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Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

117 responses »

  1. Great. Very interesting write up. Your profile inspiring. Great. Congratulations.

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  2. For some of your reasons, I have not been able to embrace yoga, although I have friends over the years that have enjoyed it immensely and have found it beneficial.. I am trying to get out and walk more lately. It’s a start..

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  3. I never knew yoga had anything to do with religion. I always learn something when I read your blog.

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    • Yoga has Hindu origins but most of what is practiced now, in America, is secular. I see no conflict with any religions, although fundamentalist Christians seem very threatened by it.

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      • I think it depends on the version of yoga you do. I tend to be more comfortable with classes that pick and choose pieces from Yoga and Pilates and ballet and whatever else works for the purpose.

  4. I love the dog poses…we could learn a lot from our pets’ ( sitting with my cats now) mannerisms. Being is the greatest teaching…

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  5. I do not perform well in yoga, poor equilibrium. But my dogs encourage me with nose licks when I have a go at push-ups!

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  6. I never bother with the names of the postures; they just work wonders on making me feel very lithe and strong. When I did my yoga in the morning, Kitty used to come in and sit down right in the middle of the mat. Yes, I did pose around her. 🙂 Now, doing it later in the afternoon, Parker sniffs a bit and then leaves. Maybe if I tried the ‘barking at strangers’ pose, she would be intrigued.

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  7. I do my own version of ‘yoga’ which involves stretching and (as you well know) simultaneously petting one dog and having another nose it’s way under my other hand or arm. Hadn’t thought about how special my hybrid yoga is or how much I love it for awhile until I read your post. Thank you for helping me focus on what is important for me – dog yoga!!

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  8. I loved this blog because I learned a lot. I prefer Doga, too.

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  9. You have to lighten up. The iPhone has a long standing tradition in Judaism-since all the way back to 2007.

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  10. I always refer to the poses my cats get themselves into while grooming as yoga…

    Perhaps try saying a prayer of your own during the poses that disturb you? You’re not co-opting someone else’s religion really, more you are incorporating their methods of finding spiritual calm into your own practise and enriching both in the process.

    No culture (or religion) is static, as much as they would like to pretend that they are. Feel the evolution!

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  11. Downward dog of course is THE pose for them. I’ve just come back from a week’s yoga in Bali and feel like a million dollars. I love the way it teaches you to understand, master and fine-tune your own body well, Iyengar yoga does – not so sure about other versions.

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  12. Like Sharon, above, I feel you should relax and enjoy the practice of bringing body and mind together. Though yoga is used in eastern religious tradition, doing yoga doesn’t have to be religious at all. Enjoy getting in touch with a more flexible you, in all respects? Pip and the boys

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  13. I so love your captions!

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  14. Great post Rachel….thumps up

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  15. I am a great fan of yogalates, which brings yoga and pilates together in stretching and strengthening exercises. The whippets love it too and always join in ☺🐾🐾

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  16. Loved your post.
    As a Catholic various leaders of the church have warned of the ‘dangers’ of yoga. I think it’s something hard for someone to grasp looking at it from a secular perspective. I appreciate your loyalty to your faith.

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  17. Rachel, I love the education you offer about the Jewish faith and how you practice it. Your clarity about boundaries is inspirational to me. Thank you for sharing this thought-provoking piece. (I also exercise with my dog and she thinks it is great fun when I am on the floor stretching and doing my back exercises.)

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  18. I think it’s really cool that you shared your spiritual “cross-over” experience…I would never imagine a Yoga Shabbat but why not? I was raised primarily Catholic and have long abandoned it and any other “labels” with regards to religion BUT I find kernals of wonderfulness in all walks of positive faith to include Judaism and firmly believe we can all fit into this shared “house.” Love to you and your beautiful fur babies! Your awesome sauce Rachel!

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  19. Yoga is so popular now that there is almost an unspoken peer pressure to try it. I admire the fact that you gave it a shot, despite your very valid reservations. But if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, and if you feel that it compromises your own religious values to go to the class, then I think you should give yourself permission not to participate. I think this is a personal decision, and that the people in your congregation will respect that. I have a friend who is Catholic who loves yoga, but when she tried a class at a new yoga studio, she came away saying, “They don’t worship the same God I do.” I think she meant, at least a little bit, what you are saying here. Being true to our own beliefs is important.

