“Should Religious Jews Practice Yoga?” So asks Menachem Wecker in the title of his deliberately provocative essay in Mosaic. His answer is that they definitely should not—because, however diluted it may be in its present-day American form, yoga in its essence remains a form of idolatry.
In what follows, rather than debating directly with Wecker, I’ll offer a corrective to his assumptions and analysis that reflects both my own extensive research into parallels (and dissimilarities) between Jewish and Hindu religious philosophy and my personal experience as a rabbi encountering contemporary Hinduism in India. Much of what I’ll have to say here is adapted for the occasion from my recently published book, Rabbi on the Ganges.
To begin with, and perhaps most important, yoga is the very opposite of a single, easily categorized phenomenon. Rather, it is a broad Hindu tradition of ethics, meditation, science, and worship.
A little history is in order.
Archaeologists, basing themselves on seals found in Indus Valley sites (ca. 3000–ca. 1500 BCE), claim that yoga itself was not Hindu in origin but an independent pre-Hindu tradition. In the ancient Sanskrit epic known as the Mahabharata, the terms yoga and yogi occur about 900 times. Almost all of these usages refer to austerity, control, devotion, and proper behavior. In only two instances do they refer to postures (asanas), today the defining feature of yoga in America.
The Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali presents 196 Indian aphorisms that were compiled, together with Patanjali’s own commentary, around 400 CE. Yoga, as defined in the Yoga Sutras, is about control of the mind and consists, in the paraphrase of the scholar Edwin Bryant, of “meditative practices culminating in attaining a state of consciousness free from all modes of active or discursive thought.” The aim of these practices is the separation of the eternal conscious self from unconscious matter and desires.
Systematizing preexisting traditions, the Yoga Sutras became the seminal text for yoga discipline and the most translated ancient Indian text in the medieval era. They were available in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic and were known to medieval Jewish and Islamic intellectuals. The Muslim scholar al-Biruni (c. 973–1048) translated selections from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita; the Judeo-Arabic versions have been attributed to the polymath Abraham ibn Ezra.
Were those versions also known to Moses Maimonides? Patanjali’s definition of yoga cannot but suggest parallels in the great philosopher’s Guide of the Perplexed, especially in passages on the need to tame and control body, mind, and soul in order to transcend the falsehoods generated by desire and achieve a true understanding of reality. Similar parallels strike one in the writings of medieval kabbalists and in the 16th-century writings of the Safed mystics.
In practice, however, the term “yoga” took on many additional shades of meaning beyond the formal definition of Patanjali. These included union, integration, discipline, way, and behavior. Nor was there ever one uniform school of yoga; instead, a plurality of variants and conceptualizations flourished down through the centuries.
And that, moving along, brings us to the 20th-century West and to the emergence in the U.S. of an emphasis mainly on the physical aspects of yoga, known as Hatha Yoga, a practice which, from having taken up all of two lines in the Yoga Sutras, swiftly came to define the whole. According to the scholar Mark Singleton, modern Hatha Yoga began with the popular European physical-culture movement of gymnastics and bodybuilding that was taken to India by the YMCA and the British military. There, the yoga teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) transformed the yoga positions (asanas) into a form of modern physical culture using gymnastic and bodybuilding techniques. Krishnamacharya introduced a style of continuous flow of movement, dubbed the Sun Salutation (which has no connection to sun worship or any ancient practice). Soon, yoga in the West had been stripped of almost all of its moral and religious elements. By the 1950s, American yoga was generally a form of calisthenics,
Then came the 1960s counterculture, followed by the New Age, which brought back some of the religion. In recent decades, two trends have emerged that point in utterly opposite directions: on the one hand, a reclamation of the physical techniques’ original Hindu spiritual purposes; on the other hand, the denial of the techniques’ very integration within Hinduism. If the training of yoga teachers in Indian ashrams now restores yoga to its Hindu context, in practice a given yoga class in the U.S. can fall anywhere on the spectrum.
Several popular yoga magazines regularly refer to yoga as “ancient Indian,” “Eastern,” or “Sanskritic.” These descriptors seem assiduously to avoid the term “Hindu,” presumably out of fear that honestly presenting the origins of yoga would spell disaster for what has become a lucrative commercial enterprise. The American Yoga Association, for example, completely delinks yoga from Hinduism.
Today the contradictions continue. In July 2013, a California superior court in San Diego ruled that, since young children who are taught yoga in school would not be aware of its religious elements, the practice did not violate the constitutional ban on introducing religion into a public school. The Hindu American Foundation, while applauding the decision for distinguishing between two types of yoga, insisted that, beyond physical exercise, yoga is a holistic spiritual path that leads to liberation. Recently, the state of Alabama, which in 1993 prohibited the introduction of yoga into its public schools, has been considering whether to lift the ban and allow it—while continuing, however, to forbid chants, mantras, and the salutation “Namaste.”
And where do American Jews stand in this great tangle? The simple fact is that not only do large numbers of them practice yoga—almost invariably, Hatha Yoga—but there are also many Jewish yoga teachers, some of whom are even Orthodox. Needless to add, among these instructors and their students—as among American Jews in general—one can find many differences of opinion concerning the relationship of yoga both to Judaism and to Hinduism (alongside much underlying indifference to the issue).
