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?”
Meanwhile, in a painful process, Avraham was also imbibing new values from his teacher. “You mustn’t be like us!” Rajiv told him time and time again. “You have to be a Jew. Look at the sun and the moon. The moon is a mere reflection of the sun. It doesn’t have its own light. You have to be the sun.” Avraham had no idea what his teacher was telling him. “He would come back from his classes very frustrated, complaining that he had no idea what Rajiv wanted from him,” recalls Rachel.
Their intensive learning regime left the Kolbergs with little time to explore Indian, so they satisfied their travel bug with day excursions to nearby Hindu holy sites. “One day we visited a Hindu temple that could be entered only through a very low door,” says Avraham. “I knew that by bending so low to get in, we’d be bowing to the idols inside. Even though I had little understanding of what idolatry meant, something inside me was shocked to the core. My soul knew this was an abomination. I couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself, or allow Rachel, to enter,” he recalls.
Rachel smiles. “In India you can’t remain unaffected. Things happen,” she says.
Breslov in Rishikesh and Beyond
The Kolbergs spent four months immersed in Indian culture before they had their first chance to come up for air. “We hadn’t seen a single European since we had arrived and we were longing to see someone who shared our mentality,” Rachel says. This longing took them to Rishikesh, a popular tourist site. Here, they saw a sign advertising a Pesach Seder. “I have fond memories of Pesach,” says Rachel. “My grandmother and I would travel to Moscow to buy matzohs and our neighbors loved sharing our ‘crackers,’ so of course, we were eager to join.”
The Seder, led by Orit and Sagiv, a Breslov couple, was celebrated by 300 people. It was the turning point for the Kolbergs. “We saw a couple who were living for eternal values. At one point in the seder, someone switched on a tape recorder. They begged them not to do that. ‘We’re hosting you, giving you food, please, please respect the values we have!’ they asked their guests.” Later on, during the week of Pesach, the fridge broke down and a huge amount of food spoilt. When the Kolbergs saw that this didn’t stop their hosts from enjoying the holiday, they were impressed. Here was a couple who were taking pleasure in something beyond the physical plane.
When they explained to Orit and Sagiv that they would be staying for another three months at least to complete their studies, they were equipped with a Jewish survival kit: a mezuzah, a kiddush cup, a copy of Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, and a copy of the blessing recited when taking challah. As strange as it seems, the Kolbergs’ yoga studies had laid the foundation for their love of Yiddishkeit. Yoga had prepared for the self-discipline required to follow a life based on halacha.
Back in Tel Aviv, the Kolbergs tried to settle into routine. After the slow pace of Dehardun, life in Tel Aviv was akin to living on a roller coaster. The Kolbergs began going to a Sephardi shul on Shabbos in an attempt to connect to something spiritual. They made friends with Breslov chassidim. Rachel started attending Torah classes in Bat Melech, a learning program for women with little Jewish background in Hod Hasharon, while Avraham began learning Gemara with their new friends. At the same time, they attended the first yoga teacher’s training course in Israel given by foreign teachers. However, by this time, the Hinduism, the mantras and the scriptures that included philosophy of yoga were unpalatable. “We didn’t finish the course, but we were allowed to take the exam and become qualified yoga teachers,” says Avraham.
Eight years ago, realizing that they were ready to break away from the intense yoga culture in Tel Aviv, the Kolbergs moved to Ramat Beit Shemesh. While they continued practicing yoga, without a connection to a schedule organized around yoga, their drive was lost. When Avraham began to put on weight and suffer from minor health problems, the Kolbergs began to wonder if there was a way to hold on to the good that they had gained through yoga and perhaps to even pass it on. They had noticed a lack of awareness of health issues in his new neighborhood. “We felt that we could offer a solution providing that we cleaned out the Hiduism that was part of yoga.” The pinewood paneled roof studio is the result of their dream. Today, the Kolbergs offer regular yoga classes and, in addition, they reach out to even more people by training teachers who start groups of their own.
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The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning to yoke or unite. This implies uniting all aspects of a person (body, mind and soul) to achieve a happy, balanced life. There are several paths of yoga. These paths led to the development of eleven different schools of yoga. One of the most recently developed schools is Iyengar yoga, developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. This type of yoga emphasizes the structural alignment of the physical body through postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayamas). There are over 200 postures and 14 different types of breathing exercises ranging from the basic to advanced. By practicing the exercises, the body, mind and spirit are united and this relieves the stresses of modern-day life.
