Torah Yoga

yoga teacher trainingBy Judy Pachino

As an Orthodox Jewish woman I believe that the Torah (loosely translated as the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) contains an entire detailed guidebook for life. Each word and syllable has been analyzed by sages throughout the generations, and a multitude of works have been written to explain how one should live a Torah life. Just as the Torah provides an amazing framework and guiding light for my life, so I have found Yoga also includes much insight into how I should live and connect to my physical, emotional and spiritual self.

In her book “Torah Yoga Experiencing Jewish Wisdom Through Classic Postures”, Diane Bloomfield has created a unique book, which is “both a Torah book and a yoga book, presenting classic yoga instruction in the light of traditional and mystical Jewish wisdom”. Ms. Bloomfield immersed herself in study of traditional Jewish texts for many years in Israel. She claims that her deep immersion provided her a different lens in which to see and practice yoga. She realized that many of the principles she learned in her Yoga practice were also in Torah, and she could identify and locate those teachings in Torah texts. Ms. Bloomfield discovered that “Because Torah was within me, practicing yoga was a new way to study Torah. Every yoga posture was a gateway to greater Torah consciousness.”

In her book, Ms. Bloomfield includes seven chapters in which she expounds on seven central Jewish spiritual concepts: hidden light, constant renewal, leaving Egypt, essential self, body prayer and alignment, daily satisfaction, and remembering to rest. The seven chapters could easily represent the seven days of the week and/or the seven days of creation. Each chapter includes: a short introduction and introspective section, a Torah Yoga segment connecting the concepts and describing how to connect to yourself, your yoga practice and Torah teachings, a traditional Torah study on the concepts, and finally detailed Yoga practice postures “with which you can further experience, express and exercise the Torah concepts of the chapter in your own body-mind-heart-soul”. She has chosen certain postures to include with the different concepts, but emphasizes that “any yoga posture may apply to many Torah concepts”.

The first chapter titled, The Hidden Light, introduces the concept of the first light and it’s connection to God’s essence. Ms. Bloomfield believes that “With the practice of yoga, you can look for, find, and reveal to the world the power and beauty of the mysterious hidden light within you”. You can make yourself into a vessel, which you can stretch and mold. It is important to realize that your mind, heart and soul also contribute to the molding of the vessel you become, the vessel that can reveal and receive the “mysterious hidden light of the first day of creation”. In Jewish mysticism, the vessel is a central image. “The world and human beings are seen as vessels that need to prepare themselves to receive love.” In addition, “Your body-mind-heart-soul is the raw material on the yoga pottery wheel.”

The meditation or introspective practice section includes the direction to “visualize in every cell of your body a point of first light – divine, radiant and exquisite”. The postures included in the Hidden light chapter consist of Mountain Posture, Triangle Posture, Warrior Two Posture, Standing Forward Bend, Simple Sitting Twist, and Bridge Posture.

In chapter two, Ms. Bloomfield explores the concept of constant renewal. One of the sages, the Sfat Emet, teaches that “in order to appreciate God’s daily gift of abundant new life, a person should perceive at the very least one new thing every day”. Ms. Bloomfield connects this idea to yoga by explaining “Yoga is an immersion in the river of divine renewal flowing through your body. Each time you do a posture, you are stepping into a new river”. The Sfat Emet also teaches “The opposite of habit is renewal”. Ms. Bloomfield explains that habits lock your perceptions and do not allow you to perceive new things. “Yoga is a technique for unlocking your habits in order to perceive the constantly renewing creation both inside and around you.” “With the practice of yoga, you can continually transform yourself. You can keep yourself open to the constant renewal of life within you.”

The meditation or introspective practice section includes the direction to “Take a moment to see whether you feel locked in old or habitual patterns in your body. Take a moment also to see whether you are locked in old or habitual pattern of thought or emotion”. Ms. Bloomfield has included the Seated Mountain Posture, Extended Child Posture, Downward Dog Posture, Locust Posture, and Cobra Posture in this chapter.

