Your Body is a Temple
by Marcus J Freed
We are now approaching an energetic low point in the Jewish calendar. This period of nine days leading up to Tisha B’Av is a time for refraining from physical pleasures. The ninth day in the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, an event that had profound consequences.
The painful absence
It isn’t easy to feel the loss for something you never had, but this is precisely what Jewish tradition asks us to do. I don’t miss not having million pounds, a personal helicopter or a yacht in the South of France, and there is a huge challenge in trying to genuinely miss something that wasn’t experienced in our lifetime.
While it was standing, the Temple was a physical, tangible, sensational framework for connecting to the Divine. Sensational because it affected every single sensation, whether it was stretching your body as you prostrated on the warm Jerusalem ground, your nose smelling the barbecue aroma of sacrifices, your tastebuds savouring the flavour of the showbread, your ears hearing the sound of the shofars being blown or your eyes filling with the sight of thousands of people visiting on a pilgrimage.
The Temple was our Mecca and three times a year we did our Haj. Jewish life has never been the same since, and it is no coincidence that the spiritual experience of most contemporary synagogues is a fairly lacklustre. On one level, the Jewish people are still reeling from the impact of being dispersed by the Babylonians and the Romans. Several Jewish practices directly relate to Temple life, but they are no equivalent to the real thing.
The nine days is a time for withdrawing from the body and deliberately paying less attention to the physical aspect of our nature, as we adhere to the customs of mourning. These include not shaving, not getting a haircut, not buying new clothes, not listening to live music, or swimming, dancing and so forth. If we are using yoga as a tool for Jewish meditation and for connecting to the Divine aspects of our body, what are we supposed to do during a time of physical abstinence?
Body and Temple
The sages draw strong parallels between the Temple and the body, and go so far as to say that every part of the Temple directly corresponds to a physical limb. The writer of the midrash stated that in the Mishkan
“ the beams were fixed into the sockets, and in the body the ribs are fixed into the vertebrae…the beams were covered with gold and the ribs are covered with flesh…the veil divided between the Holy place and the Holy of Holies, and in the body the diaphragm divides the heart from the stomach.”
(Midrash in Genesis Rabbah, as quoted by Raphael Patai in ‘Man and Temple’ (New York: Ktav 1967).
The Biblical descriptions of the Temple are presented in very literal language and it can be difficult to find personal meaning in the long passages that occur throughout Exodus and Leviticus. This midrash is a very helpful meditational tool, as we will see later.
Although it might be tempting to think, ‘The Temple has been destroyed and now we can focus on restoring and repairing it through physical meditation’, that would missing the point. This a period of low spiritual energy which is deliberately focused on mourning and loss, and depressing though it might be, it isn’t a time for rebuilding. The nine days represent the first phase of mourning where people are supposed to remember what they have lost and heighten their sensitivity towards it, but not actually fix the problem. Healing comes later, but now is the time for sitting with the discomfort and remembering that we are not complete without the Temple.
One of the beautiful things about practicing yoga is that you do not have to ‘get it right’ or have the perfect body. Although some practitioners might have an incredible backbend – see the pictures in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga as an example – they too can always deepen their postures. Yoga is a continual sense of becoming. It is exceptionally rare, if not completely impossible, to find someone who does not feel that they could improve their asana [posture] practice if their body was a little bit different. If only I had a more flexible lumber spine for improving my backbend. If only I had stronger arms for balancing in the crow. If only my hips were looser so that I could improve my lotus. You hear these words so often after classes, that I’m surprised there isn’t a word in Sanskrit for kvetching.
One thing we can do during the nine days and Tisha B’Av is to experience a yoga practice where we hold postures and really draw our awareness to our own physical limitations. Just as the Temple isn’t whole, there are parts of our bodies which don’t function the way we would like, and may be a source of pain or discomfort. Although yoga should never be painful, it can be a way of exploring our physical limits.
A good place to start is with some sitting postures, such as cross-legged, half-lotus or full lotus, and just holding the posture for as long as you can, drawing attention to your breath and deepening the posture as much as you are able to. Your spine doesn’t twist as much as you’d like? Good! Your shoulders are tighter than you’d like them? Great. Now is the time to hold an awareness of your limits, the feeling of being incomplete, and the fact that things are not as perfect as they could be.
We learned earlier that parts of the body represent areas in the Temple, and a key example is the Kadosh Kadoshim , the Holy of Holies. It was the area of the most intense spiritual connection and the place where the High Priest conversed with God on Yom Kippur . The Holy of Holies corresponds with our hearts, and every yogic posture is concerned with opening the heart space as we take deep, powerful breaths into our thorassic region, and down into our abdomen. As we go through sun salutes and lift our arms up into a high arch, we open the whole area around the heart and can focus on sharing both love and peace.
The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, when people were more obsessed with gratifying their own egos than with the welfare of their fellow humans. Our healing, when it eventually comes, will be achieved through boundless love. We can now practice our yoga and meditate on the fact that we are incomplete, remembering the Hasidic saying said that ‘there is nothing so whole as a broken heart’.
Wishing you a meaningful fast.
Marcus J Freed
Jerusalem, July 19, 2007
Yoga Postures for the Nine Days
Sit cross-legged for a minimum of twenty breaths or two minutes.
Sun salutes (focusing on opening the heart as you hold the high arch).
Bridge and backbends (again, opening out the rib cage).
Sarvasana/corpse posture (keep breathing throughout).
Marcus J Freed (c) 2007