by Rabbi Andrea C. London
In February, The Forward, a prominent national Jewish weekly, published an article about the Yoga Minyan (article can be found in the February 27, 2004 edition, online at www.forward.com), the Shabbat morning service that Julie Singer and I have choreographed to yoga postures. While we were very excited to get national coverage, the article did not adequately explain how I think this service is an authentic expression of Jewish prayer. I would, therefore, like to devote this Talmud Torah column to my thoughts on the connection between Judaism and the body and prayer.
In the morning service we begin with blessings thanking God for creating our bodies, giving us the ability to study Torah, and for our souls. After acknowledging God’s role in the intricate functioning of our bodies, it seems to me that we ignore the body during the rest of the service. We say lots of words in Jewish prayer – words from the Torah and written by the rabbis – to remind us of our history and to teach us about our values and sacred obligations.
By adding music to our worship, we seek to bring the words of our tradition off the page of the prayerbook and into our hearts and souls. In the Yoga Minyan, we add another dimension to our worship by connecting the prayers to our body. Judaism has remained steadfast in its belief that the body is not inferior to the soul and that our bodies are vehicles through which we can access the Divine. By using our body to express our prayer, we strive to create a symbiotic relationship between the body and soul, restoring the body and soul to spiritual wholeness.
Let me offer you an example: The Shema and the blessing that follows, known as the V’ahavta, signify an acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingdom and commandments. Jewish prayer, however, is not strictly a contractual exercise, but a daily act designed to help us internalize ideas about our relationship with G-d and G-d’s creation and to recognize G-d’s immanent presence in our lives.
In traditional Jewish prayer, we recite the words in the prayer book while using symbols such as the tallit, music, and choreographed bowing to nurture our connection to G-d. The Yoga Minyan simply employs a broader range of choreographed body movements to add another dimension to the kavanah (spiritual intention) of our prayer. The prayers that precede and follow the Shema speak of G-d’s love for us (Ahavah Rabbah) and of our love for G-d (V’ahavta). The postures that we assume for these prayers are an embodiment of these emotions.
Ideally, prayer should move us to act more in consonance with G-d’s will. To that end, in the Yoga Minyan, we use our bodies in addition to our hearts and minds in an effort to bind ourselves closer to G-d. In this way, we can stand, bow, and stretch out our arms in praise of the Creator of our bodies, whom we refer to in our morning prayers as the Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life.
I invite you to join us at our next Yoga Minyan (April 3 and April 24) so that he might experience for yourself the layers of meaning that are uncovered and the connection to G-d that can be felt when the body is more fully integrated into prayer.
Rabbi Andrea C. London
Beth Emet The Free Synagogue
847-869-4230 (w) 847-677-0846 (h)