A few years ago, freshly moved to Los Angeles, I started practicing yoga. I was feeling anxious and worried, and if I were still a New Yorker, I’d have gone on anti-depressants. But I’m a big believer in doing what the Romans do, and, as it turned out, yoga helped a lot. Now, in class, as I take my first bow—a stretch upward, followed by an open-armed dive to my toes—I am no longer thinking about survival. Instead, with room to breathe and think, I instead wonder about the implications of bowing, of doing yoga in the first place. Yoga, with its meditation, with its mysterious secrets and ties to Hinduism and Buddhism, isn’t just a physiological practice; it’s a spiritual one. And I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. By practicing yoga, I’m now forced to wonder, am I practicing a religion outside my own? Am I sinning before God?
When I first took up yoga, this question never occurred to me. I was dealing with a difficult time, but I had also abandoned my religious upbringing. I was at peace with a secular life that included some high-holiday observance and crippling guilt when I didn’t observe Passover. Now, married to a man who converted so that we could be together, I find myself running an Orthodox home. (You know the old joke: don’t date a non-Jew unless you want to end up really religious.) I’m surprisingly happy in my lifestyle, but I’m also realizing that a true immersion in yogic practice may very well be a violation of my Jewish one.
There is a statue of Ganesh, the Hindu diety, in the yoga studio I attend. At the end of the class, my instructor says, “Namaste,” and bows toward the class. In turn, we bow back. I am bowing toward the teacher, but also toward the statue. Namaste means, “The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you.” During many of the meditation sessions, we are asked to put our hands in “prayer position,” which is what it sounds like: hands joined together at the heart. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that yoga might be its own religion, and that I might be committing a sin—worshipping an idol, even—by practicing it.
This might seem like a niggling question of minutia, but Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, is a religion filled with niggling questions of minutiae—how an animal is slaughtered, at what angle, exactly, a mezuzah should be affixed to a door post. There are serious implications to committing idolatry, whether you do so accidentally or not. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 74), it states that there are only three sins in which a person is commanded to die rather than commit the sin: the second and third are incest and murder. The first is idolatry.
That was the Lubavitch rebbe’s rationale when, in 1977, he forbade his followers from practicing yoga, transcendental meditation, and the like. “In as much as these movements involve certain rites and rituals, they have been rightly regarded by Rabbinic authorities as cults bordering on, and in some respects actual, avodah zarah,” he wrote, using the Hebrew term for idolatry. “Accordingly Rabbinic authorities everywhere…ruled that these cults come under all the strictures associated with avodah zarah, so that also their appurtenances come under strict prohibition.”
But, of course, I’m not a Lubavitcher. So I asked my yoga teacher at City Yoga in West Hollywood, Linda Eifer, a Conservative Jew, what she thought. “Yoga is not a religion,” she said, emphatically. “It’s a spiritual practice that combines the body, the mind, and the spirit. It’s based on an ancient Indian tradition that includes inspiration from statues, which are a mythology that combine human and divine characteristics.” But, aside from the statues, that’s pretty much what my religion is to me.
David Adelson, a Reform rabbi in New York who is enrolled at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, a two-year program that includes yoga retreats and text study, offered a distinction. “If I’m in a church around Christmastime, I sing and even say ‘Jesus’ in the hymns. I know that I am just singing because I like singing, and in no way praying, so it doesn’t worry me,” he said. “Yoga feels just a bit dicier because I am a full participant in the experience, not an observer. But I believe in general that to constitute avodah zarah, you probably need some kavana,” or intention.
Kavana is an interesting thing. Intuitively, it would seem that a religion demanding absolute morality would be concerned with intention. But, actually, that’s not really the case. If you eat bread on Passover, even accidentally, you have sinned. If you give charity but grudgingly, the charity still counts for the good. On Yom Kippur, we repent for sins we didn’t even know we did. And then there are Hannah’s sons—seven Jews who chose to die rather than bow to Antiochus, the Greek ruler who tried to forcibly convert Jews in 167 BCE. Bowing but not meaning it wasn’t an option. Judaism is concerned not just with your actions but also very much with how your actions appear to others. Bowing is the physical manifestation of idolatry, whatever your intention. “Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for yourselves,” says Leviticus 26:1, “and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before it.”
But let’s ignore that for a second, and accept Adelson’s argument that intention does matter. Even so, don’t I intentionally practice yoga? And while Eifer, my yoga teacher, had said she doesn’t find yoga incompatible with Judaism because her status as a Jew isn’t compromised by her practice of yoga, I have a more literal view of Judaism and what it expects from me. I believe that I’m supposed to practice only Judaism. I don’t believe the practice of another religion makes me an adherent of that religion, but I do believe that I choose to only practice Judaism. The rituals and chanting that was expected of me in yoga seem like another religion to me—and practicing another religion is practicing another religion.
