In a pinewood paneled roof studio in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, Avraham and Rachel Kolberg, Breslover chassidim, teach yoga classes to groups of men and women. Purple and blue exercise mats are neatly folded on wooden shelves. Purple foam blocks, weights of up to twenty kilos and ropes as thick as a man’s wrist are all stacked neatly along the sides of the studio. Plenty of light floods the room from large windows that face the Judean Hills. The sense of peace in this studio comes from more than just the pleasant surroundings.
Born into the affluence of Ramat Hasharon in central Israel, Avraham Kolberg followed the well-trodden path of many Israelis. After completing his army service as an officer in Intelligence, he went on to study photography and then art in Beit Berel, the largest academic college in Israel. In 1998, he married Rachel. Originally from Moscow, Rachel had spent five years as a child in Cuba, where her father had worked as a Russian-Spanish translator, before the family made aliyah to Israel when Rachel was sixteen.
“When I was still in the army, a friend suggested that I try out a course in meditation,” says Avraham, tracing back to the roots of his fascination with Eastern philosophy. “I found out that meditation was very powerful. Every meditation session left me feeling that I had touched something transcendental. But, whereas others felt relaxed after meditating, I felt confused and unsettled,” he says. This interest in anything Eastern was reawakened when the Rachel began attending a yoga class for expectant mothers. The Kolbergs continued attending intensive yoga classes in Tel Aviv over the next three years, joining many workshops given by visiting foreign teachers. At one of these workshops, they met a couple who was to influence their lives in a way they had not imagined. Rajiv and Swati Chanchani, students of B.K.S. Iyengar, opened up a fascinating world to the Kolbergs. After corresponding with them for a short while, they decided to take up the Chanchanis’ offer to teach them and booked three tickets to India—their two-and-a-half year old son would be coming with them. This personalized tutoring program was a lucky break for the Kolbergs because a few years later, the Chanchanis opened the Yog-Ganga Center for Yoga Studies.
Yoga in Dehradun
The Kolbergs destination was Dehradun, the capital city of the state of Uttarakhand in the northern part of India. Dehradun, surrounded by picturesque landscapes and a pleasant climate, is located in the Doon Valley at the foothills of the Himalayas nestled between two of India’s mightiest rivers—the Ganges to the east and the Yamuna to the west. Being close to the Hindu holy cities Haridwar and Rishikesh and other popular Himalayan tourist destinations, Dehradun attracts both local and foreign visitors. But the Kolbergs were not on a tourist trip; their journey was dedicated to studying Iyengar yoga. Dehradun is renowned as home to the Indian Military Academy, research institutions, electronics factories and prestigious educational institutions. Two of these schools, the Doon School for boys and Welhem Girls High School, became home for the Kolbergs for the next six months. The Doon School, whose best known alumnus is former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, is an exclusive boarding school modeled on the British public school system and set in fifteen acres of endless lawns. The Chanchanis were working with the government to introduce yoga into the school curriculum. The Kolbergs worked as assistants in the classes and attended both private lessons and courses given by the Chanshanis. Despite their intensive schedules, throughout their stay in Dehradun, the Kolberg’s son was under parental supervision. “Once we left him with a caretaker and he was bitten by a dog. After that, he never left our side,” says Rachel.
“I loved learning about yoga,” she recalls. “The typical day was very structured and disciplined. It meant rising early, learning theory and plenty of exercise. I wanted more and more. I especially enjoyed the challenge of teaching children. You can give children more complicated exercises to perform and the pace is fast to keep them involved.”
Although Rachel had warm memories of Jewish tradition, Jewish values played an insignificant part in her life at this point. “Swati was the first person to teach me about tznius,” she says. “When we went to teach in the Doon School, she expected me to wear a full length skirt and not to talk to the boys unnecessarily.” This refinement became so much a part of Rachel’s psyche that when she returned to Tel Aviv and met a close friend on a hot summer’s day, her instinctive reaction to her friend’s tank top was, “Why?”
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