Assignment: Compare and contrast yoga and Orthodox Judaism.

The panelists are all familiar with both yoga and religious, observant Judaism.  They are all friends of mine in real life.  Some are highly trained yogis and others practitioners.  Note: the ideas and opinions expressed below do not necessarily reflect my theology.  

The Similarities

Sandy Gross:

They’re the same, in that it’s morals and ethics.  It’s more like Mussar (spiritual character development in Judaism).  As far as Orthodoxy, yoga just uses different tools – poses, for example – for us to “practice” applying these morals and ethics (in yoga they’re called Yamas & Niyamas).  Orthodoxy uses other practical tools – the 613 laws.  Both are practices, and practical, and that’s why I like JFX (the Jewish Family Experience, our congregation) so much!  We can always use more tools to help us be more mindful and inspired people:)

Scott Simon:

I think what is interesting about yoga poses – which most people consider “yoga” to be – is that they are not really about getting into shape.  They are actually meant to prepare the body to be able to sit for long periods of time in spiritual quest (meditation etc).  Judaism I am sure has methods to begin the process of getting us ready to enhance our connection with G-d through prayer.   

Sindy Warren:

I agree with Scott’s point about the yoga poses (asana practice) being intended to ready the body and mind for meditation, which can be, in some ways, likened to prayer.  I also like Sandy’s point about both paths being moral and ethical guidelines for proper living.  They can also both be seen as paths for spiritual growth and bringing one closer to one’s own potential.

Sandy Gross:

I view the laws, mitzvot, as very present moment opportunities to connect to G-d.  If one chooses to do them:). Ha. That’s why I think a lot people have connected so well into yoga – learning to integrate your upper arm bone into the shoulder socket properly in a weight bearing position (and other physical alignment hard rules), for example, may not seem very “spiritual”  but to me, it’s integrating mind with body, helping the body to return to harmony – it should be considered spiritual.  Alignment for me is respect for this amazing body and this is extremely spiritual.  I am integrating it with its operating system (G-d?) with every move I make.  I try anyway…that’s why we call it a yoga “practice”  :). 

Karen Marocco:

I think in many ways Judaism and yoga complement each other. Below are some of my thoughts:
For me, yoga is very much a practice of mindfulness. On the surface it’s about being aware of how your body moves/feels, the quality of breathing, what you eat etc. But it’s also about being mindful/aware of your thoughts, habits and actions-even throughout the day when you’re not doing the actual poses. For example, loshon hara  (the Hebrew term for the sin of gossip) is something many of us struggle with – or at least I do. Practicing mindfulness has helped me become more conscious of my words. It’s hard to better yourself when you’re unaware.
In teacher training we had to choose one yoga sutra/teaching that resonated with us and write about it. I chose the sutra surrender to a Higher power because it’s so in alignment – get it, ha! – with Judaism.  When my mom got sick, we turned to science/medicine for help. But ultimately, we believe that it rests with God. We do what we can and then surrender the results to Hashem (God).
Jody Trostler:

Interestingly I believe that my connection to yoga when I started practicing 13 years ago-ish was what was missing for me spiritually in Judaism. I was raised very secular and did not know what I did not know about the power of Judaism spiritually and intellectually. 
As I have learned and grown Jewishly,  some of the common practices of vinyasa yoga have become a bit uncomfortable. OM-ing and bowing/namaste is one of them. I felt a bit uncomfortable in my first yoga class after returning from my first and only Israel trip. I think my experience was so deep and profound spiritually that everything else felt shallow. Now I realize that I was being judgemental in these thoughts. 
I remember Shawna Rosner and I were talking about this years ago and she told me that instead of namaste she would say the Shema. I loved that and I now have adopted that practice (thanks Shawna!). This brings me close to G-d and is a reminder to pray when I am in a good place.
As my Jewish education has expanded and grown through mussar and Sunday school I do see several crossovers in the yoga teachings and mussar. It’s all great stuff and it just reinforces that I am on a path of growth.
The Differences:

Shawna Rosner:

