Aware that many observant Jews prefer to stay away from a Hindu-based practice that might smell like idol worship, California native Aviva Schmidt last week opened what she says is Israel's "first kosher power yoga studio."
"Yoga is very controversial and it should be," the 31-year old told Anglo File in her Jerusalem studio, sitting on an exercise ball and playing soothing oriental music in the background. "Yoga is based on Eastern tradition and focuses a lot on meditation. Different positions are worshipping different idols, which goes against Judaism. So I keep it very pareve: for example, I don't say the names of the positions, there is no chanting, no ohming. I do focus on the breathing, as this is very important in yoga, but any kind of eastern philosophy stays outside."
As there are countless variations of yoga - just as there are many different streams of Judaism - there is no easy answer to the question whether yoga needs to be purged of its spiritual elements to be considered "kosher." Steven Gold, founder and director of the Yoga and Judaism Center in Atlanta, told Anglo File that he is "most familiar with a short answer to this question provided from the Chabad perspective: Yoga physical exercise can be kosher as long as it remains within the context of physical fitness and stress management." Gold referred to a Chabad Web site, which recommends Jews "study Torah before practicing yoga, so that thoughts of Torah will be ringing in your mind spontaneously as you practice." He added there are many centers across the world offering "kosher" yoga, "ranging from fairly Orthodox to other kinds of denominational approaches."
Schmidt, who grew up secular and became observant through Chabad, said she didn't study the topic in depth, but believes Eastern philosophies are about going into oneself. "Judaism, on the other hand, is about going out of yourself and bringing Godliness into the world. It's about being grounded in this world and not about going to a mountaintop to meditate all alone." She pointed out that some yoga teachers, both in Israel and abroad, adopted some kind of Jewish-Kabalistic approach to yoga, such as focusing on Bible texts or mediating on Hebrew letters. "What we do in my studio, however, is entirely neutral," said Schmidt, a trained ballet and jazz dancer.
Located in Jerusalem's posh Rehavia neighborhood, "Power Flow" specializes in power yoga, which is different from conventional yoga in that the exercises are quicker and more exhausting. "They call it yoga for athletes," Schmidt said. "It's not your slow, meditative and gentle yoga, it's a workout." Both secular and religious yoga aficionados attend her classes - which are, of course, gender-separated - but "the Orthodox Jews wouldn't come if the classes included Eastern spirituality," she said. "We spoke to three different rabbis and they all gave us their blessing."
Yet Bassy Odze, who has been taking classes with Schmidt for two years, said that while she is Orthodox, yoga's Eastern philosophies didn't bother her too much. "Personally, I don't like all the chanting and the spiritual stuff, it just doesn't mix well with me. But back in New York I went to regular yoga classes, without feeling it contradicted my beliefs."
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