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Going to the Mat for God: Working out to Find Judaism

August 13, 2004
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Jewish study isn’t usually seen as a way to get into shape. But with several innovative programs combining Judaism and exercise, Jews now can sweat to find God.

“Many people are hungry for experiences that aren’t only intellectual in connection with God,” says Bennett Neiman, executive director of Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in Accord, N.Y. “There is absolutely a growing trend among Jews to go back to the physical.”

It’s this desire that Neiman aims to fulfill at Elat Chayyim, a retreat center that hosts programs in physical exercise such as yoga, Pilates, hiking and chanting, all with a Jewish twist.

Though the exercises at first glance may appear esoteric, teachers say mainstream synagogues and Jewish recreation centers across America are picking up on the desire for classes of this nature.

Activity is mainly centered on the coasts: the Sol Goldman 14th Street Y In Manhattan; the Yoga Garden Studios in Santa! Monica, Calif.; and the East Bay Jewish Community High School in Berkeley, Calif., are housing classes that focus on Judaism and exercise.

But Diane Bloomfield, author of Torah Yoga,” teaches occasional classes at two congregations in Minnesota — Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka and Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota — as well as at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation on Cape Cod.

The trend arises partly in response to the many Jews who have looked away from Judaism and toward Eastern spiritual systems to have an experience of God mediated by a physical practice.

Unlike the Jew-Bu movement of the 1990s — in which Jews turned to Buddhist precepts to bring spirituality to their practice of Judaism — participants in Jewish exercise look only to Judaism to experience God.

“Why wouldn’t we go back to our own roots and experience spirituality in the context of our own religion?” Neiman asks.

One such exercise is “Embodied Judaism,” which combines a P! ilates-based workout — focused on strengthening the core muscles of t he abdomen — with the mystical Jewish teachings of Kabbalah.

Embodied Judaism is spearheaded by Manhattan-based Jay Michaelson, a writer and teacher of Jewish mysticism, and Ari Weller, a personal trainer who has developed his own exercise system.

In Embodied Judaism, Michaelson draws upon his yeshiva background to teach Jewish concepts streaming from the Torah, psalms, Jewish mysticism and Chasidic texts to get people to experience the truth at the core of each person, which he says is God.

“The core teaching that animates this practice is the very traditional Jewish teaching that God surrounds and fills the universe,” Michaelson says. “God absolutely fills the universe, not sort of, but 100 percent. It’s an easy logical syllogism that if God is infinite and fills the universe, then everything is God and this moment is God.”

The class starts with slow, circular movements focused on specific muscle groups around the base of the spine and self-massage to get the! blood flowing.

“The first thing we have to do if we want to have an experience is to stimulate the blood, the life force in the body,” Weller says. “When people are davening and moving, this is the same concept. Their movement gets them going so they can reach a higher level.”

Students then do Pilates mat-work to stimulate muscle groups around the mid-upper spine.

Weller then instructs his students to move across the floor to move beyond the mind and be completely in the body.

The class, in which Jewish teachings are woven into the class and linked to the movements, ends with a relaxation exercise.

Michaelson thinks the practice of Embodied Judaism is in accordance with Jewish rituals and commandments, many of which are experienced bodily.

“Eating bitter herbs is an embodied experience, apples and honey is an embodied experience, the mikvah is an embodied experience,” he says. “What we’re doing is put a mirror to that and saying, ‘Look at this, look wh! at you’re doing, look how you’re doing religion, you’re doing it with your body.’ Why is that? Maybe there’s something we can learn there. And there is, there’s a lot.”

George Davis, a sophomore at Brandeis University, recently took a class in Embodied Judaism at Elat Chayyim.

“There is something to be said for physical activity and prayer,” says Davis, who is majoring in Near Eastern and Judaic studies. “Jews bow and shuckle and do all sorts of physical things when we pray, and this was just an extension of it. I feel more connected to the universe when using my body and to God, because God is the universe.”

Also teaching in the same philosophical vein at Elat Chayyim is Susan Deikman, creator of Hebrew Kirtan, a call-and-response chanting practice that comes out of devotional, or bhakti, yoga.

Deikman uses the sefirot — the 10 characteristics or energies of God in Kabbalah — to show how God is expressed within the different parts of the human body.

Unlike most Hindu kirtans, in which traditional Sanskrit verse is chanted! , Deikman chants Jewish psalms and songs.

“Chanting works on the energy centers in the body because the vibrations of the sounds opens them,” Deikman says. “People feel the sefirot resonating inside, and this is part of why they start moving and dancing.”

Ida Unger, owner of California’s Yoga Garden Studios, brings Jewish concepts such as the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet and the Tree of Life into her yoga classes by teaching classical yoga postures with Jewish themes.

“Hebrew letters in Kabbalah are conduits of creation,” Unger says. “Through aligning the shapes and elements, in a moment the energy flow is apparent.”

Bloomfield also integrates Judaism and yoga.

“We’re not just studying Torah and doing yoga as two separate things, we’re using yoga as a way to feel the Torah as it manifests in the body,” she says. “We’re doing Torah.”

As the classes gain in popularity, people of all ages have begun stretching and sweating to experience God.

Thou! gh some may deride it as hooey, Michaelson says the practice is 100 pe rcent sound according to Jewish law.

“There are few people at Elat Chayyim who would pretend that what they’re doing is continuing an unbroken chain of dominant Jewish tradition that goes back to Mt. Sinai,” he says, “but it’s just not possible to say it doesn’t exist within halachic limits.”

In fact, he adds, the ties go even deeper.

“It’s pretty glatt kosher to bring spirituality to everything you do,” he says. “Whether it’s simply a little exercise class or something deeper than that, it’s bringing God to something where you might not ordinarily. Look, we all have to get in shape.”

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