Can yoga ever really be ‘kosher’?
A few years’ back, on Emunaroma, I spent quite a while trying to bottom out whether yoga could really be ‘kosher’ for orthodox Jews. After a lot of digging around, the answer that crystallised was:
No, absolutely not!
Last week, a friend called me and asked me to re-post the yoga report on my new blog, as there is a 3 day ‘yoga retreat’ happening in Israel, and she was shocked that so many very orthodox women are spending a whole three days of their precious lives bowing to the modern baal that is yoga.
So, I’m reposting it below.
Can Yoga Really be Kosher?
For years’ now, I’ve been hearing from different people in the frum community about how ‘great’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’ yoga is. But because I’m a religious Jew, I’ve been very wary of getting into anything that seems so connected to idol worship and the Hindu religion (more on this in a moment).
‘But yoga can be kosher!’ I’ve been assured repeatedly, and I never pushed the issue very much because a) I still wanted to get Shabbat invitations, and b) I wasn’t really interested in doing it anyway.
When I started to develop an interest in alternative medicine, I made a point of seeking out a knowledgeable, well-respected orthodox Rabbi in Sanhedria, to ask him what was acceptable, halachically, and what wasn’t. He gave me guidelines that things like acupuncture and acupressure and even applied kinesiology – where everything is directly ‘hands-on’ and there’s no indirect, invisible ‘forces’ at play – are halachically OK.
But anything to do with chakras, or anything hands-off (like the type of healing that occurs with Reiki, for example,) was not.)
I did more research, and was told that a rabbinic research group had been put together a few years’ back by one of the ultra-orthodox organisations in Israel, to explore what was ok, Jewishly, and what wasn’t. The basic conclusion is that most of the things coming out of China were OK, but the practises coming out of India were NOT OK.
I also discovered that Rav Elyashiv had given a ruling about kisufim (the use of magic) in alternative medicine, that basically said that anything where it couldn’t be shown scientifically how it actually worked to help a person heal, should be considered kisufim and avoided by Jews.
In recent years, there have been many studies done to show that the body is made up of electrical impulses, that each cell is polarized with an electrical charge, and that the traditional acupuncture points of Chinese Medicine actually correspond to areas where the electrical ‘charge’ of the skin is much greater than in surrounding areas.
Long story short: Chinese Medicine now has a proven scientific basis for how and why it works, and is thus acceptable for orthodox Jews.
But the same can definitely NOT be said for the Indian healing tradition, which includes multiple references to energy centres (the chakras and the nadis) and working with the ‘astral’ body, i.e., a person’s soul. Yoga is part of the Indian healing tradition.
So, can it be ‘kosher’?
Yoga’s bad vibe
Let me start by explaining how I came to be researching this topic. A few weeks’ ago, I finally attended my first apparently ‘kosher’ yoga class. The teacher was a very lovely woman, but the spiritual ‘vibe’ I got from attending the class was so disturbing to me – despite the fact that all we seemed to be doing was some nice stretching exercises – that I decided to check things out properly, to see what’s really going on with ‘kosher yoga’.
I decided to buy a book on the history of yoga by yoga expert Georg Feuerstein, which would set everything out, and explain where yoga had come from. Immediately, the first red flag went up as I started to read some of the comments about yoga being the ‘midwife’ of at least four idolatrous religions; and how it was ‘impossible to separate yoga from Hinduism, just as it’s impossible to unscramble an egg.’
There was also a lot of talk about how it helps people to tap into to the ‘mythical energy of the serpent’, and a whole bunch of other stuff that frankly made my hair stand on end.
Let’s be clear that the people discussing yoga in this fashion were adepts and experts who really knew what they were talking about, and who didn’t have a vested interest about pretending that yoga was nothing to do with religion.
They stated very clearly that it was a religious, spiritual practice, associated with many of the world’s most idolatrous religions.