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  20. Thanks for a very interesting and thought-provoking post. My daughter-in-law does yoga every day, and she’s never voiced religious concerns. I know a lot of people have. Apparently your Rabbi has no worries. As someone who has not done a second of yoga in his life, I think that separating the exercise component from the ritualistic/religious component may deal with the problem, but what do I know?

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  21. I have done yoga on and off for the past 15+ years and I have NEVER associated any poses with religion. The breaths tune me into my body and how it feels; how I can ‘feel’ the blood cursing through my inner organs, cleansing them. Religion never enters my mind as I meditate, I simply focus on my breath and the poses allow tension to melt away. Flexibility and relaxation are the only products of yoga for me. ღ

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  22. I’ve “tried” yoga a few times in my life and always quit because I felt too non-flexible to do it properly. The times I’ve completed the whole class though, I came away feeling great. Something about the actions and the grace of this discipline satisfies a part of me. And I have never seen yoga from a religious standpoint at all. So to me? It would be just fine for you to imbue it with your own sense of rightness in the universe – use the Jewish faith if that’s what feels natural to you. I am going to give yoga another go because I’m really tired of being so stiff and inflexible in my joints. Once upon a long time ago I used to dance (ballet and jazz) and this past couple of weeks has convinced me that I’m too young to feel this damn old. Yoga is wonderful. I hope you can find what you are looking for using it. Namaste (if that’s not improper).

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    • I used to take jazz and ballet classes too and found both too orthodox for me, too rigid and specific. But I was always drawn to dance at the same time. The feeling of stretch and control of your body is incredible!

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  23. Thank you for your interesting insight into practicing yoga. As a non-religious person, I have practiced yoga for 17 years with a focus on body, mind. It strengthens and calms me. It has helped me learn self-acceptance, mental and physical flexibility. Of course, classes vary from teacher to teacher and from studio to studio. I would personally prefer a totally secular class, with no references to quasi-religious beliefs such as chakras, meridians, third eye, etc. But as a writer I can appreciate the metaphors such “the light in me acknowledges the light in you.” I love my current, gentle teacher, but I confess I tune her out when she starts talking about the imaginary body parts. But she also says, practice the yoga of kindness, with ourselves and others.

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  24. Hm. I’ve never been to a yoga class so I can’t really identify but I think I would prefer the child’s pose and to take the class with Spike and Charly. They would guarantee a good time, regardless of the mantras and awkward positions. Good for you for giving it a whirl.

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    • I’ve always wanted to find a Doga class (they exist!) where dogs are integrated into the actual exercises. But Cricket is not a fan of doing what she’s told to do. She prefers freeform.

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      • Regretfully, I have never had a dog that had any interest in doing what I told them to do. For example, we just removed Charly’s crate from the house moments ago because we were unable to get her to participate in crate training. Spike has always loved his crate and sees it as his safe place during dangerous times so we were hopeful for Charly to become fond of hers. Go figure.
        So Doga is out of the question for us at Casa de Canterbury.
        I can envision problems with Cricket, too!

      • I can always envision problems with Cricket, in any situation.

  25. There are some really important issues here. What if the intention of those who developed the prayers and postures was precisely that they be interpreted by the individuals taking part in ways that fitted their own beliefs? It reminds me of the story told by C.G. Jung, of the man from a European Christian background who was very impressed by Buddhism and by Eastern religious traditions. He spent some time in a monastery somewhere in Asia and when he was leaving the Abbot (if that term can be used) gave him a present, finely wrapped up. When he opened it, he found a beautiful bible.

    I’m interested in what you say about individual intention. I have two comments on that. One is that in prayer or any deep experience, what we intend when we start and where we end up may be quite different. If they never were, we don’t know God. The other is about communality. My religious group, Quakers, is both highly individual and highly communal. Our founder preached that in every human was a light and the individual has to search for and open him/herself up to this light. But we do much of this together and the experience of a “grounded” Quaker meeting is of a spiritual coming together. When we practise meditation outside this, it seems to me we often end up finding whatever message comforts, reassures and fails to challenge us. In other words, we’re talking to ourselves and finding what we want to find.