The third chapter discusses the idea of leaving Egypt. For Jewish people the exodus from Egypt is not just a story from history. It is an ongoing story and “a paradigm of personal experience of release from trouble of all kinds, a release into new possibilities”. “Yoga teaches you ways to actively participate, posture by posture, breath by breath and moment by moment in leaving Egypt, making it your own story.” The Hebrew word for Egypt contains the letters that also form the word for narrow straits. “Leaving Egypt is the movement from narrow to expansive places. You join the exodus from Egypt when you discover areas of tension and release them. Yoga teaches you how to leave Egypt.” It teaches you how to stretch and open yourself in gentle ways. “Through breath and movement, you learn to release yourself, cell by cell, from your narrow straits.” By practicing yoga, you can attain physical as well as emotional release.

The introspective practice section includes the direction to “check to see if you have any places that feel narrow, limited, or troubled” or painful. Ms. Bloomfield included the following postures in this chapter: Extended Side Angle Stretch, Wide Legs Standing Forward Bend, Staff Posture, Head Beyond Knee Forward Bend, Reclining Mountain Posture, Knee to Chest Posture, Reclining Leg Stretch, Reclining Twist and Resting with Legs on Chair.

In chapter four, Ms. Bloomfield introduces the concept of the essential self. Ms. Bloomfield contends that the essential self goes back to the time of Adam and his response to God’s question “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) A famous Rabbi and scholar, Rav Kook, explains, “He (Adam) did not clearly answer the question ‘where are you’ because he did not know his own soul, because his true I-ness (his essential self), was lost to him.” Ms. Bloomfield believes that “Yoga is a way to meet and know your essential self. Each posture is an opportunity to connect with yourself and to clearly and openly answer, ‘Here I am’ to the question, ‘Where are you?’ ” In order to truly know yourself, it is important to learn from yourself, trust your intuition and your experiences. “Let the teachings you receive from outside sources deepen your connection to yourself and to your own inner knowing.” “Yoga will clarify your inner wisdom. Eventually, your own body-mind-heart-soul will be your greatest teacher”. Ms. Bloomfield teaches that you should be especially cognizant of the wisdom of your body, your intuition, and your inner teacher as you practice yoga.

The meditative portion of the chapter includes instructions to inquire of yourself, “Where am I?” Also, “attend to yourself in the same way your would attend to a teacher you greatly admire and respect. Consider yourself a source of wisdom.” The postures included in this chapter are: Chair Twist Posture, Supported Standing Forward Bend with Chair, Standing Forward Bend Over One Leg, Revolved Triangle Posture, Hero Posture, and Resting Fish Posture.

Chapter five explores the concept of body prayer and alignment. Ms. Bloomfield suggests that you should “imagine prayer being not only the service of your heart but also the service of your body. Yoga is a way to include the voice of your whole body in your prayers. In so doing, you can align yourself with God and reveal your full essence.” According to Rav Kook, your soul is always praying. Ms. Bloomfield states “Yoga helps you to feel and hear your soul’s continual prayer both spiritually and physically”. “Rav Kook teaches that a person can be either bent-over or straight, both spiritually and physically”. “Neither posture is appropriate all the time.” Yet, your full essence is revealed when you stand straight. “Yoga helps you to stretch and lengthen all your vital parts and powers, and to reveal them in their full measure both to yourself and to the world. Yoga also helps to reveal to you some of the reasons, fears, emotions, and memories that keep you from standing up tall.” In the Jewish morning prayer service, there is a blessing of gratitude for being able to stand straight, for alignment. “Standing straight is not an isolated act that involves just your spine. Your whole body influences the movement that is possible in your spine. All the postures in yoga can add to the full expression of the blessing of alignment in your body.”

