The Kosher Sutra

Talk to folks doing interesting stuff with Jewish spirituality, and they’ll often tell you they’re just recapturing some lost piece of ancient Jewish wisdom .

That’s what Shefa Gold says about chanting, and what Jamie Korngold says about hiking in the woods. Gershon Winkler, whose recommendations led to several stories I’ve done on this trip, works to recover Judaism’s "aboriginal mystery wisdom" and hangs with Native Americans.

But something Marcus Freed said to me yesterday was surprising: the Torah doesn’t have much to say about the body. Or as he put it, the Torah has no "physical system."

That’s pretty remarkable, but it strikes me as basically right. Which means that if you’re inclined towards physicality, and want to improve fitness, strength and flexibility in a spiritually mindful way, the otherwise expansive canon of Jewish wisdom has little to offer you.

Freed is among a handful of teachers trying to change that by bringing Jewish wisdom to bear on the practice of yoga. On Wednesday morning, he showed me what his version, known as Bibliyoga, looks like.

To a large extent, it looks a lot like a typical yoga class. We ran through many of the standard poses. I downward dogged and lunged and triangled. When we sat cross legged and chanted, it wasn’t Ohm, but SHAL-ohm. And before we started, we looked briefly at a Jewish text about guarding the mouth from sinfulness. Freed calls these short phrases the kosher sutras, and he referred back to it several times during our practice.

Plenty of Jews do yoga of course. And plenty have explored and appropriated bits of other spiritual traditions into their Jewish lives. A seemingly innocuous systems of postures and motions, yoga nevertheless strikes some as crossing a line. It speaks openly of the divine, it’s ritualistic, even prayerful. And then there are those statues of Buddha you see in a lot of studios which are, well, idols.

Freed acknowledged hating the statues. But he insisted that yoga predates Buddhism and is bigger than a single religion. Even the term "Jewish yoga" he found too limiting. In his decidedly yogic formulation, what Freed is attempting is a realignment.

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