As a "Bu-Jew" yogini, I decided to explore NYC’s increasingly popular “Torah Yoga.” I wondered, what do Torah and yoga have to say to one another? For the more serious Jews, do the Hindu aspects of yoga even fly? Finally, are non-Jews interested?
I spoke with Diane Bloomfield, author of Torah Yoga . She is an orthodox teacher in Jerusalem who has been developing Torah Yoga since the early 90s. Together with Rabbi Myriam Klotz, they have trained over 50 teachers.
Twice a year, the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT holds weeklong immersions. I spoke with Adam ‘Segulah’ Sher, who organizes these events, as well. They showed me how yoga can take us out of Egypt, and how Torah can deepen asana.
Emma Sartwell: How did Torah Yoga begin?
DB: The Chasidic teacher Sefat Emet writes that the Torah is engraved in the body, but it’s hidden, and we have to learn to discover it and read it. My experience is that yoga is a path of awakening the wisdom of the body.
Adam Sher: Diane is an Iyengar yoga instructor, but she also is a student and teacher of Torah. What Diane has done is unique and powerful – text study can be just sitting and reading, and yoga practice can become just about the body. We want to balance these – when we’re working with the body, we’re also seeing that bodywork as Torah.
ES: How do you navigate between Jewish and Hindu or Vedic wisdom?
AS: One informs the other – what we know from the yogic tradition informs how we look at our Jewish spirituality, and our Jewish spirituality informs the body practices.
I think that people who tend toward the mystical start to realize that these traditions are saying the same thing. If there’s really one G-d, and one truth, as all the mystics say, then there are just different languages and images. What’s happening on these retreats, besides all of the great learning, is some deep integration. Judaism, like all religions, has profound insight, and when you put that in the context of whatever your passion or interest is, it can open it up and bring forth new dimensions.
DB: There’s not really a system, that I know of, of a Jewish physical exercise that’s meant to be meditative. I’m taking yoga as a way to enhance our connection to Judaism. I teach yoga for the sake of learning Torah.
There are different opinions about whether yoga has to be connected to Hinduism. A teacher of mine says that it’s only in the last couple hundred years that yoga has been blended with Hinduism, maybe similarly to the way I’m blending it with Judaism. Many people would say yoga is a universal path, and it’s going to connect you to your own soul. So if you’re Jewish, you can connect to your Jewish soul through yoga.
But the truth is, even here in Jerusalem, my teacher will bring Sanskrit chanting into the class, which is problematic for me, because there are places where I have to draw a separation. You can’t chant to a god, other than G-d. Not all Jews feel this way – I think it can be navigated, but you have to be careful.
ES: What would a typical Torah Yoga class look like?
DB: I’d take the first minutes to do some basic poses to get students centered, and begin to open up the body to learning. Then I would bring a teaching – I draw on prayer, on the weekly Torah portion, on holidays... Whatever it is, I take maybe ten minutes to explain a Torah concept, and how it can be experienced through yoga. Then we would go into yoga, integrated with the theme.
One example is the concept of leaving Egypt. The rabbis teach that we should remember it every minute of our lives. So what is it and why is it so relevant? You could talk about this for the rest of your life, but one idea is that the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, contains what it’s about. The middle letters are the word tzar, which means constriction, narrowness or trouble. The outer letters spell mayim, which is water – it’s release, it’s expansive. So Egypt represents our lives, which are a combination of difficulty and release.
Yoga is a practice of moving from a narrow place to an expanded place. You discover where you are tight and where you can open up, and as you expand you’re actually going out of Egypt.
ES: Who comes to these immersions?
AS: I’d say that 65% of our participants, if not a little higher, come from the New York metro area. We have people from all over the country, but that’s the majority.
DB: I get a real range of students – from twenties to eighties, from not Jewish to Orthodox. And if people want to teach Torah Yoga, this will really get them started.
ES: Do you see Jewish Yoga becoming a movement?
DB: In the states, it’s really taking off. I’m happy – I think it’s an idea that makes total sense; the connection seems obvious actually. It’s doesn’t even have to be a Jewish movement particularly – people who love wisdom are interested.
There are Torah Yoga Retreats February 12th -17th and July 28th - August 3rd, where non-Jews, people who are Jew-ish, and those highly engaged in the religion, are invited. Scholarships available. Click here for more information.