While meditation certainly has its place in Jewish life (See Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide), the meditation practiced in yoga is often regarded as problematic. Popular yoga meditation classes teach a person how to settle into a mental state of relaxation, go into trance, and visualize something. B.K.S. Iyengar feels that this is not true meditation. According to his view, a true meditative state involves no mental activity. Since this is simply beyond the reach of the average person, meditation is not taught in Iyengar yoga. Instead, this yoga teaches a person how to cultivate a relaxed and tranquil state of mind through performing the postures and breathing exercises. Consequently, when the Kolbergs crafted a kosher version of yoga, they didn’t have to worry about cutting out meditation exercises. In order to make Iyengar yoga kosher, the Kolbergs took out the prayers that many yoga routines begin with; made sure not to refer to postures by their traditional names since many of these names are related to idols; and removed every other grey area that could be questionable. “But you’ll still hear Sanskrit in our classes,” says Rachel. “Since our students are Israeli, American, and French, instructions like ‘Hands up’ are given in Sanskrit to save us calling out in three different languages!”
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The Advantages of Yoga
Like all exercise, yoga improves your strength, flexibility, stamina and balance. However, yoga doesn’t simply promote fitness. Yoga exercises involve the physical body, the breath, the mind and the intelligence, thus affecting the mind, emotions and intellect. For example, before a public speech, a person feels nervous. His shoulders tense and his breathing quickens. His mental state is, in fact, subconsciously reflected in his body and breath. Yoga postures and breathing exercises reflect the same principle. The physical body and the breath are consciously altered to subconsciously regulate the emotions and the mind. Certain postures performed in a specific manner bring about mental relaxation, quietness and serenity. Going back to our man with stage fright, by carrying out some yoga exercises, he will be able to relax his muscles, his breathing and consequently, his state of mind. Yoga also improves general health because it works on the inner organs, circulation and joint action to improve their function. In addition, by encouraging an awareness of the physical body, the mind is sharpened and concentration is improved. One of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin, acknowledged B.K.S Iyengar not only as his best yoga teacher, but also his best violin teacher. With yoga, you can say goodbye to the imbalances wrought by modern life: headaches, stiff necks, lower backache, insomnia and digestive disorders.
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Iyengar differs from the other styles of yoga in three ways: technique, sequence and timing. Technique refers to the precision of the body alignment and the performance of pranayama. Sequence means postures and breathing exercises are practiced in specific sequence. Timing defines the time spent in each exercise.
Iyengar yoga often makes use of props, such as belts, blocks, and blankets, as aids in performing asanas. The props help students to perform the asanas correctly and minimize the risk of injury or strain. Since the props also offer support, elderly, injured, or ill students who cannot put in the full muscular effort required, can reap the benefits of many asanas. Standing poses are emphasized in Iyengar yoga because these build strong legs, improve circulation, coordination and balance and increase vitality in general.
At the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute located in Pune, India, specific programs are offered that target various diseases and disorders such as chronic back pain, immunodeficiency, high blood pressure, insomnia and depression. As the person’s health improves, the exercises are adjusted. A few studies have shown the benefits of Iyengar yoga. In general, Iyengar yoga is useful in physical therapy because it assists in the manipulation of inflexible or injured areas. A limited study by Dr. Sharon Kolasinski showed an improvement in patients that suffered from osteoarthritis of the knees. A second study by Dr. Shapiro on patients suffering from unipolar depression showed that yoga was beneficial in reducing depression, anxiety, and anger. Closer to home, Vardit who lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, describes the excruciating pain caused by a pinched nerve in her back. “Pain killers didn’t help and I was very reluctant to go for cortisone shots,” she says. “Instead, I went to Rachel. She showed me several positions that stretched my back and relieved the pain for the first time in days. I didn’t want to leave her studio!”
About the Author: Rhona Lewis made aliyah more than 20 years ago from Kenya and is now in Beit Shemesh. A writer and journalist who contributes frequently to The Jewish Press’s Olam Yehudi magazine, she divides her time between her family and her work.
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