Things did not look very promising, initially, but I decided to wait and see what the book said, before really making up my mind.
Then, someone contacted me complaining that I should look at the ‘secular’ branch of yoga as taught by BKS Iyengar, and practiced in the West, which was all about health benefits and exercise, and nothing to do with religion at all.
There is no such thing as ‘secular’ yoga
I went to check out BKS Iyengar – and got to an official site that was dripping with idol worship and full of prayers offered up to the dead founders of yoga, who had now been officially deified (including by BKS Iyengar, himself).
(As a side note, whenever you do that ‘OM’ chant, the underlying intention is that you are praying to an idol.)
The more I was scratching the surface of yoga, even apparently ‘secular’ yoga, the more I was finding references and connections to idol worship – so much so, that I literally started to feel a little nauseous about the whole affair.
The next thing I did was go back to our halachic sources, to check what it says about idol worship.
The Torah gives us two very clear commandments in connection with the severe prohibition against idol worship (I’m quoting the notes to the Artscroll Tractate of Avodah Zarah, 11a):
- “And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
- “And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
On the face of it, even if yoga was ‘secular’ and ‘just exercises’, as is claimed by the kosher yoga crowd, and even if you got rid of the salutations to the sun and the chanting,
Jews are still forbidden to do it because yoga is indisputably a practice that’s specific to idolatrous peoples.
Trying to track down the halachic approval for yoga
So now, we hit the next stage of the process: trying to track down the rabbis who had apparently approved yoga as kosher, to hear from them how their rulings squared with the above Torah laws.
And this is where things have become very interesting!
I was put in touch with a yoga teacher who had apparently received the halachic OK from two well-known orthodox figures. When I asked for more details, she told me she’d been told verbally by one of them that yoga was OK if she just avoided the ‘salutations to the sun’ and the chanting stuff.
I have been trying to get hold of that person to speak to them, but so far they haven’t returned my emails. (If he does, I will update you.)
It turned out the other figure had never spoken to her directly, and to my source’s credit she was unwilling to name them or pass on what they’d said as she’d only heard it second-hand (and as I’m learning with this stuff, even the ‘first-hand’ approvals have to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.)
But she put me in touch with the ‘orthodox’ yoga teacher who’d trained her – and hundreds of others in the orthodox world – who she was sure could give me more details about the halachic backers of ‘kosher’ yoga.
This is an excerpt of our email exchange, after I’d asked the teacher (very politely) if she could please give me details of the Rabbinic backers who had certified her yoga courses for the orthodox Jewish world:
I would love to be part of this discussion however this is the craziest month for me with school ending, camp coming, Shavuot around the corner, and my program starts in a month so everyone is calling.
I can only tell you Rivka that I have done extensive research on this and there is a false understanding that the modern postural practice of yoga, which we westerners practice, is rooted in Hinduism. I am sending you this article to read which explains it all http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/living/not-as-old-as-you-think#page3. There are major Rabbanim that poskin that yoga is fine so long as it is done for health purposes and that it practiced as an exercise or a path to wellness and health.
Other than this I can’t get into a whole dialogue about it because of my time constraints but just know that the poses were influenced greatly by western fitness models and you don’t have to worry about it.
I took a look at the article, thanks, and it’s not at all clear. It’s obviously a very hot topic of debate within the yoga world itself about whether yoga can truly be cut off from its hindu origins, and the person who wrote the article appears to be a lone voice in the wilderness, saying that it can. Do you have any other references?
Also, I just looked up your teacher’s site (as per your info on your site) and was a little surprised that it said the following – the part about her system of ‘flow yoga’ being ‘rooted in the ancient system of Tantra’ etc. So clearly, her yoga DOES have a spiritual basis rooted in hindu tradition, as she herself is publicising on her site.
I’m curious if that’s the same style of flow yoga that you’re teaching and certifying via [YOUR YOGA COLLEGE]?
And if yes, I really do need the names of your halachic poskim.
