September 19, 2005

Yoga and "software"

Here's an article from the NY Times concerning a new (?) trend to append various religious teachings to the practice of Yoga. I seem to remember that David Franklin practiced a kind of Jewish Karate in New York before starting his Shintaido career. One analogy that is made here is to compare the body movement to hardware and the religious imagery as software. This probably happens in Shintaido, depending on the instructor and group. But I think that Aoki-sensei has moved away from a scriptural emphasis to a more Eastern philosophical point of view while condensing all teachings into what he calls Tenshin, or universal truth.

But maybe the body itself is the message.....

Anyway, here's the article:

The New York Times
September 17, 2005
In New Yoga Classes, Poses and Prayer

HAMILTON, Mass. - When Cathy Chadwick instructed her three yoga students to move into warrior position, she did not remind them to watch their alignment or focus on their breath. Instead Ms. Chadwick urged them to concentrate on the affirmation each made at the beginning of class after she read aloud the prayer of St. Theresa of Avila.

"Good Christian warriors," Ms. Chadwick softly said as the women lunged into the position.

Ms. Chadwick is one of a growing number of people who practice Christian yoga, incorporating Biblical passages, prayers and Christian reflections. Occasionally, teachers rename yoga postures to reflect Christian teachings or, as Ms. Chadwick did with warrior position, include religious metaphors.

Some, like Ms. Chadwick, had taken yoga classes and enjoyed the physical benefits but were uncomfortable with the fact that yoga is a Hindu practice. Others said that yoga allowed them to connect with their spiritual sides, but that it should be filled with their own religion.

"I feel more comfortable practicing yoga in conjunction with my faith," said Ms. Chadwick, whose class meets at Christ Church in this town 30 miles north of Boston. "When I practiced yoga before, I felt I was being asked to open up to a deity, and that deity to me is a Christian deity."

A similar movement is taking place in Judaism, with teachers merging teachings or texts into yoga classes. Many who take part said Christian and Jewish yoga made the physical discipline more accessible to those otherwise unwilling to take a class for religious reasons.

Centers that teach only Christian or Jewish yoga are popping up across the country. Most classes teach hatha yoga postures, gentle enough to be performed by novices.

But critics of the alterations say that yoga is inherently Hindu, and that it is not possible to truly practice it without embracing that element.

"There is an element of superficiality or hypocrisy there," said Subhas R. Tiwari, a professor of yoga philosophy and meditation at the Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla. "To try to take Hinduism or aspects of Hinduism outside of yoga is an affront. It's an act of insincere behavior."

Douglas R. Groothuis, a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, said that yoga was a Hindu practice structured to help people attain a higher spiritual state within, and that was incompatible with Christian teachings.

"I don't think Christian yoga works," he said. "It's an oxymoron. If it's truly Christian, it can't be truly yoga because of the worldviews."

The Vatican has also expressed misgivings about yoga. In a 1989 letter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, said practices like yoga and meditation could "degenerate into a cult of the body."

Even so, the number of people who practice Christian yoga is rapidly growing, said the Rev. Thomas Ryan, a Paulist priest in Manhattan and editor of "Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality."

Father Ryan, who developed many of the Christian yoga techniques adopted by others, said yoga postures were vehicles for people of all faiths to invite spirituality into the heart and body.

"It is better seen as a hardware to which one brings his or her own software and one's own faith understanding to transform the practice from within, so the intention is always critical," said Father Ryan, who is assembling a database of Christian yoga instructors.

Myriam Klotz, a reconstructionist rabbi and co-founder of the Yoga and Jewish Spirituality Teacher Training Institute at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish spiritual retreat center in Accord, N.Y., said she used yoga as a way to integrate the body into Judaism.

"I would like the Jewish experience to be more full-bodied," Rabbi Klotz said, "and yoga is one of the best ways I have found to live a more full-bodied life. I don't mean to create a new Judiasm. It's being respectful of the yoga tradition and integrating the Jewish tradition and letting them befriend one another."

For example, if Rabbi Klotz is teaching about the Jewish principle of people being grounded on Earth but stretching their souls up, she has students stand in mountain pose as a physical expression of that teaching.

Stephen A. Rapp, a Boston yoga teacher, developed Aleph-Bet yoga, a series of postures meant to represent Hebrew letters. Mr. Rapp said he saw the connection between poses and letters one day when, after he had shown his children yoga postures, he watched a scribe repair a scroll at synagogue.

For example, Mr. Rapp expresses the Hebrew letter BET in the posture Dandasana, where one sits on the ground with legs and arms straight out in front. Mr. Rapp believes postures are part of a physical yoga system into which spirituality is incorporated.

"It's the thinking about the shape and thinking about the symbol and what it means while also doing this form of exercise," he said. "It gives you a focus, an intention. You really have to have the intention correct in yoga."

But Swami Param, head of the Classical Yoga Hindu Academy in Manahawkin, N.J., said that if people could not acknowledge the Hindu element of yoga, they should not bother studying it.

