In June, my partner and I drove from Blacksburg to the Poconos to spend time with his family and on the return trip, we visited his Shanti Mama – Big Mama to many of those there. It was definitely a kindred spirits sort of moment, wherein Big Mama and I immediately began speaking of our mutual love of comparative religion. He took S. aside at one point and began talking with him about the connections between Hinduism and Judaism and how he and I could find much common ground between our religious backgrounds. I joined into the conversation and (as usual) derailed it to other things, but the ideas stuck in the back of my head. Part of the wonderful challenge of being in an interfaith/intercultural relationship is having to navigate these differences in religious traditions.
Yesterday, when I attended my first yoga class at Hillel at Virginia Tech, the concepts I had discussed with Big Mama resurfaced in my mind. My Hillel has partnered with Blacksburg Yoga Collective to offer donation-based yoga classes once a week at at our Jewish center. The new Hillel center has many multipurpose sorts of rooms at the center, so I was quite shocked when our yoga session was held in the main room normally reserved for services.
If you are unfamiliar with the Malcolm Rosenberg Hillel Center, the sacred space is actually one of my very favorite. It is simple, multipurpose, and not one piece of furniture or decoration in the room stands out to me as ostentatious and unnecessary. Natural light streamed through the room coming in from narrow windows starting halfway up the walls and going up to the top of the vaulted ceiling. It was the first time I had seen the space not set up for worship – the chairs were stacked at the periphery of the room, the ark housing the Torah was closed, and yoga mats and blocks were stacked at the side of the room. Sunlight poured in, heating window-shaped blocks of warmth on the carpet under our bare feet.
I was immediately struck by how awesome (an overused worse, to be sure, but in this religious setting awe-struck was how I felt) it was that we were practicing an ancient Indian form of bodily and mental meditation in a religious space dedicated to a (not quite as equally) ancient monotheistic religion from Palestine.
I will admit that with regard to the meditative quality of yoga, as with most meditation, I am completely unable to clear my mind or focus solely on my breath or the alignment of my body. And often, when trying to ease into a particularly difficult pose, my lack of poker face shows the instructor (in this case, Thea, one of the best yoga instructors I have ever had) just how much I loathe them for a single instant (after which, I attempt to, you know, remember that I’m there to relax and care for my body and not to have angry thoughts and facial expressions…).
So it should not at all have come as a shock to me that my mind wandered back to Big Mama’s words about the similarities between Hinduism and Judaism. And, being in a space where I’ve sung Kol Nidre, where I’ve attended Shabbat services several times, I began to hear the Hindu-inspired words from our instructor and attempt to put them into a Jewish context.
There are two things I cannot shake from brain thoughts yesterday, the first being Thea’s reminders to find support in the earth below us, to press our hands into the ground below us, to place our weight back onto our feet that ground us. We have a phrase in Hebrew, tikkun olam, which translates to “repairing the world.” If you research the word olam in Strong’s, there are connections with this word and eretz, or earth/land, in the Hebrew Bible. So often my brain hears tikkun olam as “repairing the earth,” however etymologically problematic. Tikkun olam is the directive we have as G-d’s created beings to care for or be stewards of creation. In our yogic practice, instead of repairing the world, we actively used the earth, or land, or world to repair ourselves. We found strength pushing against the ground beneath us, finding stability and strength in its immovable, constant nature.
In Christianity, there is a Golden Rule, given down by Jesus: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. In most of the World Religions textbooks I’ve taught from, they point out that “Eastern” (I use this with a slight rolling of my eyes. Eastern from what POV?) religions generally have a version of this rule in the negative sense: Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto yourself. It is a difference point of view on the same basic concept. Of course, we cannot just call this something unique – these texts refer to this negative sense of the Golden Rule as the Silver Rule, and those of us who grew up under the influence of the modern Olympics know that Silver Is Not As Good As Gold. The Silver Rule, if we choose to call it that, is not inferior to the Golden Rule; it is simply a different way of describing the same concept.
As I stretched and pushed my body ever so slightly past where it was willing to do, finding strength in my breath and the ground beneath me, I was struck how my yogic practice was the inverse, or a different point of view, on the same practice only a few weeks ago I had done in that same sanctuary space. Instead of vowing to help repair the world, the world – the earth – was repairing me, was helping me to realign my sore joints and come as close to achieving five feet of height as I ever will.
The second thing I was struck by was the sunlight itself. As part of our morning practice, we performed the surya namaskara (sun salutation) multiple times. I have performed yoga in multiple states, over about a decade, in various spaces, but never in a space with that much sunlight washing over us. In college, yoga class (my PE credit) was held in an auxiliary gym with no windows. At Virginia Tech, our on-campus classes are held in an, again windowless, gymnasium. When I lived in Athens, my favorite classes were held in an old warehouse, again, sans sunlight.
To perform a sun salutation, in my Jewish house of worship, while being mindful the creation words of Genesis 1, was powerful. It was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside when I left for yoga, bundled up in a hoodie, but inside the sanctuary, I was not cold at all in my yoga pants and tank top. It was the first time I had ever truly performed a sun salutation (and I’d never realized I hadn’t!), and the feeling was almost overwhelming.
I am one that tends to get quite sad during the winter months. The shortening days and the lack of sunlight (we don’t call it Bleaksburg for nothing) really does get to me. Even as much as I love rain, days on end of bleak weather can bring me down. This year, I have read/reread about 100 books preparing for my comprehensive examinations for my Ph.D., and I spent as much of that reading time outside as I could, either on my back porch or, for most of this summer, in California, soaking up the sun like a lifesaver. In fact, I think this summer was the first time in my life I’ve been even remotely tan (yes, Dad, I did wear sunscreen). And the fact that most of the major changes in my life that have come in the last year have been supported by my partner whose name literally means Sun was not lost on me as I stood there, toes grounding me to the earth, beams of light flooding the room.
I doubt I would have felt this way if we had had our practice in any other room of Hillel. The merging of two forms of religious practice, and the meaning that can come from interfaith dialogue, should never be taken for granted. Shanti mama, you are right; there is much that can be found in common between Hinduism and Judaism. I had not, however, expected to discover some of these connections so powerfully as I did at my Temple during what was supposed to be just me getting up that day and heading to yoga.