Yoga and Judaism Are Incompatible—But Not In the Way Menachem Wecker Thinks

Contemporary yoga culture fits in with the widespread sense of religiosity as something inner and instinctual rather than communal and tradition-bound.

March 23, 2020 | Tara Isabella Burton
About the author: Tara Isabella Burton is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World and the forthcoming Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic​Granta, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.
This is a response to Shibboleths and Sun Salutations: Should Religious Jews Practice Yoga?, originally published in Mosaic in March 2020


In his Mosaic essay on Judaism and yoga, Menachem Wecker strongly urges faithful Jews to be wary of a practice that is now a ubiquitous part of the American culture of wellness and fitness. The reason: it is impossible to disentangle yoga’s current, secularized iteration from its millennia-old links to both Hindu and Buddhist spiritual traditions. Yoga teachers, Wecker writes, “indisputably employ a vocabulary, and inculcate physical positions, that derive from centuries-old religious worship”—the worship, in short, of false gods.

Indeed, the very etymology of yoga—the word, Wecker reminds us, derives from the Sanskrit for union—attests to this vestigial idolatry, implying as it does “the conjoining of worshipper and gods” and thereby risking, for an observant Jew, the transgression of a core commandment. “The issue at stake, then,” he concludes, “is how much of the old devotions and ideas inhere—or can be seen to inhere—in the stripped-out exercise that most today are familiar with. I believe that enough of them still do inhere to make religious Jews cautious.”

Wecker’s perspective resonates with other, more common objections to yoga harbored by members and/or advocates of organized religion in general. Just this year in Alabama, for example, state lawmakers have reluctantly, with reservations, allowed for a denatured form of yoga in public schools—minus the customary chants or phrases like “Namaste”—after decades of prohibiting it altogether as a form of religious endorsement.

And yet, to my mind, the focus on yoga’s religious or quasi-religious character as seen by critics like Wecker—seen, that is, as purely a result of its historic links to established and/or alien faith traditions—overlooks the far more important role played by yoga practice in contemporary culture. There, its underlying assumptions represent a far more potent challenge to the theological and ethical systems of organized religion.

Let me explain.


About a quarter of all Americans—and 36 percent of young millennials—identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated. This does not mean that they are atheists; indeed, 72 percent of them say they believe in some form of nebulous Higher Power, and almost 20 percent say they believe in the God of the Bible. Rather, they see spiritual identity as something independent from institutional belonging: something to be practiced, explored, and elucidated privately, often drawing from a mixed-and-matched variety of intellectual and religious traditions in a process that the scholars Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston have termed “unbundling.”

Nor do the statistics reflect the massive, and growing, numbers of Americans who do identify with a specific religious tradition but are at the same time perfectly comfortable assenting to spiritual beliefs and practices not simply external but at times downright contradictory to the orthodox tenets of their faith. For example, almost a quarter of Americans who self-identify as Christian also say they believe in reincarnation: a belief about the afterlife and the soul that is incompatible with the doctrines of all major Christian denominations.

Taken together, the “spiritual but not religious,” the religious “nones” who believe in a higher power, and the self-professed members of organized religions who nevertheless believe or practice a bricolage of varied traditions make up a group that I call the religiously “remixed.” They believe that faith should be not only private, but personal: customized to their own needs, wants, longings, and desires.

Remixed religious culture is characterized, in part, by intuitionalism: a conviction that the way to get closer to the truth about “life, the universe, and everything” is to look inward, to focus on the information that our instincts—often characterized as having been warped or repressed by a restrictive or spiritually undeveloped society—are trying to provide to us. By not only opening ourselves to these internal wants but also actively elevating them, we achieve something like spiritual enlightenment.

This intuitionalism is a distinctively American phenomenon, one with roots in occult 19th-century self-help crazes like New Thought that, in emphasizing the mind’s power to “manifest” success, attracted millions of followers and spawned decades’ worth of publishing sensations. Today we see it in the rise of a wellness culture that encourages us to practice “self-care” through SoulCycle and juice cleanses. Spending lots of money and time perfecting our bodies on an exercise bike, or in a high-end barre class, is re-characterized as a form of theologically-minded asceticism. Turning inward, focusing on one’s body and mind through exercise and expensive Equinox memberships, is a mandated form of personal care: no less a part of hygiene than brushing your teeth in the morning.

Within remixed intuitionalist thinking, things that impose upon us from the outside—societal laws and mores, doctrines of orthodoxy that restrict our behavior—are inherently bad, pulling us away from an inner truth we already know. This motif is repeated everywhere, from the pervasive wellness practice to the rise of progressive, activist-fueled occultism, largely among educated, white, millennial women who see in the practices of witchcraft a form of “magical resistance” to the reactionary patriarchal structures of a Christianity they associate exclusively with GOP party politics.


In my view, it is against this backdrop, rather than the backdrop composed of traces of Hindu or Buddhist traditions, that we should assess the spiritual essence of contemporary yoga. In thinking about yoga as a practice, we should look at its context—including especially, as in the case of the New Thought craze, its often explicit ties to the culture of money and worldly success.

What does it mean, religiously speaking, to attend yoga classes at, say, a boutique fitness studio that charges $40 a session, or at a high-end, wellness-focused chain like Equinox, whose mythos is specifically designed to emphasize the idea that being your “best self” demands expensive and time-consuming exercise regimens? What ethical values are being upheld in spending time and money on perfecting our bodies and prioritizing “self-care” and inward focus, practices linked inextricably, if dialectically, to the secular mantras of “leaning in” and other dogmas celebrating and reciprocally legitimizing the material success that makes all of this sacralized fitness possible?

Defenders of the supposed synchronicity between Judaism and yoga, Menachem Wecker writes, tend to make “vague” claims to the effect that “both” Judaism and yoga “recognize the importance of setting aside the mundane in order to focus on something higher.” Precisely the vague emptiness of this claim helps us grasp where Judaism and today’s yoga culture, far from being synchronous, come into stark conflict.

The notion that religion is reducible to a numinous sense of “something higher,” let alone that spiritual life should be governed by such anodyne sentiments, takes the intricacies and specificities of metaphysically complex historical faiths and boils them all the way down to personal feeling. It is, at its core, a religion of the self, and an integral part of the intuitional consciousness. And this, far more than the traces of centuries-old religious practices still vestigial in modern yoga, is what should give the faithful pause.