NOTE: Obviously, I do not actually think that yoga is just like Orthodox Judaism. As a person who studies religion, spirituality, and belief, I do, however, find it fascinating when you find resemblances, however coincidental, in unexpected places. I also think that comparing such wildly disparate traditions helps us see and appreciate both in a new way. If I have, nonetheless, offended you, then please forgive me.
1. Both have a recognizable “outfit.”
Looking at these individuals, I’m sure you will be able to glean at least a few key facts about their identity and interests. Granted, their appearances don’t summarize them or capture every facet of their personality, but they’re far more transparent than, say, the average guy on the metro.
2. Both have specialized paraphernalia that only insiders know how to use.
Observant Jews place tefillin on their heads and wrap them around their arms during most weekday morning prayers. The proper method of wrapping tefillin is not immediately apparent to one who picks them up, and, even more frustratingly, different traditions within Judaism have different protocol for wrapping them. Similarly, many yoga studios will offer the visitor a bewildering array of yoga props, including blocks, straps, blankets, bolsters, and sometimes, in the Iyengar tradition, even some scary-looking contraptions. You’re supposed to use the props to help yourself find stability and ease in your yoga poses… but how?
3. Both require you to be familiar with an ancient language, one of the oldest in the world, in fact. These languages are written in characters that appear frustratingly similar to one another.
Sanskrit and Hebrew are both considered sacred languages that convey timeless truths, and both are, in a sense, untranslatable. They’re also both basically made up of tiny squares with very slight differences between them, inviting the beginner to headache and eyestrain as he tries to distinguish between different characters.
4. Both have a tradition of belief in reincarnation.
It’s well-known that yoga springs from traditional Indian spiritualities that include a belief in the reincarnation of the soul, although this point is typically omitted or glossed over in modern, secular yoga. Many people don’t know, however, that Orthodox Judaism includes a belief in reincarnation. According to Jewish mystical tradition, or Kabbalah, we cycle through many, possibly even hundreds, of lifetimes in order to make up for past failings and to fulfill all 613 commandments of Judaism.
5. Both have prominent spiritual leaders who commanded a huge following, including these two early twentieth-century giants who helped to mediate between tradition and a rapidly modernizing world.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was born in 1888 in Southern India, and is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Yoga.” Traditions like Ashtanga and Iyengar trace their lineage directly from his students, and most present-day vinyasa yoga is indirectly inspired by his teaching. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism, was born in 1902 in present-day Ukraine, and would be honored for his accomplishments by everyone from Reform Jewish leaders to U.S. presidents. Krishnamacharya lived to 100, and Schneerson to 92, and both had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of their respective traditions’ literature and philosophy. More importantly, their mission in life was to present this philosophy in a form that would be appealing and relevant to modern people. Today, their followers are still growing in number.
6. Both are ridiculously complex and ridiculously simple at the same time.
Yoga is simply moving with the breath, and the essence of Judaism–that God is one and that you should love Him with all your heart, soul and strength– is contained in the Shema and the prayers that immediately follow. At the same time, the full code of Jewish law literally fills shelves full of books, and the Vedic texts that form the original context for yoga date back to at least 1500 B.C., give or take. There are also new layers of scholarly tradition in Orthodox Judaism and yoga that appear in almost every age.
7. Certain foods are sometimes completely taboo, and dietary restrictions in general are a big point of focus.
Jews are always forbidden from eating pork and other foods that are deemed treif, or unclean. In addition, during the days of Passover, Jews cannot eat or derive any benefit from leavened foods, and will clean not only their kitchen but their entire house, even searching behind furniture, to ensure that no crumbs of bread remain in their possession. Serious yogis will often scrutinize their food with equal, if not greater, intensity to make sure that it’s free from animal products, gluten, or processed sugar.
8. If a member of either group eats meat, they will want to know exactly where the meat came from and how the animal was slaughtered.
Yoga practicioners will sometimes go completely vegan, since traditional Vedic religion regards the consumption of meat as a serious offense, which will cause you to get eaten yourself in a future life as punishment. If they do eat meat, however, they typically incline towards the free-range, ethically raised, humanely slaughtered variety. Orthodox Jews will only eat meat from kosher animals, like cows and sheep, that have been slaughtered and prepared in accord with Jewish law. Kosher slaughter, or shechita, when performed properly, is also meant to kill the animal with minimal pain.
9. Traditionally, in both systems you must get up very early in the morning to complete certain rituals.
Jewish morning prayers, or Shacharit, are ideally said during sunrise, whenever that might be in your part of the world. According to Ayurveda, the traditional system of Indian medicine that corresponds to yoga, the healthiest time of day to do yoga and exercise is in the early morning, from around 6-9am.
10. If you are unfamiliar with either system and wander into one of their gatherings, you will feel extremely lost and resort to looking at the person next to you out of the corner of your eye. To your great chagrin, you will then realize that many people are apparently doing their own thing.
One system of yoga that hews closely to its Indian roots is Ashtanga yoga, which was developed by Krishnamacharya’s student K. Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga yogis get up early in the morning to practice Mysore-style, which means they go through Jois’ series of poses at their own pace. In Jewish prayers like Maariv, or evening service, if you walk in late, up to a certain point, you can catch up on your own. In addition, many of the prayers during Maariv are said silently to oneself, and some people pray more slowly or quickly than others. You can fake your way through it, or just stand there and look lost.
11. Even though both groups are minorities among the general population, both yoga and Orthodox Judaism contain many different branches that sometimes get along, and sometimes argue bitterly.
Nowadays, the different movements within Orthodox Judaism mostly recognize each other’s legitimacy. Back in the early 1700s, however, when the Hasidic movement was spreading in Eastern Europe, it was not recognized as Orthodox by many established Jewish authorities, and the Hasidim were even declared to be cut off from the community at one point. Modern yoga, notoriously, features many teachers who claim to transmit the sole “authentic” form of yoga, declaring all other yogas heretical. Other yogis are more pluralistic in their mindset.
12. People who are really serious about them tend to live in special communities or enclaves.
Ashrams, once the staple of hippie spiritual experimentation, seem to have morphed into destinations for high-end spiritual tourism. Those wishing to establish a more permanent focus on yoga in their life would do better moving to a yoga-heavy community like Encinitas, California or Boulder, Colorado, or any other of the dozens of urban areas known for having a yoga studio on pretty much every block. For Orthodox Jews, it’s obviously easier to fulfill their religion’s strict requirements with the support of a community. New York and Baltimore hold the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the US, but for the truly adventurous there’s Mea Shearim, a strictly Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israel.
13. Misconceptions and stereotypes about both groups are rife among those who are unfamiliar with them.
The people who hold the worst stereotypes about yoga or Orthodox Judaism are those who have never met a yogi or an Orthodox Jew, and have definitely never tried a yoga class or gone to a Jewish service. Fear of The Other sometimes seems depressingly like a knee-jerk, deeply-ingrained human quality, but when you look closer, The Other is not only fascinating, but often has things to teach you as well.