But Srinivasan, the senior teacher at the worldwide Shivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, says I have it backwards. “Yoga is not a religion, but a science of religion,” he explained. “It applies to all religions. It’s not that yoga comes from Hinduism. Hinduism originates in yoga. Buddhism comes from yoga, too.” Srinivasan doesn’t see how spiritual yoga practice and Judaism are incompatible. “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to come to our Ashrams,” he said. “He understood we were talking about the same thing. Hasidic mysticism and Kabbalah are very much in line with yogic thought.”
I explain to Srinivasan that the approach may be similar—even some of the text and ideas may be similar—but that only proves my point that yoga is a religion. “There is yoga in every religion,” he responded. “Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘absolute consciousness’ with God. Don’t look at the differences; look at the similarities. Yoga is beyond words or institution. When you use the word ‘religion,’ people want to know what books you read, what language you speak.” He also says that though some sects of yoga won’t even use the word God, the tradition is similar to monotheism. “We’re all talking about the same God,” he said. To him, the statue of Ganesh at the front of many yoga studios is the same God to whom Jews pray. “Don’t confuse the map for the actual place,” he said. “God is everywhere. There is no conflict here. There is respect for that diversity. To explain God is to limit God.”
So could I just be bowing in front of this statue without bowing to the statue? I asked Pinchas Giller, an Orthodox rabbi who practices yoga at the same studio I do. “Many Hindus argue these days that their deities are just archetypal principles,” says Giller. “But any third-grader in Hebrew school will tell you that those are idols. Veneration and offerings are unacceptable. I avoid classes where the teacher is too into the mythos. It’s hard to escape the impression that if you take some of the practices too seriously then it could be avodah zarah.” Giller practices yoga for the exercise and only for the exercise, he’s careful to say.
Chanah Forster, a Hasid and yoga teacher in Brooklyn, may have found a solution. “Yoga absolutely is a religion,” she says. Before she became religious, Forster lived on an ashram, where she became certified to teach yoga. She still teaches it, but with an approach tailored to her current audience. There is no chanting in her class—not even Om, the vibrational sound recited at the start of most yoga classes. She describes poses, but won’t use their traditional Sanskrit names. She also won’t say their English translations, like Downward-Facing Dog. “Instead, I’ll say to raise your hips to the ceiling,” she explained to me. “The Sanskrit names have a spiritual meaning. If you don’t call these poses by their Sanskrit names, it’s just exercise.” Forster believes that when you do any of these things—chant, say Om, speak in Sanskrit—you are opening yourself up spiritually to outside influences. “These aren’t just words,” she said. “They have meanings and repercussions to your neshama”—your soul—“and they are at odds with Jewish spirituality.”
But despite all these things at odds with Judaism, yoga seems to have a strong pull on Jews. In the past few years, several yoga minyans, prayer services in which yoga stretches accompany liturgy, have gotten underway. At least half of the people who frequent my yoga studio, as well as many of its teachers, are Jewish. India is a hotbed of Israeli tourism and the great Hindu leader Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert, a nice Jewish boy. (The author Rodger Kamenetz wrote a whole book, The Jew in the Lotus, about Jews struggling to understand and relate to Eastern spirituality.) But though unresolved, it’s a debate that’s new to me and that has new urgency for me as I’ve returned to religious observance.) The Kabbalistic viewpoint asserts that we are born with a pintele yid, a Jewish spark always searching for spirituality. If you live in America in 2010, your pintele yid may be a little malnourished, and whether because of assimilation or a lack of Jewish practice, some Jews seek to feed this hunger outside of the synagogue.
And the question of yoga’s compatibility with Judaism might just be an unanswerable one. In Adelson’s Reform world, it’s the Jew’s intention that matters. But in the Judaism I know, the one I have chosen to participate in, intentions, or even wishes, are not the only things to consider. My Judaism is a Judaism that is preoccupied with my physical life as much as my spiritual one. It has laws for when I eat, what wear, how I wash my hands. The problem isn’t what yoga might ask me to think or believe; it’s what it asks me to do. And despite my physical flexibility—you should see my frog pose—I don’t have the same spiritual agility.
Further practice of Judaism has not, historically, helped me become more open-minded. But perhaps that is where yoga can be an asset, not a detriment, to my religious practice. Yes, yoga walks a fine line (verboten to some; certainly not to all). But maybe my uptight approach to religion requires yoga and its nuances of illicit practice to help me remain flexible in my spirit, as well as my body. Maybe having something that isn’t so easy to reconcile, a gray area, is good for me.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a correspondent for GQ and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.