on spirituality vs religion

In Uncategorized on April 23, 2012 at 9:36 pm
photo copyright of Lorenzo Tugnoli

photo courtesy of Lorenzo Tugnoli

I a Jewish, but I do not lead an observant religious life. I though practice, teach and live a very spiritual life. Many would define me as a “yogi,” but I could, just as easily, be called a “person who learnt how to know her-self, so now she does know how to avoid altering her equilibrium to cause the minimum suffering.” Yes, I have learnt this through yoga, not religion. And I am not ashamed to say so even if I consider myself a Jew 100%.
My religious belief have not lead me to the same self-understanding I gained through asana, breathing and meditation practice and through limiting myself in what I could eat, drink and think for a while. I discovered the “I” beneath my own skin feeling for it through my own body and overstepping the “mind games” I had played for many years before. No religious book tell you how to conquer the “monkey mind,” they may suggest you live with certain values and respect for each other, but they do not spell out for you that if you use breath retainment and you do lots of back-bending, your heart rate will decrease and you will feel less
stressed…so,here you have it:

Yoga is yoga and religion is religion.
Two, very spiritual practices, but not the same thing!

My “yogic life” showed me the way to the “most real self I could find below the five senses,” but this does not mean I stopped being attached to my Judaism roots, the same ones my ancestors lived by over 2,000 years ago. I lead an ordinary life where the secular values I respect within the realms of my yoga reality are the same ones I have always known when raised as an Italian Jew in Rome.

Yet, I do realize for many who have not gotten through a similar “path of self-awarness” trying to define yoga without the world creed, religion, belief or spirituality is not so easy. As an example, the other day after a yoga class, I overheard one of my student saying he does yoga only for the physical benefit and he did not like to chant the “OM” before and at the end of class because he does not want to be converted to the “yoga faith.”

Now, according to my teacher Sri Dharma Mittra: “Yoga is a discipline of self-knowledge” that has nothing to do with religion. It has rules and regulations that one should respect for a better understanding of him/herself, but there is no “yoga bible,” there is not yogi as followers of a particular religious creed, but just yogi as followers of a teacher who will show them what he did to understand himself best and encourage them to do the same. Being called a Yogi is simply the definition of those who have “reached the yoking of their minds and bodies,” those who have paid their dues understanding that these two entities work on their own and that the whole goal of life is to make them work in accordance with one another to avoid pain and suffering.

Religion is belonging to a tribe, a group of people with similar beliefs, Yoga is a selfish, individualists search for the meaning of our own self on this Earth. Yoga is a combination of physical exercise with breath, meditation and respect of the ethical rules *(which if you read them properly could remind you of what your parents told you when you were little, or what you would hear your grandmother yelling at you when you were playing with your friends in the backyard!). There is not religion that requires you to twist and turn like a gummy bear,neither to breath through your nose after holding the breath for 12 counts for physical benefits!

Some could argue that yoga practice can become very spiritual and lose some of its “exercise-only” traits especially when one speaks of Kirtan and chanting to the images of “personified god and goddess.” Yet again, Krishna, Ganesh and company are nothing, but the personification of a “stronger force” called “the Divine Self,” or “our own pure essence” that co-exist within ourselves unrelated to the religious back-ground we may have.

  1. I am jewish too. And a practicioner of yoga.
    Yoga helped and helps me to understand myself, to listen to myself, to breathe, to relax, to smile and much more. But also my own culture with its prayers, its sacred texts, its mussar help me to grow as an individual. Community teaches me to listen, to be humble, to feel responsible and to evaluate the importance of my personal needs in a broader context.
    I am an observant jew and i live in an observant community. This is not always easy and there is the twist between community (jewish) and individuality (yoga). But the one is enrichting the other and we need definitely both.
    I love my shabbatot which are like a big shavasana, i love the jewish way of prayer and i love hebrew, our sacred language and many other things in my culture.
    And even if sometimes there are things which are challenging in my own culture: i don’t want to miss them because the wrestling makes me grow.
    I try every day to connect all the different things which come into my life to help me to transform myself into a real mentsh.

    Gmar chasimo tova,

    • Dear Raisel,
      thanks so much for your wise comment. I agree 100% with what you say here, even though I was not brought up in a religious family. I too, love Shabbat, and anything that has to do with calm, silent time alone….it’s indeed a very long shavasana, it’s magical just as much as a meditation session is. I am not reading a book on the Chabala and I find a lot of similitudes between that and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Hindu manual to Yoga and yogic life, they both suggest, for example the existence of two different part/sides of our bodies: One positive and one negative, one of giving and one of receiving. They speak about energy and how to move it in our bodies…It’s incredible how many things they have in common. So, keep on being Jewish and love your religion and the language and practice Yoga because ultimately, this is a discipline of self-acceptance, which Judaism could use more of. And remember that Yoga Asana is only one small part of the whole eight limbs path toward Samadhi, ultimate freedom of ourself from our minds and meshing with the Divine, which is exactly what we try to reach in our Jewish religion when we strive to respect the 613 mitzvots at our best.
      Good luck with it all and keep following me and maybe one day we will meet somewhere in the world.

      ps: how did you find my blog?
      Thanks for reading me,

  2. Shalom Federica,

    I found your website while searching for “orthodox jewish women & yoga” on the web. There was not much but your photographs (beautiful!) about this yoga class in brooklyn. They are Chabad, isn’t it? Chabad sometimes is amazingly open.
    It is interesting to read that you try to learn kabbalah. Did you also try to learn the sources, basic jewish texts like the tanakh or mishnah? Often these texts are left out by people because one maybe thinks they are dry or crazy or simply oldfashioned… but much of the spiritual material you find already in the prophets for example, then in the aggadic midrashim of the gemarah and the like. It’s for sure good to have a glance into that because kabbalah is relying on these sources.
    For me shabbat is mostly not a “time alone” but with family and friends. It might be calm sometimes, but it might also be quite vivid, but still – the main thing is that it is destressed and not like all the other days throughout the week where we all run around like crazy trying to get all the things done we think have to be done!
    I am not (yet) reading Yoga/ Hindu theory/ texts since i am still busy to grasp the texts of my own culture (difficult enough!), but i don’t want to exclude that there might be things and techniques which are similar… and also I am a little shy to read these text because I have the feeling that some of them are not so “kosher” for jewish minds, meaning that they deal with avodah zara. But maybe I am wrong, and I don’t want to value it before I read something about it.
    Otherwise I believe that all over the word people are similar with similar problems and longings for harmony and peace. Every culture tries to deal with that and has its own sources to reflect all the questions we have on the conditio humana, develops its techniques to strive for bettering oneself, to relate to others and to find our place in this world. the questions we all have are mostly the same… where did we come from, we do we go to, what is our task in the world – isn’t it?

    Its sukkot now and we are sitting in huts – showing that nothing is really fixe, and that the neccesity of transformation is possible and makes sense every moment of our life!

    Chag sameakh!

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