"As Hindus we have no problem studying other religions," Mr. Param said, "but we give them the respect they deserve."

Posted by mandragore at September 19, 2005 03:33 PM

Hi Michael Sensei!

Thanks a lot for bringing this article to our attention.

I find this article simultaneously interesting and irritating.

Irritating mainly because of the cheap journalistic metaphore : we are not computer artifacts.

Interesting because, by discussing the relationship between body work and religion, it asks the more fundamental question of the relationship between our body and the universe, and further between self and God.

As far as I know (which is very little) judeo-christianism promotes the idea that there is no fundamental relationship, that our body is just a temporary envelop that will go back to earth after we die, while our soul - the real stuff - will go somewhere else depending on some final moral evaluation of our deeds during this life. From these religions one get the image of God as some kind of supreme being standing behind the universe, just as our thoughts are supposed to stand behind our bodies, our selves behind our thoughts, and our souls behind our selves. And by "behind" we mean, unfortunately, "separate".

Whereas as far as I know (which is also very little) the Eastern point of view is that God *is* the Universe. And that our bodies, being parts of the universe, are living parts of God. Thereby body work is not just the oiling of mechanical parts with no incidence on our other parts : body work, for these religions, *is* a religious practice, whose purpose is to tune or enjoy the connection with the divine, through our bodies. The imagery and overall teachings of the religion remain applicable there as in any other domains and, more than that, help guide the practice.

What personally I don't quite see is how to take only one part - the physical exercise - of this very consistent system, without taking the whole thing with it!
It would seem to me a more appropriate approach for Western religions to develop their own set of exercises - provided their purpose is to add a body work branch to their spiritual practice - and, why not, inspiring themselves from other religions...

Maybe then not call it Yoga?

Posted by: Patrick Bouchaud at October 16, 2005 03:31 AM

Well-said, Patrick!

About the "Jewish karate": it was a school called "Tora Dojo" (a pun on Tora = "tiger" in Japanese, and Torah = the Old Testament). It was started by H.I. Sober, who is a professor of Aramaic language and ancient Middle Eastern history at Yeshiva University in NYC. As I remember, Sober grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where there's long been a Jewish neighborhood not far from Chinatown. He started studying Chinese martial arts seriously when he was about 13, so he is far from a Johnny-come-lately.

Yeshiva University is located in what is now "Spanish Harlem" (a heavily Puerto Rican area, with Cubans, Dominicans and other hispanic and non-hispanic people -- I think it was a Jewish neighborhood when the college was founded). A tough area by any standards, and you can easily imagine (given that some stereotypes, on some occasions, have a grain of truth) what dimensions "town-vs.-gown" friction assumed in that situation. When Sober's expertise became known, he was virtually coeerced into starting a martial arts class for the Yeshiva students.

He taught martial arts with a strong emphasis on practical applications. What was left out was anything remotely related to sports and tournaments. What was not left out was Chinese (Taoist/Confucianist), Japanese and Jewish philosophy. He didn't talk much about anything that could precisely be called "religious", but he did talk about Kabalah, and the philosophical similarities between Kabalah, Taoism, and other mystical or esoteric traditions. (PS, Aoki-sensei discusses his take on the significance of Kabalah in the on-line version of an upcoming Body Dialogue article).

So what made this style of Karate "Jewish"? Not the body movements. Sober had decided that Chinese martial arts were too sophisticated to give students anything of practical use in the street within the 4-year window of opportunity for most of them. Therefore the initial curriculum (up until 1-kyu I think) was based on Shotokan Karate. For those who stuck around and continued to study, they then progressed "backwards" through history, studying some Okinawan kata, and then the Chinese styles in which Sober was most expert. So it was somewhat eclectic, but one would have to say the "hardware" was completely East Asian in origin.

What made it Jewish were 3 factors:

1) the philosophical commentary and discussions that were often a part of the practices;

2) everyone in the school was ethnically Jewish (though many, like myself, lacked any religious education or upbringing), and the school offered classes in Jewish community centers;

3) there was a motivation (partly due to the historical closeness of WWII and the Holocaust for people of Sober's generation) to make the "Jewish people" physically, emotionally, and mentally stronger and more confident.

So I would say that in addition to the body movement ("hardware") and philosophy ("software"), there was also an element of identity politics.

I feel a great debt of gratitude to this school and all the people I met there and the knowledge they shared with me. I decided to leave for a few reasons -- one was, I didn't want to study techniques for damaging human bodies, no matter what system of ethics regulates their application. When I started to get some idea of what Shintaido is about, I felt that it truly represented an evolutionary development in martial arts uniquely suited to this era of history, and a more complete integration of the body movement and philosophy into a seamless whole. That is not to deny the continuing validity of older forms -- horseshoe crabs evolved into their current form hundreds of millions of years ago, and continue to live unchanged -- it just wasn't what I wanted.

Posted by: David Franklin at December 1, 2005 06:50 AM