For many religious Jews, Christians and Muslims, viewing yoga as a physical rather than spiritual practice solves the dilemma.
But Rabbi Avivah Winocur Erlick, a chaplain at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, says it is impossible to separate yoga from her Jewish spiritualism. About six years ago, Erlick began having intense spiritual experiences while doing yoga. She sought advice from a rabbi.
“He said, ‘God has been trying to reach you all these years and he is reaching you through yoga,” Erlick recalled. The rabbi challenged her to reconcile yoga with Judaism, which led to five years of study to become a rabbi. “For me, yoga is prayer,” Erlick said.
Erlick, who is writing a book on the subject, says Jews have vigorously debated the issue for two decades. She counts 83 active teachers, mainly in the U.S. and Israel, who combine yoga and Judaism.
One is Californian Ida Unger, who draws on Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, to interpret yoga postures as Hebrew letters. Unger recently demonstrated her aleph bet yoga to seniors at Los Angeles’ Milken Community High School.
“I was in a triangle pose and I had an epiphany. I was an aleph,” Unger told the class, posing in the shape of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
“In Kabbalah, letters are the building blocks with which the holy creator is channeled to Earth.”
Unger chants shalom (peace) instead of om, and recites the daily Jewish prayer for awakening when she does the sun salutation.