(The ‘orthodox’ yoga teacher had apparently learned her completely ‘secular’ yoga practices from someone who studied directly from a tantric master, and who happily teachers her yoga in temples dedicated to ‘Lord Shriva’.)
This is what I got back:
Why are you inquiring about this? I don’t know of your intentions for why you are asking all these questions. Are you thinking of learning yoga. ? Do you want to teach it? Are you upset observant Jews are teaching yoga?
Let me ask you a question: Why are you being so reticent about giving me the names of your halachic poskim? What’s the big deal? If it’s ok, halachically, let me know who your rabbis are who have sanctioned it, and end of story.
My intention is this: I am trying to find out if yoga is halachically OK for Jews to do.
I am writing up my discoveries as I go along, and I’m sharing what I’m learning with others.
If you have halachic sanction from orthodox rabbis, please give me the names so I can contact them for further details. If you can’t do that, then it suggests that the issue is not as straightforward as you’re representing it to be.
I got this response back (peace ‘n love, man…)
It doesn’t suggest anything. I am straightforward. I have dealt with people like you in the past and frankly I don’t have the time of day to deal with it. We have 100% have called Poskin and got permission to practice yoga. Now it’s your turn to do the same. Call your Rabbis and speak to them about your particular situation. I am not interested in being scrutinized nor will I pass the name out of my Rabbis. Yoi have your own Rabbis, own community and own hashgafa so get ypur answera from your own community. It was rude of you to look up my teachers bio (who I learned with 20 years ago when I wasn’t frum) & question my authenticity based on her bio. Please don’t write me and go do your own research into the topic. Next time you have questions such as this try not to approach a person with such judgement and maybe you will learn something.
Well, learn something I certainly did….
Wikipedia to the rescue
The proponents of ‘kosher yoga’ like to say that it’s completely secular and just exercise. But even a cursory look at Wikipedia shows that yoga and idolatry are so tightly woven together, THEY CANNOT BE SEPERATED.
- Plug in ‘Hatha Yoga’ to Wikipedia and here’s what you’ll read, in the first two lines:
In the 20th century, hatha yoga, particularly asanas (the physical postures), became popular throughout the world as a form of physical exercise, and is now colloquially termed as simply “yoga”.”
- Plug in plain ‘Yoga’ to Wikipedia, and you’ll get this:
“In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. Yoga in Indian traditions, however, is more than physical exercise, it has a meditative and spiritual core. One of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism is also called Yoga, which has its own epistemology and metaphysics, and is closely related to Hindu Samkhya philosophy.”
And a little later on, you get this, in the section called ‘The Goals of Yoga’:
“According to David Gordon White, from the 5th century CE onward, the core principles of “yoga” were more or less in place, and variations of these principles developed in various forms over time:
- Yoga, as an analysis of perception and cognition; illustration of this principle is found in Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gitaand Yogasutras, as well as a number of Buddhist Mahāyāna works;
- Yoga, as the rising and expansion of consciousness; these are discussed in sources such as Hinduism Epic Mahābhārata, Jainism Praśamaratiprakarana;
- Yoga, as a path to omniscience; examples are found in HinduismNyaya and Vaisesika school texts as well as Buddhism Mādhyamaka texts, but in different ways;
- Yoga, as a technique for entering into other bodies, generating multiple bodies, and the attainment of other supernatural accomplishments; these are described in Tantric literature of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the Buddhist Sāmaññaphalasutta.”
As these excerpts clearly and unequivocably show, the focus of yoga is NOT on exercise and physical health at all. The spiritual underpinnings of yoga, and its direct connections to idol worshipping religions are so obvious, it’s hard to believe that I’m even having to write this.
“If you do yoga just for your physical health, then it’s ok halachically”
So now, we come down to the crux of the ‘Kosher Yoga’ argument, which is that if you only do the exercises, and you have no connection whatsoever to the philosophical or religious associations, then it’s OK, halachically.
