New yoga, martial arts classes combine spirituality with movement

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When Berkeley yoga instructor Jennifer Mangel asks her students to straighten up from their forward bends, she does more than just remind them to exhale. As her students rise up, Mangel recites part of the Laws of the Morning Blessings (Siman 46): “When one stands up, one should bless ‘Who straightens the bent.'”

Mangel is one of a growing number of local Jewish fitness instructors who integrates Jewish prayers, ideas and values into her classes. Yoga and martial arts teachers around the Bay Area say that their practices have many parallels to the religion.

“Judaism has a lot to say about taking care of our bodies,” says Mangel, a Jewish educator and Mills College graduate student who has taught yoga at Berkeley Hillel. “For example, there are the regulations about what we put into our bodies, and the times that we fast and cleanse according to the calendar.

“Yoga also has this mind-body-spirit triad going on,” Mangel says, explaining that both Judaism and yoga reflect on this interconnectedness. “The spiritual part of the yoga is that the physical practice is preparing you for the communion with the Divine.”

Rabbi Mychal Copeland, who teaches a weekly yoga class at Stanford Hillel, agrees.

“In Judaism, the soul, the body and mind are intertwined,” Copeland says. “Too often, we’re so up in our heads, and we don’t experience Judaism the way that we should.”

Copeland tries to help bring these elements together for those in her class. So, for example, during Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees (this year Feb. 13), she may ask students to bend into the “tree pose,” as she talks to them about rebirth.

“It’s about infusing Jewish sprit into physical practice,” she says. “I often use a portion of the week to bring in themes to resonate with physical posture.”

“So much about yoga and Judaism is about paying attention to that which we rarely pay attention to,” adds Copeland, who leads regular retreats through the New York-based Institute for Jewish Spirituality, an educational organization that provides intensive learning-programs for Jewish leaders.

Julie Emden leads a yoga class for teens as part of Midrasha in Berkeley, the high school program of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay’s Center for Jewish Living and Learning. “I teach every class with an explicit intention to interweave the four worlds of body, heart, mind and spirit,” she says.

Her course, called “Yoga, Art and Sacred Text,” is offered in Berkeley and Rockridge. On the Web site www.yogaartsacredtext.com, Emden describes the workshop as “an experiential yoga and expressive-arts class for Jewish teens to explore spirituality and Judaism. Each week teens use yoga, art, writing, meditation and text from Torah to explore the relationship between body and spirit. At the end of the 10-week session students create a life-size self-portrait based on their studies.”

Jewish yoga for teens?

Oakland teenager Lilly Padia, an alumnus of Emden’s class, explains its value in an article, “Hebrew Yoga?” on JVibe.com:

“I would not have normally taken this class, since Yoga and Hebrew Prayer sounded pretty boring to me. But the class ended up helping me to hold onto who I am, not to mention who I want to be. I have learned that it really pays to give new things a chance.

“My family is not very religious, and this class made me also realize how much Judaism is a part of who I am, and how much I appreciate that.”

Emden says the “Jewish mystical teaching of the worlds of body, heart, mind and spirit is also an integral approach to teaching the expressive arts that I learned in my training at Tamalpa Institute,” founded by dancer Anna Halprin of Marin County.

Emden is a Berkeley movement-artist and educator who’s known in the Bay Area Jewish community for integrating Judaism, movement, dance or yoga, and art at conferences, synagogue retreats and holiday celebrations.

Emden spent four summers teaching yoga, expressive arts and dance at a program in Colorado, called Building Bridges for Peace. The program is designed to enhance communication and leadership among Israeli, Palestinian and American teenage girls.

Currently, Emden teaches bar- and bat mitzvah students at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

“I view myself more as a guide than a teacher,” she says, “and I employ bodily movement, creativity and the arts as a gateway to spirit so that others may explore their relationship to Torah and to God with artful physical and emotional expression.”

Rabbi Daniel Kohn of Marin says similar Jewish parallels can be found in the Japanese defensive martial art of aikido.

Kohn, a third-degree black belt and rabbi-in-residence at the Contra Costa Jewish Day School in Lafayette, has even written a book on the subject. “Kinesthetic Kabbalah: Spiritual Practices from Martial Arts and Jewish Mysticism” examines similarities between the ancient Jewish mystical teachings of Kabbalah and Eastern philosophy.

Having practiced aikido for 16 years, Kohn says that he began “to realize there were so many parallels, and I started writing them down.

“The movements of aikido are suited to make real change,” adds Kohn, explaining that they could be applied to Jewish principles such as tikkun olam (healing the world).

Connecting Judaism to a physical practice is not just happening locally. In its Sept. 17, 2005, issue, the New York Times ran a piece, “In New Yoga Classes, Poses and Prayer,” about this very trend.

Myriam Klotz, a Reconstructionist rabbi at a Jewish spiritual retreat center in Accord, N.Y., talked about using yoga as a way to integrate the body into Judaism. And Stephen A. Rapp, a Boston yoga teacher, developed Aleph-Bet yoga, a series of postures meant to represent Hebrew letters.

“It’s a cliché to say that our body is our temple,” says Berkeley yoga teacher Mangel. Nonetheless, she says, one really can get “that meditative, deep spiritual experience” from both doing yoga, and going to synagogue.