By Rabbi Jodie Siff
Each week I have the opportunity to teach yoga with our youngest community members, ages 2 through 5, and our most senior ones as well. While practicing with a curious 4-year-old, they asked me, “Why do you teach us yoga, Rabbi Jodie?” I answered, “I believe it is important to connect your body to your mind and to your neshamah, your soul.” But I was thinking in my head that I teach yoga because I believe it is a pathway into connecting to Judaism.
“So why use yoga as a vehicle in life?” This was my yoga teacher’s question each day of teacher training. Just as a rabbi is supposed to question their conversion student multiple times before starting study, my teacher pushed me with that question. “Why engage in this journey? Where and how does yoga inform your life?”
I feel like that 4-year-old was embodying my teacher last week and asking me to reaffirm my intention to do this holy work. Why was I using yoga as a vehicle and a vehicle to what? In most Jewish contexts, we’re asked to use our heads—read books, study texts, engage in discussion, analyze political events—but we aren’t often asked to use our bodies or tap into our social emotional self. I believe that yoga engages the body so that the mind can rest, and in so doing opens us up to new sensations, prayerful moments, and quiet space that can be so hard to find in a busy setting. And for some, traditional synagogue services aren’t the pathway into building a Jewish identity or a way to connect to community.
Jews are considered to be the people of the book. In sign language, part of the sign of Israelites is actually “the book.” Study in partnership, hevruta, is a deeply spiritual tradition, but it can be hard to access through text alone, especially in contexts where Hebrew is not the native language. Historically, prayers were set to music precisely for this reason—to give people access to Judaism through a mode they feel more comfortable tapping into. The tradition flourished in countries around the world where Hebrew was not the vernacular, and so the liturgy was set to popular music from the region, connecting sacred with secular, tradition with contemporary culture.
That’s what we’re doing with our practice of yoga; we take a practice that is popular in the broader community and use it as a portal through which to experience an authentic Jewish tradition. Yoga has felt particularly fitting because it has helped me get out of my head and into my body, which has created an opening for the movement and breath of yoga and teachings to move me (literally) and connect me to something beyond myself, my community, my Judaism.
After eight years of practicing, I understand that in exploring both yoga and Judaism, it is less about reconciliation and more about creative integration. I am pairing two authentic pathways—yoga and Judaism—to create a practice that offers new expression of these centuries-old traditions. Jews around the world borrowed music, spiritual practices, and textual forms to enrich the Jewish tradition, and I hope that “borrowing” from yoga will do the same.