Jewish Yoga teacher claims ancient practice can help Jews gain deeper awareness

By Jason B. Kohn

Ida Unger’s Yoga Garden studio in Santa Monica seems a far cry from a synagogue. Sticky mats in place of pews; oak beams above instead of an Eternal Light; open space and sunlight where a temple would have an ark. Yet for Unger and many Jews who come to study Yoga with her, the experience here is profoundly Jewish. And combined with Yogic peace and sensuality, it becomes a powerful spiritual whole.

“What Yoga does, is it makes your relationship with the devine a more physical, tangible reality,” Unger says. “With that, God is just more present in life.”

And Unger knows Yoga. She’s been a student for 22 years, a teacher for 12. But she is also the product of an Orthodox Jewish family, a yeshiva education, and though now Reform, is an active temple-going Jew. Rather than seeing contradictions, Unger sees Judaism and Yoga as complementary systems.

“A big part of Judaism is intention, kavanna,” she says. “You’re supposed to do these mitzvoth, but you’re also supposed to do them with this awake, aware attitude.” And after studying from an Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspective, Unger doesn’t believe traditional Judiasm offers a method to achieve that attitude. Yoga, however, does. “Jews really need this,” she says.

“They need a way to connect with the spiritual that doesn’t contradict Judaism, but offers some in-depth tools for how to become a person who is more conscious.”

Unger has been teaching a Judaism informed by Yoga at Temple Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica for years. And though there is no “correct” way to integrate the philosophies, one important aspect of her method is to practice Yoga postures that correspond – often on multiple levels – with letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The parings are often visual, but can also be understood in terms of Jewish mystical tradition. “If you study sepher yetzirah, one of the books of the Kabbalah, it talks very specifically about how the aleph-bet are the instruments that God used for creation,” says Unger. “That the sounds of the letters were part of what creation was, and the shapes of the letters are shapes of energy flow.”

Unger’s classes also connect Yoga with the idea of Shabbat. “Shabbat is this one-a-week time of withdrawing from the world and going into a state of being, as opposed to a state of doing,” she says. And according to Unger, the Yoga posture savasana – a passive, restful pose done at the end of each session – is a microcosm of that concept.

“The long term effects of each practice are dependent on the quality of your savasana,” she says, “and I think that’s really similar.”

So does it all mean that Yoga can make you a better Jew? According to Unger, absolutely. “It will increase your consciousness of who you are and what you do, increase your level of intent, she says. “If you pray, you’ll pray with more of yourself, you’ll have access to more of yourself. That’s the gift of Yoga.”