First of all, I believe that Orthodoxy and yoga are mutually exclusive and in my life they remain so. I have always been closely identified with being Jewish and practicing Judaism, and did not turn to yoga to fill my need for religion. However, I found that I really cherished the snippets of philosophy on life that were often times interwoven into my yoga classes (and still do). As I have come to study more Torah, and Mussar in particular, I have found many parallels between yoga and Judaism and some differences as well. I no longer go to a yoga class craving the spiritual lesson as I have found it elsewhere (mostly thanks to JFX). 
My yoga practice is based on a mind and body experience. I try to find peace, balance and equanimity in my yoga practice, but I would be deceitful if I didn’t admit that the physical benefits of the practice are very important to me. I feel better after yoga and I believe this is just one step in becoming a better me and better able to give more of myself to those around me a d the universe as a whole. I also feel this way after studying Torah and Mussar. 
For me yoga is not a soulful experience. By that I mean I do not feel closer to a higher power when practicing. However, as Jody mentioned I do take the opportunity to say Shema during opening and closing of class and when Sanskrit just doesn’t feel right to me. So in essence I bring some Judaism to my mat. 
Thank you for the opportunity to express my views. For those that have not yet read Letters to a Buddhist Jew, as I did in Mussar, I highly recommend it!!
Sindy Warren:
Yoga eemphasizes being in the resent moment.  Learning to sit with the instant discomforts (of he body in asana practice and of the mind in meditation) and not reacting.  To create space betwween stimulus and reaction.  Orthodox Judaism, I think, places a huge emphasis on he future (ie, the World to Come).  Mussar, too, is forward looking and also focused on the post – what should we do in certain situations, looking to our ancestors (the mussar masters) for guidance.  Judaism has a unique way of blending the past with he present and he future – the holidays being representations not nly of our ast but of the present (and future) spiritual energy in the world.
Another interesting difference is the idea of doing or not doing, depending on the practice.  Judaism teaches through action.  Be generous, and you will become more generous.  Do first, then believe.  Yoga teaches the importance of non-action (to wit, the phrase “don’t just do something, sit there”).  

Sandy Gross:

The main difference (although I focus on the similarities mostly:)  is that Judaism is a dualistic religion.  Yoga, is non-dualistic.  G-d is everywhere including and especially in us.  Two quotes on the walks at the new Evolution:
“The sun shines not on us but in us.” John Muir
“My body is my first prop.”  BKS Iyengar
And, yoga is not a religion, it’s considered an (experiential) science.  The Latin root of the word “religion” is to “realign with your origin.” That word religion needs a new PR campaign.   I feel like I am religious then, if you define it that way:). Again, I’m trying!  
Karen Marocco:

Namaste: This is the most uncomfortable part of the yoga practice for me. Namaste is what many teachers and students say when ending a class. Often translated as the light in me honors the light in you (which I think is a beautiful sentiment.) However, literally namaste means “I bow to you.”  Even though people bow their heads as a gesture of respect and not worship I was always taught that you don’t bow to anyone but God. There have been Jews who have chosen death over bowing to another person. 
Sandy Gross (on bowing):
The bowing in Namaste, to me, in this non-dualistic path of yoga, means you’re technically bowing to yourself.  Your higher Self that you share with everyone else… Acknowledging that we are one.  That there really is no separation.  
I think I remember also hearing that the bowing is the representation of the physical, lower-cased self, with the higher Self or light/G-d, energy within that we all share.  
In the OM yoga tradition in which I was trained, we did not bow nor say Namaste. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. 

Thoughts from the Facebook discussion:

Renee:  I think a mindful yoga practice is a lot like living the Kabbalah.  Technically if done properly, EVERYTHING one does is out f gratitude to G-d in both practices – so es, food choices are simple and prayers are offered; positive community; mind/body/spirit connection; ego not important; meditation several times a day…

Ariella:  To be “good” at both you’ve got to be committed. Both are complicated. 
Allison:  You’re always learning with both Judaism and yoga.
Chantal:  I’m very wary of bringing in the spiritual side of yoga as some of the origins really border on avoda zara (idolatry) if not outright… Tread carefully!
Dave:  They’re both misunderstood (and dismissed) by the ignorant…
Wendy:  Yoga is quieting the voices in your head, it is profoundly moving if you let it be, it’s about gratitude on a very deep level, a connection with yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Yoga is good for you. There is no doubt about it. 
What are your thoughts, OOTOB readers?  What’s your experience with yoga and/or religious Judaism?  Does yoga satisfy a spiritual or religious need for you?
(For an interesting related read, check out this article and especially the comments.)