Monday, February 23, 2015

Is Yoga Allowed?

It's World Yoga Day! Maybe you think yoga is just for Indians and hippies who idolize Indian culture. Maybe you've tried it, and maybe you haven't. Or maybe you love yoga. 

As you become more religious, can you continue to do yoga? Or maybe you'd like to try yoga for its scientifically-proven benefits to health and wellbeing?

Answer: it depends. It depends on whether your community forbids it outright or whether your community allows the practice when done in a tznius manner. I'm not aware of any major groups who say it's totally ok in every context, though there are certainly people who treat gyms differently in regard to tznius (like going to the doctor - this can play out in several ways as we'll mention below). The opinions probably differ whether you're a man or woman, given the potentially-suggestive nature of the movements and the tightness of most people's clothing. (In case that's not clear: the men are going to have a harder time getting "permission.") So whichever way you go, and you can change your approach over time, you'll find other people doing it too. Whether that's right or wrong isn't for me to say.

The best advice I can give you is don't ask a shailah (halachic question) if you aren't willing to abide by the ruling. If you feel strongly toward yoga and will find it hard to give it up, you shouldn't ask unless you know the answer you're going to get. "But that's rabbi shopping!" you might say. No, I'm saying don't ask the question; I'm not advocating that you look around for a rabbi who will give you the answer you want (though you wouldn't be the first or the last to do that). In theory, just because you're not ready to abide by a negative answer now doesn't mean you won't be ready one day. And then you can ask. Can ask; I'm not saying you should ask. I can't answer that for you either. 

Whatever you do, don't set yourself up for failure by asking a shaliah when you're not ready; it can snowball into disregarding other rulings. More immediately, it can lead to a lower self-esteem: Why don't I have more willpower? Why am I not pious enough to give this up for Gd? Have I made a horrible mistake with this Jewish stuff?

A major problem is that most rabbis know nothing about yoga, how it's practiced, what the practice is actually like, how the types of yoga differ (which could make a difference), etc. If you ask a question and the rabbi responds too quickly, be wary. He should certainly ask follow-up questions about the specific situation, and he should probably ask another rabbi who is more knowledgeable on the topic. 

So let's talk about some options. 

Beware of religious stuff. There are many yoga customs and practices that involve Hindu religious practices, and Hindus are polytheists, so we get into real old-school Biblical pagan problems. I didn't know much about them (and you're not liable for punishment if you don't know what you're doing) until I read the book Wrestling with Yoga by Shelly Dembe. However, most people believe there is a danger in subconsciously exposing yourself to these things, even unknowingly. She writes extensively about how she encountered these problems as a baalas teshuva and yoga teacher. Some of the things that can be problematic, as I remember it: the bowing (watch out for idols in the room!!), "Namaste," and the Sanskrit names of postures. Maybe you find teachers who don't use those practices or ignore them when they come up. Just because the class bows and says Namaste doesn't mean you have to too. (And no one cares that you don't, speaking from my practice years ago.) Some authorities believe it is beyond redemption and is exclusively an idolatrous religious practice. I'm not sure anyone could possibly leave a Bikram hot yoga class with that opinion, but that was my experience.

You're fine by most people when you're in your home with a DVD or other video class (well, maybe not men). Depending on how you normally dress inside your home, you may be able to wear as little clothing as is comfortable or familiar for you. Of course, that also depends on your practice during niddah if you're married, and around roommates if you have those.

There are frum yoga teachers who teach single-gender classes! However, the men are probably out of luck. These teachers are hard to find because they're usually private teachers who host classes in homes, rather than in a studio. Ask around. Facebook Pages is usually a good place to search for individual yoga teachers. Yoga by Leah is one teacher popular among my friends.

Some people are able to find public single-gender yoga classes. In my experience, this has been surprisingly harder in NYC than the other places I've lived. And there's a lot more demand from men here than I've encountered before. Of course, the frum men are out of luck yet again. I've never seen an all-male class. Here and with the frum teachers I mentioned above, your experience will vary based on your interpretation of how you can dress in a single-gender situation outside your home (some follow all the same rules, some say anything goes, and there's plenty of middle ground too). Haircovering can be a sticky issue in these situations, depending on how you interpret the mitzvah/custom. That's a problem in any exercise situation, but yoga is more problematic because of how much your head moves. 

Some people attend regular yoga classes. Some hope that no men will show up, and some don't care. Some dress like everyone else, some dress tznius, and some dress more modestly but perhaps not to their normal tznius standard. Some start the class tznius and will lose some clothing (and/or a headcovering) if no men show up. Potential problem: windows and glass doors exposing you outside the yoga room.

Overheating can be a real concern if you do yoga while tzniusly or modestly dressed, so stay hydrated and invest in great wicking exercise clothing. If you always cover your toes/feet, make sure you buy socks with grippy bottoms to prevent sliding. Safety first!