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  26. Being conservative, I can’t even imagine incorporating exercise into Shabbat, other than walking to shul. You raised some interesting points. I go with the puppy sneaker rest myself.

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  27. Based on your post, I’d have to say yoga is not for you. One of the main reasons for practicing yoga is to quiet the mind so you can discover your own truths. However in your case, your fears and doubts do not make this possible.

    Also, Buddhism is not a religion. Buddha, which means “enlightened one” said he was not creating a religion but rather a way for people to discover “the way things are.” I’ll grant you that, yes, the names of the poses are Sanskrit, as are many of the mantras, but I think there is nothing more beautiful than namaste, the divine in me greets the divine in you.

    But good for you Rachel, at least you tried.

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  28. I think Butterfly has downward dog down pat. I also do Dog Yoga. Thanks for sharing.

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  29. hello cricket its dennis the vizsla dog hay i hav that eksakt saym rope bone!!! i am shoor i left it arownd heer sumware!!! ok bye

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  30. Well done for having a go, in spite of your feelings. My daughter and I went to yoga for the first time last Tuesday. We were aching until Sunday! I had done it before; she never. I’m going again. We’ll see!

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  31. I love Yoga. Need to get back to it.

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  32. Entertaining and thought provoking post.

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  33. I enjoyed the post. I have avoided yoga for much the same reasons as you seem to have. I do practice silence in the Quaker tradition rather than meditate. I am not so concerned about the cultural appropriation as I am about losing my own center. I would be substituting eastern meditation for … “waiting worship” as an individual practice?

    For exercise, when I am able, I do some of the warm-up exercises from a NYC Ballet exercise DVD. Not overdoing exercises is always difficult. 😀

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  34. Many years ago one of our ministers would not allow his twin daughters go to Yoga classes because of the religious and cultural implications. Never had any involvement with this so I really wouldn’t know. But an interesting post. Have to say that I’m with Butterfly and Cricket on the ‘Resting Pose” – that’s for me…

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  35. Dear Rachel, this post really resounded with me, in my Jehovah’s Witnessesness. My faith also shuns other foreign God’s and I find different modern practices confusing. After all , our beliefs are very similar in many ways. But I feel the love you have, and your desire to please your Creator, and if I feel it, I know He does, much more.
    I can relate so much to you, behind the pole, overdoing till you hurt yourself, etc. I have grown to feel your struggles as my own, as a result of your extraordinary writing ability. So, keep up the good work, and be yourself. You are beautiful!

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  36. Every time I’m hanging off the edge of my bed doing shoulder stretches, my pets see it as a good opportunity to lick my upside down face, then roll over for tummy rubs.

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  37. Very interesting and thoughtful post, Rachel 🙂

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  38. I’ve always thought of yoga as the training you do to optimize your ability to meditate. Which I don’t associate with religion (and everyone always says Buddhism is ideology, not religion) particularly. I’m glad to hear you tried it out anyhow. I’ve done a few yoga lessons, and wish I had more time/commitment to improve =)

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  39. Oh, dear Rachel Markowitz… your writing just keeps getting better & better & better. I love it. I love your dogs! It has a magic… a spirituality… such a voice. Such a voice. THANK YOU.

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  40. i’m inspired
    to do a little
    down dog, thanks 🙂

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  41. Laura McDaniel

    Love this post (like others) – I NEED to try Yoga (again) myself – for my health and also as others related to (for my mental health). It’s always helpful to see/read others insights and even if it didn’t work out, you tried it. Just like me, I’m trying to get back to my walk/jogs but the jogging part isn’t as easy as it used to be, in fact very painful. But that’s because of the extra weight on my body.
    Thanks for sharing this with us and yes, the dogs can do those poses better. My silly cat Archer interprets my stretches as the time to want to play fight with me, so I’m sure the yoga will do the same. LOL

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  42. I’m sure cricket is an expert at downward dog Pose! Such gorgeous photos and thanks for liking my post

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  43. Yes. I was taught that yoga is a religion. So, I had shied away from it. When reading up on it . . . there is a lot of information that does say it is a religion . . . but there is a lot of information that says it is not.