Thus, some Jews who embrace and swear by yoga refer to it either as a universal science or, alternatively, as akin to Kabbalah in its more mystical teachings and hence in some sense already “Jewish.” Other, disapproving Jews, like Wecker, maintain that yoga is a Hindu practice and that it amounts to avodah zarah (prohibited foreign worship). For their part, some Hindu yoga practitioners who tolerate or approve of the “Jewish connection” agree that yoga is a universal science and the core of every religion. Others say yoga is Hindu and that there is no such thing as Jewish yoga.
In the middle, on the Jewish side, are some who find deep, logical, and undeniable links between yoga as an expansive spiritual practice and their own practice, or their own conception, of Judaism. For such Jewish seekers, yoga provides a theology, a means of access to God, a therapeutic medium, a way to cope with life. Offering entry into a meaningful connection of the soul with the Infinite, yoga provides them with a spirituality they were often unable to find in Judaism. Indeed, a limited number may progress from their infatuation with yoga either to discover or to renew their interest in Judaism’s own abundant cultural and spiritual resources.
The same goes for Jewish yoga teachers who, unexpectedly, have been led by yoga to explore their own neglected Jewish roots. This experience has impelled more than a few to try creating a “kosher” yoga—an ambitious enterprise at best, in which one or the other element, either the kosher or the yoga, is bound to lose out. Here, for example, is one teacher testifying to her early, upsetting discovery of deep-seated incompatibilities between the two elements:
Our teacher asks us to bring our hands together in prayer position, in front of our chest. I hear a loud, echoing “Namaste!” from the mouths of all present, including me, followed by bows toward the floor and toward the teacher. [But then] I have the urge to shout out, “Whom are you bowing to?”
As I brought these threads together, I could no longer rationalize bowing to the teacher, or indeed bowing at all while sitting. Jews are not to bow to anything or anyone other than God. Moreover, why was I, a Jew, using the language of a Hindu prayer?
As a reaction to the project of “bringing these threads together,” this dissenting statement is, however, something of an outlier. More common has been the proliferation of yoga programs that either consciously avoid any hint of religion altogether or, contrarily, consciously synthesize some form of Judaism with some form of Hinduism.
Thus, a typical Judaized yoga class might begin with a ten-minute warm-up exercise followed by a fifteen-minute lesson from a Jewish text, a meditation based on a theme chosen from the Kabbalah, the weekly Torah portion, or a ḥasidic teaching, followed by an hour-long series of yoga poses. By contrast, some instructors deliberately use English rather than Sanskrit names for the yoga positions, on the tacit assumption that the Sanskrit names themselves bear religious significance, so refraining from them can serve as a signal that the practice as a whole is not in itself religious.
Further variations abound. Some instructors bridge the perceived cultural gap by contextualizing their teachings of Ḥasidism, Kabbalah, or Jewish ritual practice within yoga’s system of thought. Still others perform yoga postures based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, claiming that this form of “Prophetic Jewish Meditation” marshals the spiritual and energetic attributes of the Hebrew language in order to ascend a series of seven stages that bring one progressively closer to God. The exercise combines aspects of Bratzlaver Hasidism with singing and storytelling—and with the occult meditational techniques of the seven chakras (wheels).
Some Jewish defenders of these and similar physical/psychic techniques assert that they are authentically Jewish in origin but had become lost, or were reserved for secret circles of kabbalists and transmitted as an oral tradition—unlikely, to say the least. As supposed evidence, they adduce the biblical reference to the prophet Elijah praying for a miracle by crouching on the ground with his face between his knees (1 Kings 18:42), or the Talmud’s statement that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel would rejoice in the Temple by digging his two thumbs into the earth so as to suspend his body in the air, would kiss the ground, and then straighten up (Tractate Sukkah 53a).
In advancing his case, Wecker cites a number of Orthodox authorities who on the basis of halakhah have prohibited or would prohibit participation in yoga, though he stipulates that more lenient views can be found as well. Let me adduce two more of the latter variety.
Years ago, Rabbi David Halevi, the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, permitted the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM) as long as one avoided the opening worship ceremony, any mention of gods, and any bowing to gods or to the guru. The same dispensation has been extended to yoga for those who adhere to the secular version consisting of just physical exercise.
Asked whether yoga was allowed, Tzvi Freeman, a Chabad rabbi and popular web-based writer, answered that it is not prohibited. God, he explained, had instilled certain methods for maintaining the body as part of created human nature. Inevitably, if problematically, “each culture associated these discoveries with [its own] beliefs.” But should Jews therefore, Freeman asked, “outlaw a benefit that God placed purposely in His world for us?” Quoting the Talmud, he added: “Would any benefit from the sun, the moon, the ocean, the wind, fire and air, water and earth . . . need to be outlawed, since all of these have been either the object or device of pagan worship?” From this chain of reasoning, Freeman concluded that meditation methods and yoga, as long as they are “stripped of their association with Hindu deities,” can be allowed, “the better to serve the Creator and know Him in all our ways.”
Unfortunately, due to pressure, Freeman subsequently removed this opinion from the web. But the beat goes on. Recently, a right-wing Orthodox synagogue near my home advertised the opportunity to dedicate one’s attendance at a yoga class in memory of someone, in the same way that study of Torah can traditionally be dedicated to “raising” the soul of a departed fellow Jew.
Where, then, does all this leave Menachem Wecker? At the point, I’d say, where mutual interests and convictions unite Hindu purists with Orthodox prohibitionists. My educated guess is that, separately or together, they won’t win.