Now here are some Jewish books about yoga!
Wresting with Yoga is the only one on this list I've read. It's a spiritual memoir about a frum woman's Indian-influenced past colliding with her now-orthodox present and how she tried to reconcile the two. I wish it had gone into more detail, particularly about repeated mentions that her rabbi prohibits blank-mind-meditation without ever saying why it might be a problem. 
Mussar Yoga: Blending an Ancient Jewish Spiritual Practice with Yoga to Transform Body and Soul I love Alan Morinis' mussar books, so I'm sure this is a great book.
Torah Yoga: Experiencing Jewish Wisdom Through Classic Postures I don't know anything about this book, but it sure looks interesting!
Alef Bet Yoga: Embodying the Hebrew Letters for Physical and Spiritual Well-Being Now this one is just fascinating-looking. It reminds me of acting out letters in Kindergarten, which explains why there's also a kids' version of the book

Are you curious about yoga? If you are already a yogini (look, another religious word!), has your yoga practice changed as you progressed along your spiritual journey? Did you give it up when you became religious or are you thinking about starting a practice now? Have you had unexpected run-ins with yoga in your community? 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Are You Near NYC? Join the Meetup Group!

In a way that was unimaginable when I started this blog 4.5 years ago, there is such a powerful online community for converts and conversion candidates. I'm very proud to have been a part of that, though it still boggles my mind that so many people know this blog. (I've had a few awkward experiences of celebrity lately!)

So what's missing? An in-person conversion community

In a stroke of genius during such difficult times, the DC convert community pulled together and created a Meetup so they could be there for each other. By all accounts I heard, the Meetup has been a great success and a blessing to those who attended. Several of us in a Facebook group discussed growing this model to other cities, including NYC. I didn't really have time because of work and some personal things, so I waited to see what would happen.

A couple of months went by, and nothing happened. So because I'm a sucker for pain, I created the NYC Orthodox Conversion Meetup Group

I originally intended to create a Meetup specifically for the Queens and Five Towns area because that's where I live, but it turns out that Meetup groups are very expensive! ($120/year! I have clearly not appreciated my other Meetup groups enough!) Because of the unlikelihood that we'll create 5 separate Meetup groups at that cost level, this group covers the entire NYC area, including Northern New Jersey and the Five Towns (just over the Queens border into Long Island, if you're not familiar with it - and yes, it's actually five separate towns). 

That means the Meetups will rotate among these areas:
  • Manhattan
  • Brooklyn
  • Queens
  • the Five Towns
  • Northern NJ (most likely staying in Teaneck)
Even though the events are locations-specific, you can attend any event that interests you and is convenient for you. Don't feel that you can only attend the Teaneck event if you live in NJ or the Manhattan event if you live in Manhattan. That is not the case! Come to as many events as you can! (And if you're coming into town on vacation, contact me, and I'll see if there's a Meetup while you're in town!)

There are currently 5 Meetups scheduled between this week and late March. Once you are approved to join the group, you'll be able to see specific information about the dates and times.

An important caveat: the group is limited to orthodox converts, orthodox conversion candidates, and people considering an orthodox conversion. The goal is to connect converts within the orthodox community; that way, we can deal with the special challenges and celebrate the special joys of living as a convert in the orthodox community. If you've left orthodoxy or converted outside the orthodox community, this group probably wouldn't be helpful or relevant to you unless you're considering joining an orthodox community. 

Converts and candidates from all communities are welcome: modern orthodox, Yeshivish, Chassidic, Open Orthodox, and everything in between. I will do my best to schedule events at places that are acceptable to everyone's interpretation of halacha, and I may need help doing that. If you have specific requirements other than glatt kosher and chalav yisrael, please contact me to let me know. (Other than yichud and the food, I'm not aware of any halachic problems meeting in someone's home - please correct me if you know of any other concerns.)

Privacy is a key goal of the group, but nothing is perfect, especially in a community as large as NYC. My goal is that this will be a safe place to share your struggles and challenges and to celebrate your joys. An in-person community should have existed long before now, and I'm sorry I didn't think of it earlier. But then again, I'm a hermit, so perhaps this is all a terrible idea ;)

The first group of meetings are simple "meet and greets" where we'll meet for dinner and conversation and to discuss what you want to see from this group. I need ideas for events and locations, people! 

However, there is one conversion group Meetup open to the public! We're going to watch the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Sunday, February 22. Because the schedule is only released one week at a time on Thursdays, I can't guarantee the time until later this week. I anticipate we will attend the 2:40pm showing. Meet out front at 2:30pm so we can grab seats. If you arrive later, we'll meet you after the show is over! Dinner afterwards to discuss the movie is optional but encouraged! (Give me restaurant suggestions! It seems that the pretty-universally-accepted restaurants I knew near there have closed, and I'm not sure how far people are willing to walk.)

Get denial should be a topic near and dear to the convert's heart, both because it's flat-out wrong and because get denial reflects the same powerlessness and abuse of power that can (and does) affect converts both here and abroad. Get denial and conversion abuse are cut from the same cloth. If both groups support each other, we can affect change for individuals and also for the whole group.

I hope you'll join the Meetup group, pass it along to the converts and conversion candidates you know, and/or join us to watch Gett and support Israeli cinema! And while you're at it, support ORA: Organization for the Resolution of Agunot!