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Shalom Life chats with Greg Marzullo, whose Yoga for Shabbat initiative is catching on in Washington, DCBy: Daniel Koren
Published: July 8th, 2013

Yoga may have become a commonplace enterprise since expanding into Western culture, but let us not forget that its roots encompass the embodiment of spirituality, mental health, and yes, religion, as one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy.

This was obviously no news for one Greg Marzullo, a registered yoga teacher with the Yoga Alliance, who recently established a fresh take on practicing yoga: shabbasana.

A merge of Shabbat and asana – a common yogic body position – shabbasana is a form of yoga that is practiced at the dawning of the Sabbath, using meditation as a way to transition to the day of rest, and merging the worlds of yoga and Judaism through spirituality.

“Last year, I was put in touch with Rabbi Shira Stutman, who I am a big fan of,” Marzullo tells Shalom Life. “The rabbi asked me to do a Yom Kippur yoga-related class at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. The class drew such a positive reception, that she asked me to make it a monthly institution.”

The shabbasana class has been sold-out since.

Born in Sharon, Massachusetts, Marzullo moved to Washington in 2001 and, inspired and empowered by yoga through both body and spirit, has taught the practice there for the past five years.

In 2012, one of Marzullo’s students – also a congregant at Sixth and I, a historical synagogue that was built over a century ago, and had served as a church up until recently – put him in touch with Rabbi Stutman. From their conversations developed the birth of shabbasana – a marriage of Jewish traditions and the philosophy of yoga.

“Rabbi Stutman and I talked about how many people, regardless of their faith, come to yoga as a way to have some sort of spiritual connection, which is fascinating, because it allows people to have the experiences that are traditionally reserved for the church, the temple, the mosque,” Marzullo explains. “Together, we talked of a way to marry these two traditions, not to water down either Judaism or yoga philosophy, but to use both to illuminate one another.”

Since the inaugural shabbasana in April, Marzullo’s sabbath yoga initiative has taken off throughout Washington, garnering the attention of the Washington Post Daily, Ynet News, and Jewish News One.

“Judaism is a spiritual practice,” Rabbi Stutman tells Shalom life, “which, ironically, seems foreign to some people, but yoga as a spiritual practice seems very natural to them. So what we are doing at Sixth and I is taking the beauty of yoga and hoping it will serve as a conduit for the spiritual practice of Judaism as well.”

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue serves as a cultural and Jewish center for young professionals in the DC area, and often features guest speakers and teachers as a means to better engage the DC community. “Greg is one of the most well respected yoga teachers in the area,” says Stutman. “There are elements of his soul that carry Jewish ‘neshama’ in many deep ways. He has brought his enthusiasm, and has spread spiritual depth that permeates our services. It’s definitely been a win-win relationship.”

I ask Marzullo, who is not Jewish, where his idea to merge Shabbat and yoga stems from. “Shabbat is that time where we unplug in order to plug back in to what is important,” he explains. “That in itself is a yogic concept. Yogic principles teach us to leave behind the things that are distracting from our relationship to God: that’s very much the experience of the Sabbath.”

“I always feel this spiritual awakening through yoga,” he adds. “For me, my synagogue is my yoga mat, but I’ve always had a tough time connecting the two for others. With shabbasana, it’s been great to hear from members of Sixth and I on how fantastic this experience has been for them.”

Marzullo is confident the growing success of shabbasana confirms the notion that there is certainly a need for people to connect with their inner spirituality. “People who come to yoga studios, whether they are Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, Muslim, etc, they all come from different places, yes, but they also have in common that they grew up with faith,” he says. “Often, when this faith doesn’t speak to them anymore, they look for ways to reignite it, and shabbasana is a perfect example of how that can be done.”

Though shabbasana continues to be exclusive to Sixth and I, Marzullo hints that we can expect the movement to spread to other synagogues in the area soon. From the growing wave of yoga practitioners and apprentices alike who endorse the initiative, it seems that Marzullo has stumbled upon a way of reconnecting people to God and inner spirituality.

“No matter where we are, it is our relationship to God that defines who we are in the larger community,” he explains. “It’s taking those incredibly deep ideas that Torah represents to you, and using them to shift our minds away from the texting and facebook, and plug in Shabbat time.”

“Like yoga, Shabbat aims to create profound exploration,” he adds.

Learn more about Greg Marzullo via his official website. Watch an interview with him and Jewish News One below: