Welcome to the 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month!
Today’s Top ReadTheSpirit Story is about interfaith connections men and women are making through yoga. But there’s a lot more unfolding in our online magazine this month. Here’s a quick overview:
In this special month, we’re publishing 31 straight days of stories about Interfaith Heroes, a series unfolding in a special section of our magazine:
In addition, our main ReadTheSpirit landing page (right here) will focus on the widespread growth of interfaith connections, even in the midst of these dark and often violent times. Today’s ReadTheSpirit story by guest writer Lynne Meredith Schreiber focuses on the popularity of yoga.
Lynne is not alone in spotting East-West connections. They’re the focus of two of our most widely read stories in 2008:
A Conversation With Deepak Chopra on Jesus.
And, a Conversation With Brother Chidananda of the Self-Realization Fellowship.
You may think that the religious traditions of India are exotic — but you’d be forgetting the rapidly changing shape of our neighborhoods. Here are a couple of lines from our earlier Conversation With Deepak:
You’ll find that ordinary men and women across the U.S. already are
drawn toward themes in Eastern spirituality. Check out the prominent
section of yoga gear, currently featuring huge banners in most Target
stores. Check out the aisles for teas and other beverages, the
housewares and especially candles, the music aisles, the shampoos and
creams, the DVDs and even the game sections. If you’re looking closely,
you’ll find dozens of themes borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism.
Lynne Schreiber, who wrote today’s story, is an author and freelance writer for many national magazines. She unexpectedly found herself drawn to yoga and … Well, let’s let Lynne tell her own story.
By LYNNE MEREDITH SCHREIBER
AS I WALKED INTO THE SYNAGOGUE, images from my childhood flooded through my memory. It was there that I came as a second-grader for the annual Purim carnival and there that I went every Sunday and two days after school to learn Torah and Hebrew. It was at Temple Israel that I held metal pointer to parchment to learn the scriptural passage I would read on my bat mitzvah and it was in that grand sanctuary every fall where I sat and stood and waved to friends on the holiest days of the year.
I met my best friend Ally in seventh-grade at Temple and skipped Monday night school as a high-schooler to eat fried foods at the Village Place restaurant in West Bloomfield. I walked down the long center aisle in a white robe carrying red long-stemmed roses for confirmation and, a decade later, in a sleeveless black sequined gown to stand beside my sister at her wedding.
Now it was a summer Tuesday evening in 2008, and stepping foot in my childhood synagogue was strikingly comforting and familiar – despite the fact that I spent more than a decade running to other rabbis and synagogues in search of inspiration and faith. Only now, returning to this very familiar place, did I find what I’d been looking for.
In the social hall, Steve Feldman hugged me. The lights were dim and, at the front of the room, instruments and music stands stood before folding chairs. As Cantor Michael Smolash hugged Steve, the owner of the Yoga Shelter chain of yoga studios, I lugged yoga mats across the carpet to set up for those yet to arrive. I wasn’t there for religion or even for myself – or so I thought.
I was there as the marketing director for Yoga Shelter, which was partnering with my childhood synagogue for a yoga class with live Jewish music in this low-lit room. Another entry point to Judaism. Another entry point to yoga. Another way to fuse soul and spirit.
After twenty people wandered in and stashed shoes and bags by the wall, the cantor started to sing and his band members lifted their instruments.
“Welcome,” Steve said in his honey-butter voice. I don’t remember his words nor the poses, but I remember the warm brush of his hand on my shoulder as he propelled me to a mat. “You can take pictures later,” he whispered. “Why don’t you take class?”
And so I bent and leaned, closed my eyes and moderated my breath until it was one with my movements. Finally, my mind quieted. I didn’t worry or ponder or plan. I simply listened to Hebrew lyrics lifting on the breeze of the music.
At the end, as we sat cross-legged at the front of our mats, our hands flattened into prayer palms, every person in the room was connected – by intention, by hope, by faith in the moment and the power of community. I hadn’t had such a spiritual experience in ten years of being a religious Jew. I hadn’t had such a soul-lifting experience ever, I realized.
You might have described me as a self-hating Jew in high school, yearning as I did to blend with the mainstream. My family spent time every December in the car, careening through snowy subdivisions in awe of the Christmas light displays. In college, I fell in love with John, a devout East Coast Catholic, and followed him to church, listening intently to homilies and scripture.
“How can you be so Jewish if you don’t know anything about it?” he asked me one day and I had no answer.
I never liked being Jewish. It reminded me that I was different when all I wanted was to fit in. I’d spent years with frizzy hair and rolled-up jeans when all my friends had sleek, straight locks and name-brand pants just the right length. And despite attending a high school where 40 percent of the student population was Jewish, I just wanted to be like everyone else.
I never liked yoga until I took class at the Yoga Shelter.
