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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Is Yoga Kosher?

Islamic yoga objections are more worrisome as the proponents of yoga in Muslim lands try to "avoid a fatwa."
Avraham and Rachel Kolberg at their yoga institute in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Avraham and Rachel Kolberg at their yoga institute in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Photo Credit: beitshemeshyoga.com

Does doing yoga make you a Hindu? asks William Kremer across the pond at the BBC. He wrote a smart article on the subject with insights from a number of smart people.

He frames the issue in terms of whether people see yoga poses as religious practices.

For many people, the main concern in a yoga class is whether they are breathing correctly or their legs are aligned. But for others, there are lingering doubts about whether they should be there at all, or whether they are betraying their religion…

Farida Hamza, a Muslim woman living in the US, had been doing yoga for two or three years when she decided she wanted to teach it.

“When I told my family and a few friends, they did not react positively,” she recalls. “They were very confused as to why I wanted to do it – that it might be going against Islam.”

Their suspicions about yoga are shared by many Muslims, Christians and Jews around the world and relate to yoga’s history as an ancient spiritual practice with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism.

Last year, a yoga class was banned from a church hall in the UK. “Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise,” said the priest, Father John Chandler. “Being a Catholic church we have to promote the gospel, and that’s what we use our premises for.” Anglican churches in the UK have taken similar decisions at one time or another. In the US, prominent pastors have called yoga “demonic”.

One answer to the question of whether yoga really is a religious activity will soon be given by the Supreme Court in the country of its birth, India.

Last month, a pro-yoga group petitioned the court to make it a compulsory part of the school syllabus on health grounds – but state schools in India are avowedly secular. The court said it was uncomfortable with the idea, and will gather the views of minority groups in the coming weeks.

Opposition to yoga comes from many religious sources, most prominently Islamic and Christian clergy. Some Americans came up with a way of resolving some objections through clever rebranding.

Children at nine primary schools in Encinitas, California, take part in classes twice a week based on a style of yoga called ashtanga yoga. After some parents complained – US schools, like Indian ones, are secular – the Sanskrit names for the postures were replaced with standard English names and some special child-friendly ones, such as “kangaroo” “surfer” and “washing machine”. The lotus position has been rebranded “criss-cross apple sauce”, the Surya namaskar has become the “opening sequence” and the organisers insist that it is all just a form of physical exercise.

Some parents remained unconvinced though, and a Christian organisation, the National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP) took up their case. In September this year, the San Diego County Superior Court ruled that although yoga’s roots are religious, the modified form of the practice is fine to teach in schools.

Islamic yoga objections are more worrisome as the proponents of yoga in Muslim lands try to “avoid a fatwa.”

A founding member of the Iranian Yoga Federation spoke to the BBC. She did not wish to give her name.

We are always walking on eggshells as yoga instructors, afraid that the doors to the practice will be closed.

When I’m teaching yoga I always emphasise that it’s not a religion. It’s not Hindu or Buddhist. It’s a philosophy and an approach. It’s a practice that can make you feel better. It improves your concentration and gives you energy – although we always have to be very careful when we mention energy as this can be misinterpreted. We’re working hard to avoid getting a fatwa.

But it’s interesting – we actually had a mullah who was a yoga teacher and lots of families of senior clerics who attend classes too.

Kremer emphasizes the mystical nature of yoga for some Jewish practitioners.

Estelle Eugene co-runs the Jewish Yoga Network and for 20 years has taught yoga to Jewish and non-Jewish people in London.

“I’ve found with general Judaism here that it’s difficult to find a spiritual side that I relate to,” she says. “So the yoga helps me to do that. And it enhances my respect and understanding of Jewish practices that I hadn’t fully understood previously.”

She says she makes small adjustments to yoga where she feels there is a conflict with Judaism. She never attends or holds a class on the holy day, Saturday, and she prefers classes without the chanting of mantras.

Eugene recently ran a Day of Jewish Yoga, which explored ways of combining yoga with Judaism. One of the sessions combined yoga with practices to help participants reach kavanah, the meditative mind-set seen as an essential for Jewish prayer and rituals.

On her website, a testimonial from Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland, says yoga offers “much blessing and enlightenment” and arguably helps “recapture Jewish wisdom and practice which may have been lost”.

Bottom line: Is yoga kosher?

I practiced yoga for several years under the guidance of Bonnie West, a wonderful American teacher in Minneapolis. I increases my flexibility and balance through the poses and learned to settle my consciousness through its meditations. I derived great benefits from practicins yoga. And I never once felt any conflict between my yoga and my Judaism.

Yes, yoga is kosher for me. Your experiences may vary depending on who you are and where you are coming from, as the BBC article deftly suggests.

Visit The Talmudic Blog.

About the Author: Tzvee Zahavy is a triathlon swimmer, a competitive golfer, a prolific author of books on Judaism, a prize-winning professor with a PhD from Brown University, a compassionate rabbi with semicha from Yeshiva University, and a fun guy.


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15 Responses to “Is Yoga Kosher?”

  1. Well to my knowledge yoga is a sport practice not religious ….

  2. Anthony Kent says:

    As a yoga fan, I turn the question round: in what is what way is it not kosher? A few ohms does not feel avodah zora-ish. The improvement in kavanah comes through a less cluttered mind. Go for it.

  3. Alain Attal says:

    I would say that Yoga can be kosher for Jewish or okay for catholic protestants but not for christian people and absolutely no Hallal at all… According what I read its seems like Budha was a jewish Orphelin that made up his phylosophy on the old testament … If its right then jewish and protestant can practice it …. Chrestians in europe reject the Old testament and Muslim came abbout 500 yrs after Jesus and their believe diesn’t really match with the Buddism philosophie. Its my opinion but its maybe not 100% , I am quite sur it would be not a big deal to respond to this question with some simple research..

  4. Rosi Gordon says:

    There you go again…strange fire to Hashem.

  5. Rosi Gordon says:

    There you go again…strange fire to Hashem.

  6. Lara Harris says:

    most yoga classes are about stretching and breathing, caring for our muscles in a calm rejuvenating manner.. some classes make it a religious experience but most that I’ve observed are not (Just my opinion)

  7. Anonymous says:

    Yoga is the Sanskrit word for "union." The goal of yoga is union with their Higher Power within by stilling the mind in meditation, which is why the yoga practices were invented thousands of years ago. It came out of Hinduism. While the relaxation and stretching techniques and vegetarian diet are physically beneficial, true yoga includes worship of the guru, chanting the names of Hindu (and other) deities, and the belief that all religious paths are equivalent, as well as other avodah zorah practices. At the same time, there are many Jewish concepts that are equivalent in yoga, such as reincarnation, nullification of the ego, and the true meaning of suffering as soul-rectification. Probably because Avraham Aveinu sent his sons to the east. There is also such a thing as Jewish meditation, which does not involve anything related to Hinduism. An excellent book is by R' Aryeh Kaplan, ob"m.

  8. Josh Barrack says:

    If it’s taught as an exercise, then sure Yoga is fine. I do yoga at my gym and there’s no spiritual component. I’ve been doing Asian martial arts my whole life, and they’re fine too, with the same caveat.

  9. Kung fu could also fall into this, yet we all know this is a different form of excerise, not practicing a religion

  10. May be jewish people can pratice yoga but replace mantras with hebrew passukim ? what do you guys think about using passukim with yoga stances ?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Instead of saying "shanthi om," say "shalommmmm!" Much more powerful.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Instead of saying "shanthi om," say "shalommmmm!" Much more powerful.

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