    Now that yoga has become so “Westernized” and far removed from religion, I have studied it a bit more. I have since been taught that it was actually created for those that would forsake all . . . kinda makes sense. I mean, look at some of the poses . . . no one that has any other type of life at all could get into some of those poses! They take HOURS of practice. They are inhuman! Twisting and contorting in ways the body was surely not meant to move! And those people that gave up everything to do yoga were out to become enlightened. To be one with God or the universe. To rise above it all.

    But now . . . for many, it is JUST a form of exercise. Some might work hard to do those really challenging poses . . . but for so many it is just exercise . . . granted a type of mind-body exercise, but still. Many of your commenters claimed they didn’t even know it was connected to a religion at all.

    Ahh . . . . so my point is . . . well, I have a lot of points, so I will just say, thank you for sharing some of your thoughts that I, too have had. My advice (although you didn’t ask) is for you to not do it if it makes you uncomfortable. But if you are interesting in relaxing, relieving anxiety, getting flexible, getting strong, among many other things, then perhaps you might want to give doing a regular practice a try . . . but only if you can be comfortable doing so.

    I tend to be more comfortable in classes that are more “exercise” and less “chanty-omy”.

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    • “no one that has any other type of life at all could get into some of those poses!” – I love this line!

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      • Well, it is true. That is the whole secluding oneself and focusing, and practicing the body into the poses. And Kechari mudra. All distractions must be removed in order to reach the highest state. :-). Most of us are lucky if we can pause our life to get to a class or roll out the mat at home.

  44. Wondering if it is a case of “East is east and West is West and never shall the twain meet”. Even, as a non- hindu Indian, Yoga comes naturally to me as it helps me connect with myself and the greater spiritual power that is universal to all just like the sky, sun, moon and the earth. The poses are named in sanskrit of course, the language of that time….just like all modern medical terminologies happen to be in Latin. Growing up in diverse India definitely helped me as, we had neoghbors with different traditions, different religions and it all just felt like a different approach to same universal truth……

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  45. Pingback: Yoga Shabbat — rachelmankowitz – Traveling around the world

  46. Such an interesting reading! I had no idea that yoga was used this way too, I would have loved to attend the session. I am Jewish myself and I don’t see at all Yoga as anything religious. I love the meaning of intention, and the fact that yoga helps in focusing, adjusting your body and your mind, creating union. I would really love to interview your rabbi about her vision of yoga, I am totally fascinated by your post.
    I teach yoga to children as well, and beyond the pose, the simple fact than being aware of your breathing and being focused on yourself and yourself only is so relaxing to them. You are right to go at your own pace, there is nothing to force, good enough that you finally went to the class 🙂 There is always something good to explore when we go slightly beyond our boundaries. All the very very best to you and thanks for sharing this post!

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    • I’ve heard great things about teaching yoga to children. I’ve been trying chair yoga videos on youtube to work my way up to the advanced class the rabbi leads.

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      • So you are already into it 😉 Your post made me so curious, I have been browsing “Yoga Shabbat” for the last hours .. and still doing! Are many people attending the sessions? I would love to join, too bad I am a little far 😉

      • I’ve seen a bunch of Yoga Shabbat classes listed at various synagogues. There’s something about the idea of taking a deep breath and finding some peace that works well with Shabbat.

      • Exactly! And I like the fact that it is not competitive, and that you have to be mindful in everything you are doing and thinking. I can see how it could relate, although it had never crossed my mind before .. I guess this kind of yoga only exists in the States or maybe in Australia, I never ever heard about any class in France, for sure. Is your synagogue liberal?

      • Very liberal. There must be some liberal synagogues in France. No?

      • I think there is only 1, in Paris and if I am not mistaken only 3 reform rabbis in the country ..And definitely not liberal enough to do a Shabbat Yoga ! unfortunately

      • Indeed 😛
        I am sure it would drag lots of young and curious people though .. But the Jewish consistory in France is far too conservative for that.

  47. Lovely post! Your dog is so cute. It is interesting to do yoga on a rest day.

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