the divine a more physical, tangible reality,” Unger says. “With that, God is just more present in life.”

And Unger knows Yoga. She’s been a student for 22 years, a teacher for 12. But she is also the product of an Orthodox Jewish family, a yeshiva education, and, though now Reform, is an active, temple-going Jew. Rather than seeing contradictions, Unger sees Judaism and Yoga as complementary systems.

“A big part of Judaism is intention, kavanna,” she says. “You’re supposed to do these mitzvot, but you’re also supposed to do them with this awake, aware attitude.” And after studying from an Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspective, Unger doesn’t believe traditional Judaism offers a method to achieve that attitude. Yoga, however, does. “Jews really need this,” she says. “They need a way to connect with the spiritual that doesn’t contradict Judaism, but offers some in-depth tools for how to become a person who is more conscious.”

Unger has been teaching a Judaism informed by Yoga at Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica for years. And though there is no “correct” way to integrate the philosophies, one important aspect of her method is to practice Yoga postures that correspond — often on multiple levels — with letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The pairings are often visual, but can also be understood in terms of Jewish mystical tradition. “If you study sepher yetzirah, one of the books of the Kabbalah, it talks very specifically about how the aleph-bet are the instruments that God used for creation,” says Unger. “That the sounds of the letters were part of what creation was, and the shapes of the letters are shapes of energy flow.”

Unger’s classes also connect Yoga with the idea of Shabbat. “Shabbat is this once-a-week time of withdrawing from the world and going into a state of being, as opposed to a state of doing,” she says. And according to Unger, the Yoga posture savasana — a passive, restful pose done at the end of each session — is a microcosm of that concept. “The long-term effects of each practice are dependent on the quality of your savasana,” she says, “and I think that’s really similar.”

So does it all mean that Yoga can make you a better Jew? According to Unger, absolutely. “It will increase your consciousness of who you are and what you do, increase your level of intent,” she says. “If you pray, you’ll pray with more of yourself, you’ll have access to more of yourself. That’s the gift of Yoga.”


Tips for choosing a yoga class

Thinking of taking a yoga class? Here’s some tips from Stacy Kornick, an instructor at Body & Soul in West Hollywood:

* Yoga studios are usually more conducive to meditation than gyms. They use incense, color and sound to stimulate all the senses.

* Your first class is often free, so shop around.

* Join a small class, 15 to 20 people. You’ll receive more personal attention and will be less likely to hurt yourself.

* Morning sessions tend to be more invigorating, evening sessions more relaxing. Experiment to see what works best for you.

* A Yoga teacher can guide you on an emotional, physical and spiritual journey. Be sure to find someone you trust.

J. B. Kohn

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