In the meditative portion of the chapter, Ms. Bloomfield directs you to “Stand straight without being rigid. Relax around your elongating spine.” You should ask yourself, Do I you feel comfortable, awkward, scared or safe? The postures for this chapter include: Upward Reaching Prayer Posture, Tree Posture, Warrior One Posture, Reclining Hero Posture, Camel Posture and Bow Posture.

The concept discussed in chapter six is daily satisfaction. In the book of Exodus, God provides for the daily sustenance of the Children of Israel with manna (heavenly bread). According to Ms. Bloomfield, “Heavenly nourishment is still falling. Torah and yoga take you to the fields of your life- places you might even consider desert- to gather there your portion of heavenly bread. With yoga, you can become more aware of the satisfying feast that God showers on you each day.” By learning to trust that you will receive the nourishment you need every day from the divine, you learn to feel satisfied. In addition, she states, “Ultimately the outer world is not the most important factor in finding satisfaction. The most important factor is your inner world, where, consciously or not, you choose what to pay attention to.” She continues, “the inner energy that flows through you is the energy of life itself” (prana). “Imagine your own life energy as a hearty slice of heavenly bread, with God giving you just the right amount to nourish and satisfy you every day.” “Yoga teaches you to turn your attention inward and to sense the life energy within you. When you are doing postures, feel the flow of your life energy through your body, mind, heart, and soul.” She continues by explaining the practice of satisfaction. “Satisfaction is in the stretch you are doing now and in the breath you are breathing now.”

In this chapter’s meditation, Ms. Bloomfield guides, “take a few deep, slow breaths into your whole body. Notice in your body an inner nourishing field of divine energy. Affirm that what you need to be satisfied today is within you”. The postures for this chapter are: Cobbler Posture, Supported Cobbler Posture, Sitting Forward Bend, Seated Angle Posture, and Supported Cross-Legged Forward Bend.

In the final chapter, chapter seven, Ms. Bloomfield explores the concept of remembering to rest. This chapter clearly connects with the seventh day of the Jewish week, the Sabbath, which is the day of rest. Ms. Bloomfield states, “Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) is a day for soulful, holy rest. Shabbat teaches us how to rest.” She continues, “Yoga also teaches us how to rest. In yoga, rest and relaxation are an essential part of the practice. The climax of every yoga session is the posture of rest.” It is important to learn how to rest and relax in postures, because “all yoga postures can and should be done in a relaxed, effortless way” which takes great practice. Ms. Bloomfield sites the sage Patanjali, “Perfection in a posture is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless, and the infinite being within is reached” . She explains, “Learning to rest and relax in restorative postures makes it easier to bring the restful state into the more active, challenging postures. Learning to be relaxed in the challenging postures is like bringing the peace and rest of Shabbat with you into your workweek.”

In the introspective section, Ms. Bloomfield guides, “Affirm to yourself that, during the following postures, you will not busy yourself thinking about things you need to do. Let go of thinking about what you were doing before you began your practice. Let go of thinking about what you need to do when you finish your practice.” She continues, “Establish a connection to a realm of quiet and rest within you.” Ms. Bloomfield chose the following postures for this chapter: Supported Extended Child Posture, Resting Side Twist, Supported Fish Posture, Supported Bridge Posture, Gentle Inversion Posture, Relaxation Posture (Corpse Posture).

In my quest to find resources that could help me synthesize my new understanding of Yoga with my Judaism, I was very fortunate to find Ms. Bloomfield’s book. Her thought processes were very clear and her style intelligent, accurate and very informative. I found her progression from concept to concept extremely insightful. The meditation focus in each section was particularly helpful to me and solidified the concept for me. It is through the meditative focus instructions that the section took on an experiential nature. I was then able to move onto the postures with deeper focus. I look forward to integrating some of her ideas into my own classes in the near future.

Judy Pachino is a certified Yoga teacher. She teaches Yoga classes in the Baltimore, Maryland area.

References:

i Bloomfield, D 2004, Torah Yoga Experiencing Jewish Wisdom Through Classic Postures, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, p. xi

ii Bloomfield 2004, p.xiii

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