Yoga and Judaism

If I am not for myself, Who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? —Hillel the Elder, 110 BCE-10CE 

The beauty of a lake reflects the beauty around it. When the mind is still, the beauty of the Self is seen reflected in it.—Guruji 

Iyengar Yoga and a conversion to Reform Judaism offered me a solid way forward out of a troubling childhood. And now, forty years later, I can tell what happened, but I still don’t know why the universe offered me these wonderful tools. 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? 

My story is about a childhood lost at a dear age and sadly not missed until adulthood. Hatred, disdain, disapproval, loathing, aversion, hostility, antipathy: this was a special childhood, one filled with abuse and drink, populated by a sequence of incomplete father figures, a blended, confused family of transitioning parents and no center. It was the home of a cowering child who wondered about the next blow. 

My mother created this mess and she knew it, tearfully. She had chosen meritless men, choices that chilled her even at her death. She watched her children—all of us—drive ourselves from self-made cliffs: loveless, sequential marriages, alcohol, lives with no meaning. There was no real way forward; there was no example of how to live a life. I was awash in the early seventies with no touchstone whatsoever. Heavy involvement 

in civil rights and antiwar estranged us further. She hated blacks, she hated Jews, she hated anyone different, but she adored Fritz, the “homosexual” living next door. When I came home from school, I didn’t know what to say to her. Still, she instilled in me a lifelong love of learning, a sense that things can be better, and a knowledge that there is no shame in failure. Try again. Find your way. She could be brutal about it. “Pick yourself up!” she’d say. 

And when I am for myself, what am I? 

By my mid-twenties, I knew that I needed to fashion a life. From the bottom, up, I needed a past, a present, and a way to the future. I knew that. I was both worried and delighted that I might forget who I am. My inner story began to find flesh, and a center, as I learned about being Jewish and about practicing yoga. Reb Jeff ( clarified it by saying, “you can’t just study Judaism, you have to live it.” That was perfect; I had always wanted a model. 

Both yoga (in general) and Judaism are, as Reb Jeff explained, “experienced traditions.” For him, and for me, there is less to be gained from yoga by reading about it than by doing it. The part that I really needed—the inner strength—came from doing the poses, not from reading the philosophy. Yes, Patanjali is there, with the traveler, gently admonishing the pilgrim to be “steady, firm, and comfortable.” Jewish philosopher Maimonides, too, urges the heart forward, assuring that “all depends on G-d.” Still, it is the doing that steadies the heart.

Faith and study, the deeper aspects of the Jewish religion, never mattered much to me; I glommed onto the ritual and the belonging. Judaism gave me a family. And stability. Routine. Roots. A sense of the past and of the future. What mattered, and still matters, are Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Chanukah. Yes, I am still goyishe, but I am also fully accepted by my Jewish friends and family. Their proud history is now mine.

And how did yoga fit in? As a child I avoided learning about myself—and, under the hand of an angry parent, learned to devalue what little I knew. Yoga took this devaluation away, teaching me about my own body, letting me feel where my limbs are in space, and allowing me to experience the power of my own breath. These are all mine; they are all me. Freud wrote that he could not “think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” Jungian analyst Eugene Monick goes further, arguing that men have a deep need for fraternity and bonding. I fashioned my own substitutes in Iyengar Yoga and Reform Judaism.

If not now, when?

My friend Larry says that he always feels better after class but that he cannot motivate himself to go unless he has back pain. Guruji knows about this. He writes, “Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained.” I know about this, too: I cannot stop going to class because I know the pain will return. 

Guruji also writes, “Illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you have to choose to embark on the Inward Journey to discover it.” Not only do I have to choose, but I must also choose to remember.

In a recent television series on the history of mathematics, the presenter hesitates, contemplating the inherent beauty of the Pythagorean Theorem—that the sum of the squares of a right triangle equals the square of the longest side—and then quotes Richard J. Trudeau, a scholar of mathematical philosophy: “When the pall of familiarity lifts, as it occasionally does, and I see the Theorem of Pythagoras afresh, I am flabbergasted.” Pythagoras’ “simple” theorem, so central to mathematics, has, buried in itself, an obvious kernel of beauty visible to us whenever the “pall” of familiarity lifts. 

Sometimes the pall of daily life, with its daily grind, makes me forget to be flabbergasted, but I have a solution: Go to class. Keep the holidays. In both yoga and Judaism I am an imperfect student, but I keep coming back. And I am flabbergasted with my life now, finally.

Michael Spencer is a garden writer, columnist, blogger, and landscape architect. He lives and practices yoga in Naples, FL, with his wise, thoughtful life-mate, Suzie Muchnick, a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, and is held captive by seven cats.