Yogis merge traditions
Multifaith-influenced classes bring transcendence.

by Derek Jamensky, published in The Western Jewish Bulletin (British Columbia)

“We’ve gone about as far as we can go as separate and isolated faiths – God has given each faith some vitamins that the others need, and we won’t be able to survive in health unless we exchange those vitamins.”
– Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement

As much as these words present a challenge to Jewish orthodoxy, they also challenge members of the Renewal movement itself. How to remain true to Jewish tradition, while opening up to the wisdom of other faiths?

Meeting this challenge in her own way is Evelyn Neaman, a yoga teacher who threads themes of Jewish tradition in her classes. Neaman conducts regular yoga sessions for Jews and non-Jews alike and she adheres to one of the central tenets of the Renewal movement: that there is harmony between faiths, even in their diversity of expression.

Far from diluting one tradition with the other, Neaman sees their truths as universal and their methods as complementary.

“I pick and choose the things that are meaningful – not just in Judaism, but in other religions where I think it’s going to be helpful,” she said.

She points out that recognizing the wisdom of other faiths is not a new development in Judaism. There is even a traditional blessing that is said upon meeting a holy person from another faith.

“This is an acknowledgement that there are holy people in all traditions, so to be accepting of teaching from other traditions feels very kosher to me,” said Neaman.

Her classes are called Tikkun Yoga – tikkun being the Hebrew word meaning to mend, heal or repair.

“The idea is that we are all obligated to do something to make the world a better place,” said Neaman. She sees herself as “giving people the gift to heal themselves, so they can be better out there in the world doing whatever gifts they were given.”

Neaman’s yoga studio is housed beside a little green belt in her yard, complete with a running stream and Buddha. She teaches about 30-40 students per week. She tries to keep her classes small, so they can be tailored to meet each person’s needs. Additionally, she does month-long workshops for teshuvah (return to God) at Or Shalom, and has recently released a DVD on the art of restorative yoga.

The Buddha in her backyard? “It’s a piece of cement,” said Neaman. “I’m not worshipping a statue, I’m paying homage to the meaning behind the statue.”

For Neaman, that meaning transcends Buddhism. “It’s a symbol of mindfulness,” she said simply, pointing to a central theme of both Buddhism and Judaism.

Mindfulness may not be a word you hear that much in synagogue, but the idea is far from new.

“The [Jewish] rituals are set up so that we’re mindful of our physicality,” said Neaman. Every blessing is an exercise in connecting us in the moment, with who we are and where we are. For Neaman, “Judaism is a religion of consciousness,” just as is Buddhism.

In order to explore these very points of connection between Jewish and Buddhist meditation, Neaman recently organized a workshop with Rabbi DovBer Pinson, a well-known kabbalist from New York.

Like popular forms of yoga, the kabbalistic tradition is often misunderstood – and just as often diluted, according to Pinson. And like yoga, kabbalah manages to survive from generation to generation, because the central truths transcend the generations and answer a fundamental need.

Pinson isn’t at all concerned with where the roots of the tradition ultimately lie.

“A lot of the spiritual teachings have crossovers because they are universal truths that are found in all traditions,” he said.

Popular culture also has a role to play. Although Pinson has his doubts about what Madonna may be learning in her well-publicized kabbalistic studies, he avoids criticizing popularizations of kabbalah. More important to him is for individuals to connect the teachings to their daily lives. Mindfulness, meditation and prayer are always important, with or without celebrity status. Such truths transcend culture and personal circumstance.

For Pinson, kabbalah and meditation are “never about a past, or a future. It’s always about the present. And it’s never about anybody else. It’s always about you.”

Aug. 26, 2005

Derek Jamensky is a Vancouver freelance writer.