That appears to be the current argument of the people who are convinced that yoga can be koshered. But there are a number of serious problems with this approach.
- PROBLEM ONE: It doesn’t satisfy the Torah prohibitions we brought above, namely:
“And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
“And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
Who can deny that yoga is a practice that is specific to idolatrous peoples?
Who can claim that the exact same poses used in the worship of ‘Lord Shriva’ or some other idol are NOT ‘rituals that are used in idol worship’, even if the person doing them doesn’t have that specific intention?
So that’s the first, massive problem with this halachic approach, and I would love for the Rabbinic poskim who have apparently sanctioned yoga for orthodox Jews to come out of hiding, and openly explain how they have specifically addressed this issue, in their rulings.
- PROBLEM TWO: It doesn’t work, in practice.
Because as we’ve been learning, it’s impossible to disentangle the physical exercises from their spiritual and philosophical roots.
As soon as you call your exercise program ‘yoga’, you’ve connected it to the philosophy and spirituality of idol worship. (This is a good time to remind you that a leading branch of Hinduism is actually called ‘yoga’. If you’d be uncomfortable attending a class called ‘Xtian stretching’, then the same issue applies here.)
If you’re still not convinced that even the name is steeped in Hindu philosopy and idol-worshipping spirituality, I found the following on one of the official websites promoting Swami Vivekananda, the man credited with ‘secularising’ modern yoga for Western consumption a century ago:
“The word Yoga is FIRST defined by sage Patanjali in his book Patanjali Yoga Sutra. He summarized YOGA as CHITTA VRITHI NIRODHA.
CHITTA means MIND
VRITTI means VIBRATIONS
NIRODHA means STOPPAGE”
(As a side note, you should know that ‘sage Patanjali’ has been officially deified by many branches of the Hindu religion.)
Also, in order to qualify as an ‘official’ yoga teacher in the West (even via the apparently ‘kosher’ yoga colleges) you are still required to learn ‘yoga philosophy, lifestyle and ethics’, that are all clearly rooted in idolatrous beliefs and philosophy, as per the below which comes from the Yoga Alliance website for registered yoga schools:
Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle and Ethics for Yoga Teachers:
Minimum Contact Hours: 20 hours
Minimum Contact Hours w/ Lead Trainer(s): 0 hours
Special Requirements: A minimum of 2 of the above Contact Hours must be spent on ethics for yoga teachers
Topics in this category could include, but would not be limited to:
The study of yoga philosophies and traditional texts (such as the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Bhagavad Gita)
Yoga lifestyle, such as the precept of non-violence (ahimsa), and the concepts of dharma and karma
Ethics for yoga teachers, such as those involving teacher – student relationships and community
Understanding the value of teaching yoga as a service and being of service to others (seva)
Now, I’ve never heard of people having to immerse themselves in idolatrous texts for thirty hours just to be able to teach tennis, or a good aerobics class. Is there really anyone out there who still believes that yoga is ‘purely’ a form of exercise?
Yoga is not just an exercise, it’s a lifestyle choice
The last thing to say is that yoga, even the apparently ‘secular-just-for-exercise’ version is a complete lifestyle package. As soon as people get into yoga, they start wanting to learn more about it, and expand their knowledge of this amazing new ‘exercise’ their doing.
As soon as they do that – as soon as they read the information on Wikipedia, or on any other yoga site, for example – they’re connecting to the philosophy and spirituality behind the exercises, which makes it instantly forbidden to them to continue practicing yoga, even according to the halachic opinion quoted above, that it’s: ‘OK’ to do yoga if it’s completely divorced from spirituality or philosophy.
(And this is a good time to note, again, that the exercises CANNOT be divorced from the spiritual side of things, for all the reasons and more stated above.)
Where do we go from here?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about yoga-practicing Jews, even the ‘frum’ ones, it’s that they will defend their ‘exercise’ program religiously.
