ARTICLE: Kosher Yoga
By Lauren Tepper
On www.yogacitynyc.com June 2012
Orthodox Jews Find Their Way
Tucked away in an unassuming brownstone basement on a leafy Crown Heights side street, a pioneering group of Jewish women at Crown Heights Fitness are stretching and bending, kosher-style.
These women did not start this yoga process in a casual way; they had to examine their beliefs. Would yoga contradict their spiritual views as Orthodox Jews? Mainstream Western yoga classes are off limits for observant Jews for a number of reasons. Jewish modesty requires women and men to exercise separately. And references to Hindu deities, chanting, and the idols or symbols that grace many a studio altar are in direct contradiction to these women’s beliefs about God.
Still, they are drawn to yoga for the same physical, mental, and emotional benefits that have created the yoga boom in Western secular culture. Here in Crown Heights, these women are forging a path that offers them the best of both worlds.
Before Tuesday night’s power Vinyasa class, I sat down with studio director Sarede Switzer and a few of her dedicated students to learn more about what it means to practice yoga in an environment where you’re more likely to hear “Oy!” than “Om.”
“The challenge of yoga intrigued me,” said the athletic and exuberant Sarede, “but I was worried that it might not be compatible with Judaism.” She consulted numerous rabbis and got varying opinions. Some religious authorities pronounced yoga ‘strictly forbidden!’- but Sarede kept digging. “It didn’t make any sense, as there’s nothing inherent in yoga that contradicts Judaism. Maimonides and other religious teachers urge us to take care of our bodies as well as our spirits,” she noted.
Fortuitously, Sarede re-connected with Kinneret Dubowitz-Feuer, an old acquaintance who also happened to be a yoga instructor. Kinneret was in the process of developing a Yoga Alliance 200-hour certification appropriate for Orthodox Jewish women, and Sarede became her first student.
“We clicked right away,” recalls Sarede. The women now work in partnership, training over sixty women to date in cities including New York, Montreal, Jerusalem, and Toronto.
Dini, one of Sarede’s students who has also become a Kinneret-certified instructor, agrees that it’s the physical and mental benefits that hooked her into yoga. “I like the holistic feel. It’s fun and powerful – and I’ve also come to appreciate the more restorative aspects as well.”
Baila, a young mother of two, says “Sometimes your mind just needs a break. Yoga has helped me learn to truly relax, breathe, and just ‘be.’ I am also a jogger/power walker and it helps me not get too ‘tight.’ It has also helped me with weight maintenance, and having more energy during the day.”
As a Jew who has strayed from my religious roots, I was both eager and apprehensive about experiencing kosher yoga for myself. Would I be appropriately dressed? Would an ‘outsider’ to the faith be offensive in any way? My worries melted as I spread out my mat and sensed the welcoming presence of Sarede and the group of six other practitioners.
The class itself was similar to a typical gym Vinyasa class. We moved through opening stretches, core work, flows of invigorating and strength-building poses (similar to Sun Salutations but not called that due to the connotations with sun worship), backbends, inversions, and concluded with seated forward bends followed by supine relaxation. Sarede’s playlist included both Jewish artists and secular favorites like Enya. Sarede’s assistant Mushkie roved the room providing juicy assists reminiscent of partner yoga, like splaying over my back as I rested in child’s pose.
Sarede’s teaching emphasized a holistic view of body-mind unity with a strong focus on the breath. “The breath is a way of expanding your being into the world around you, so you can be very unabashed about your presence here. Let the breath be like a metronome, giving you a rhythm to practice to,” she said as we emerged from a long forward bend.
She included anatomical cues and technical tips to help us refine poses like Headstand and Full Wheel. “See if you can release a sense of control and just let go into this posture,” she said as we wiggled into Pigeon pose. “Maybe you feel something above that might be protecting you.”
“This is a pose just like any other pose, so arrange yourself symmetrically” she reminded us as we lay down to rest (Sanskrit terms are not used here, so this was not called ‘Savasana’). “Stillness doesn’t mean stagnation, but finding a place in you that’s quiet.”
After class I lingered to find out more about the connections between the yoga practice and the Jewish observances. “I never think of yoga as substituting for my spirituality in any way,” clarified Sarede. “Yoga helps me keep my body healthy, my mind clear, and my emotions settled – so I can be more effective in my worship and in carrying out the mitzvot [commandments of God].”
“Elements of yoga infuse my spiritual life,” she continued. “For example, I might come into mountain pose for centering and grounding before beginning the Shemona Esrei [one of the prayers said thrice daily by observant Jews]. Through the practice of yoga I’ve come to appreciate the amazing power the body has, and to apply it in the service of God.”
Baila echoed this sentiment, saying “Yoga for me is not something spiritual, but rather, I look at it this way: one of the mitzvot in the Torah is "venishmartem meod lenafshoseichem," which means that we need to take care of ourselves and do the best we can to keep healthy.”
As I discovered, the studio is welcoming to secular women or women of other faiths who want to derive the benefits of the physical practice without the religious trappings. In addition to Tuesday evening’s power Vinyasa class, a more restorative class is offered on Monday nights. For more information, click here. To learn more about Jewish Yoga teacher training courses, go to www.KinneretYoga.com.