Long before I became the Yoga Shelter’s marketing director and long before I began writing articles about that intangible something I felt when I walked in the door — this all began with a friend dragging me to exercise one mellow afternoon. I marched right up to Justin, the young sculpted teacher, to apologize.
“Don’t be offended if I walk out in the middle,” I said. “I hate yoga. It’s not you.”
He smiled. “No problem.”
In every prior yoga class, I’d hated the long pauses and empty air. I couldn’t still my thoughts enough to recline in sivasana, the quiet rest at the end of class that serves as transition back to real life. I hated, too, that I never broke a sweat doing yoga. I wanted my workouts to count.
Justin clicked on the CD player and my favorite kinds of music poured forth: Brooding coffeehouse tunes. Hip hop. Classic rock and alternative.
Before long, sweat trickled down the sides of my face as I twisted from sun salutation to warrior one to plank pose. An invigorating workout, amazing music and Justin’s delicious guttural voice saying words about acceptance and community and being authentic.
I didn’t leave early of course. In fact, I started working my schedule around yoga, finding that each time I left class, I was stronger, happier and more focused on the moment before me. That was what I’d been looking for in religion and in relationships but never found. Yoga brought me solitude in silence, the facing-the-moment that I’d never before been able to master.
Although I didn’t see it at the time, my first Yoga Shelter class was the beginning of the end of my marriage, and the beginning of the realization of — me. It had nothing to do with Justin; it was just stepping into a new world, where people were welcome just for showing up. That was my first step into defining the life I want to live.
During my divorce negotiations, I found myself one Thursday in Justin’s class, unable to focus, unable to find clarity in even the simplest poses. I gave up and began rolling my mat to leave. Justin laid a hand on my shoulder and said, “Just take a rest. One minute. It’ll help.”
I unrolled my mat and lay on my back in the dark of the room. It didn’t take long for tears to seep from my eyes. With the serenity of yoga, where breath fuses with movement in the art of living in the moment, the art of being present, I faced my fears of the unknown, reckoned with my scary what-ifs.
And after the divorce, when I began to love the silence, yoga was a gift I gave myself, an island in time when I knew everything I’ve believed about myself is absolutely and entirely true.
Part of my journey years ago included delving into Orthodox Judaism in search of clarity and richness. But my demons only screamed louder. The loneliness was more tangible in the silence of a strict Sabbath. I thought I’d find a marriage where I was cherished and my spirits uplifted by fusing with my beshert, or soulmate. Instead, my hand swiped along the cold sheets where my husband was supposed to lay beside me, and my heart yearned for the man who cowered in the basement in front of his computer instead of letting me in.
Some people believe yoga is limited to religions of the East, but it’s not true. It’s a philosophy, an ancient practice, uniting mind, body and spirit so that we can live our best lives. It’s a holistic perspective that leads a person to purpose. I fell in love with the possibilities I found through the practice of yoga, the way it strengthened me from the inside out.
So back to that Tuesday evening last summer at Temple Israel:
So many years I’d laughed about the watered-down version of religion I thought my childhood synagogue offered, when all that time, it held the most important secret to a life of tradition: that there is beauty, wisdom and faith in every step, in every being, in fusing traditions.
How brilliant to see the cantor combine talents and forces with a yoga guru!
Just a month prior, I’d brought my kids to Temple Israel for an outdoor Sabbath service on a concrete patio. A fountain soared in a pond beyond the grassy knolls and my children turned in circles by the pines. We picnicked with friends and listened to the sway of voices lifting to welcome the Sabbath Queen.
Maybe the only problem with Judaism all those years ago had been — me.
I used to be a liberal soul who believed there was brilliance and wisdom in every faith tradition. I lost that when I was Orthodox, immersed in a community determined to be right in the shadows of everyone else’s perceived error.
Now I knew there was a glimmer of loveliness in every way of being Jewish – just like I always told my children. Only in stilling my thoughts enough during yoga could I find the clarity I needed and the peace.
The place I’d avoided for so long shone like the north star – offering so many ways into my millennia-old ancestry, so many interpretations – all valid! – so many pieces of the pie, each one delicious and mine for the choosing.
Driving home from services that night, the children were silent as they realized we were in a moving vehicle after sundown on the Sabbath for the first time in their lives. “It’s OK, Mommy,” Asher said. “If we didn’t drive on Shabbat, we wouldn’t have been able to go to services tonight. I loved it.”
Changes, leading us to deeper appreciation of our faith.
A few weeks later, Justin led his last yoga class in Michigan before moving to Los Angeles.
“I never would’ve stayed if not for your class,” I said as I hugged him goodbye.
“I know. You had one foot out the door. I remember.”
Continuity gives us roots; change gives us branches, letting us stretch and grow and reach new heights.
Pauline R. Kezer
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)