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Reconcilable Differences

The question on everyone's mind: Does yoga conflict with my religion?

By Alan Reder

By the same token, not all Orthodox Jews are fundamentalists, and many do practice yoga without guilt, points out Myriam Klotz, a Philadelphia-based rabbi in the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism who also teaches yoga at Jewish centers nationwide. Klotz feels that Jews can find a fit for yoga in the traditional teaching about harmonizing kavannah (in Hebrew, intention) and kevah (religious structure). "The sense is that spiritual maturing is knowing how to balance kevah and kavannah," she says, "and for each person that's going to look a little bit different because—this is getting into a more mystical, Hasidic teaching—all people have in the root of their soul a particular truth that is theirs to give birth to in their lifetime." For Klotz, yoga is a perfect tool for nurturing kavannah, in herself and others: "I try to apply that same witness consciousness that I learned in yoga to my spiritual life as a Jew. So what that means, for example, is that when you pray from a Jewish prayerbook, take the time to let the prayer be meditative, breathe through and in between the words so that you feel the spaciousness of intent in the liturgy, not just the flat and crowded words on the page."

Authorizing asanas

Even if yoga and religion can wed happily, many religious people feel compelled to get permission first—from their religious leaders, their families, or the recorded teachings of the faith. In the same way that Klotz has found a place for her yoga through the deep teachings of Judaism, Fox suggests that people of any major faith will find an actual resonance with yoga in their own religious roots if they look below the surface: "Most Westerners are unaware of the mystical depth of their own tradition. [For instance, most Christians] don't know Meister Eckhart or Hildegard von Bingen. They don't know of Thomas Aquinas's mysticism. They don't know Jesus as a mystic." Demand more of your tradition, Fox urges, and you will find it.

Of course, even if you make peace inwardly between your yoga and faith, religious leaders or family members may still worry that you're "leaving the fold." If quoting Eckhart or Hasidic writings or the prophet Mohammed won't reassure them, what will? Sharon Salzberg, the prominent Buddhist meditation teacher and author of A Heart as Wide as the World (Shambhala, 1997), suggests that when you're trying to explain to skeptics what yoga means to you, focus on your experience: "The point is to describe the benefit you're getting within, because what people are really trying to say is that they care about you and what you're really trying to say is that you're getting benefit."

Sylvia Boorstein, another leading Buddhist meditation teacher and a former yoga instructor, offers similar advice because that's what's worked for her as an observant Jew. Like many Americans, Boorstein first learned yoga outside of a specific cosmology and that made it easy to own. "When I learn through direct experience, then it's not something I believe in, it's something I know," she notes. Experience is also the basis for how she incorporates yoga into her Jewish outlook: "The truest thing I can say is that my yoga and mindfulness practice are ways of waking up my attention so I have presence. Then I can do the things [associated with being a good Jew]—serving others with a pure heart, loving everybody as much as I can."

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And what if you're a nontheist? How do we reconcile our knowledge and spirituality with all of the references to a "deity" that always seem to appear in my yoga reading? There is always a reference to "god" in relation to the spirituality found in yoga. Am I missing something?

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