Firsthand: A Look at Yoga and Religious Belief
Andrea Cohen-Keiner, 47, of West Hartford, Connecticut, wandered into her first yoga class in the 1970s, seeking to quench a spiritual thirst that typified much of her baby boom generation. But unlike many young seekers of that time, she hadn't cut the last thread to the religion of her youth. Raised as a Conservative Jew, she first learned yoga on campus at the University of Minnesota where she was an undergraduate. When she did the Hindu mantra meditation that closed the class, a little voice inside would nudge her about the Torah's law against idolatry. For Jews, idolatry means worship of anything besides the One God. "I, of course, had no idea what [the mantra] was saying, and I did kind of look around and say, 'Is there a blue elephant in here somewhere?'" she laughs.
Cohen-Keiner practiced her yoga only casually in those days and strayed far enough from her family's religion to explore Christian mysticism among other sacred traditions. Today both Judaism and yoga play a much more prominent role in her life. In July, 2000, she was ordained as a rabbi in the Jewish Renewal Movement, a sort of grassroots Judaism with a coterie of socially progressive and spiritually inquisitive leaders like Cohen-Keiner. For the past six years, she has also studied yoga with M'eshyah Albert, a teacher at Elat Chayyim (a Jewish Renewal retreat center in the Catskills) who integrates yoga with Judaism.
"The mythic stories of the Hindu tradition probably do look like idol worship to traditional Jewish eyes," she says, "but here's how I understand it: I believe that God is oneness. So that ultimately all the filters we look at that ultimate reality through are nothing more than creations of our mind. Those creations don't limit the Creator."
When it comes to blending her yoga and her Buddhism, Anna Douglas feels it's simply a matter of getting one's priorities straight. "My Buddhist practice is primary," she says. "I see yoga as a support for that, so I've never gone into the philosophical implications of yoga. I've only used it as a physical and energetic discipline."
But Douglas, who lives in Fairfax, California, is clear that yoga helps her be both a better Buddhist and a more comfortable one. She discovered early on that unblocking her body with yoga deepened her meditation by unblocking her mind. She also found that her yoga-flexed body stood up better to the physical discipline of meditation, especially on three-month retreats. A teacher at Spirit Rock, the prominent vipassana meditation center in Woodacre, California, she took her discoveries public in 1990, developing a Friday morning class that combines yoga and meditation Douglas-style. "It's too hard for the average American to go right to sitting still," she says. "Yoga helps them relax, helps them connect with the body, helps the body itself to open energetically. Plus, the energy that comes up in yoga teaches people to handle the increased levels of energy from samadhi (heightened awareness). Learning how to handle samadhi is a big part of meditation practice."
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