Again, the idol-worshipping connections to yoga are so obvious, that anyone who even researches this topic a little will quickly find stacks of information making it clear that yoga is off-limits for believing Jews.
So it comes down to this: For the God-fearing people in our midst who really want to avoid idol worship, and who are really concerned about doing what God wants, even when it involves some sort of self-sacrifice on their part, there is really no question:
Yoga is an idolatrous practice, and is forbidden. Engaging in this practice, even so-called ‘secular’ yoga will damage your soul and your connection to God and Yiddishkeit.
For the other people, who decided a long time ago that yoga was ‘kosher’ – regardless of the issues raised above – nothing I wrote here will change their mind, and they will continue to try to convince everyone else that you can really kosher a pig, and that they aren’t doing anything wrong!!!
And for the people in the middle?
Ask your ‘kosher yoga’ provider the name of the rabbi who certified their program – and don’t let them wiggle out of giving it you. Ask them how their apparently ‘secular’ style differs from the poses used in idol-worship (and then watch them squirm, because the whole point of certain schools of yoga is that the poses, or ‘asanas’ have to be done precisely, as taught by the (idol-worshiping) yogi masters.)
Ask them how can be sure that the 30 hours of instruction in idolatrous beliefs they had to do in order to even qualify as a teacher hasn’t seeped into the classes and exercises they’re giving over to their own students.
Go onto the internet and see for yourself how yoga is basically its own idolatrous religion.
And then you can decide which group you want to really be in: God-fearing Jews who care about their souls and their relationship to the Creator; OR Jews-for-yoga.
‘I believe I get health benefits from doing yoga. What can I do instead?’
This one is easy:
Do any stretching exercises you like that aren’t called ‘yoga’, or attached to idolatrous philosophies or religions!
That could be Pilates, the Alexander technique exercises, even just the ‘plain vanilla’ stretching exercises you can find in books like ‘Stretching for Dummies’. There are many different ways that you can stretch in a truly kosher way that have nothing to do with idolatrous faiths and practices.
A word to our Rabbis
Let’s end with a plea to the orthodox rabbis who are apparently certifying ‘kosher yoga’ (if they actually do exist…) Dear rabbis, I know you have a very hard job of trying to bring people closer to Yiddishkeit, and trying to accommodate the strange and superficial ideas about spirituality that so many modern people have.
I know it’s a very hard sell to get people to believe that body, mind and soul are really connected (which is why a Jew can’t just eat what they want, and why we go to mikva, and why we dress modestly, for example.)
But please don’t certify any more ‘kosher yoga’ programs until you’ve really done your homework about the idolatrous roots of this stuff, and the spiritual implications of ‘just doing the poses’.
Giving a hechsher to idol worshipping practices is hugely problematic, and should not be done lightly.
(Remember, in order to be a certified instructor, you have to have spent a minimum of 30 hours learning ‘philosophy, ethics and lifestyle’, as discussed above, which basically boils down to 30 hours of instruction in idolatrous ideas and philosophies).
If you decide it IS possible to make a form of ‘kosher’ yoga, then please publicize your rulings, and please give enough detailed explanation so the masses can also understand why doing even a ‘kosher’ form of yoga doesn’t infringe the serious Torah prohibitions against:
And you shall not follow their rituals – Leviticus 18.3 – which proscribes rituals that are used in idol worship.”
And you shall not act according to their practices – Exodus 23-24 – which forbids any practices specific to idolatrous peoples, even those that have nothing to do with idolatry.”
May Hashem help us all to have the clarity to differentiate between good and bad, spiritual light and spiritual darkness, and the courage to act on our holy convictions, even when it’s very difficult for us.
You can download this whole post as a PDF here:
Orthodox holistic practitioner Efraim Geltman from Jerusalem Health sent along the following links from Rav Ginsburg, which makes the point even more sharply: