Like most of us, I have found the last half-year or so of Covid-imposed restrictions to be quite challenging. Yes, one can find opportunities within the isolation to grow spiritually and yes, one can be thankful for many things, including the opportunity to slow down. Still, this period has been difficult for many reasons.
For me, one of the most difficult things was the inability to spend summer days at the wonderful Ananda Ashram, a center for yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices, which is located in upstate New York. Going up to Ananda has always been a source of great spiritual uplift and relaxation for many years now. The center is beautiful. There are trails, woods, a lake and several meditation halls—as well as an outdoor pool! I have always found the combination of sitting by the pool and meditating or doing yoga to be very enjoyable and uplifting. In some weird way, relaxing by the pool reminds me of very enjoyable childhood summers spent at Brighton Beach Baths in Brooklyn.
Throughout the pandemic, I kept checking the Ananda website to see if, possibly, they might be reopening at some point during the summer. Since Ananda has been, quite properly, very meticulous about maintaining the requisite Covid regulations, no such opening took place. Still, this did not stop me from regularly peeking at their website in order to see if anything had changed.
One day, to my delight, something did change. Ananda had recently instituted a program in which individuals could be temporary residents at the Ashram, for a minimum stay of one month, for a very reduced price with very rigorous and meticulous safety precautions (including a Covid test). I decided that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that I should grab it.
Thus, after some preliminaries, including my customary worst-case scenario terror about absolutely everything—in this case, the fear that the obligatory Covid test would prove positive (it didn't - I was fine)—off I went to my month-long retreat.
After settling in, I began my daily routine of sadhana, or disciplined yoga practice, which in my case consisted of yoga asana practice (yogic postures), pranayama (yogic breathing techniques) and meditation. All of it was wonderful and was indeed the opportunity of a lifetime.
There was, however, one possible glitch. The period of my retreat coincided with the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Though my religious observance has waxed and waned over the years (over the last few years more waning than waxing—the subject of another post), I have always observed these two holidays. In a normal year, I would have wanted to observe them in the customary way—being home, having meals with family, and going to synagogue. However, this was, of course, no normal year. The "normal" observances were not happening for me (and for thousands of other people). I reasoned that spending these days at Ananda really wouldn't be all that different from spending them at home, in terms of my involvement with communal religious observance.
So Rosh Hashanah found me at a yoga ashram in the Catskills. Here, I should mention something about Ananda that is generally true of most ashrams: the pervasive atmosphere of peace and stillness that one immediately senses. This atmosphere can be felt as soon as one leaves the car upon arriving and has an immediate, calming effect upon one's whole being. It pervades all activities at the ashram and is really quite extraordinary.
It was, I believe, this atmosphere of peace and stillness that induced me, without my actually thinking about it, to observe one central practice of the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish holidays—that is what, in Hebrew is called issur melachah, or "the prohibition of work." ("Work," in Jewish tradition, does not simply mean one's job. Rather, issur melachah refers to a ceremonial abstention from a whole host of activities including riding in a car, using any sort of electrical device, and the use of computers, social media, etc.)
I was familiar with issur melachah, having strictly observed it previously for many years on Sabbath and Jewish holidays. When one observes this abstention from "work," it often feels as though one is entering into a sacred realm of silence. Indeed, on the eve of a holiday such as Rosh Hashanah, everything grinds to a halt at sunset. It is as though one has entered a regularly scheduled meditation retreat. Well…guess where I was!! The entire atmosphere of Ananda seemed to be an invitation to issur melachah. (Indeed, many silent meditation retreats require participants to turn off cell phones and computers in order to enhance the experience of "moving into silence.")
So the ashram atmosphere and the issur melachah of Rosh Hashanah worked quite synchronistically for me. The effect of "moving into stillness" seemed truly magical. (By the way, Moving into Stillness is the title of the first yoga book I ever read, written by the renowned yoga teacher Erich Schiffmann. It remains my favorite yoga book, all these years later.)
I should note that many Jews do not find issur melachah to be spiritual or magical. On the contrary, they find it to be rather oppressive. Additionally, because of the isolation imposed by Covid, many people have been feeling alone and in need of community, and many turned to Zoom to experience services in a “virtual community” during Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur. For myself, however, what resonated on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur was the magical atmosphere of entering into silence in solitude rather than the more traditional model of prayer within a synagogue/community setting (virtual or otherwise).
A second, somewhat surprising area in which Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur and the Ashram atmosphere worked synchronistically was in the area of prayer/liturgy. Although there are some basic traditional melodies that most Jews associate with the High Holidays, those have not spoken to me as much as the call and response chants (called piyutim) that are done only on these days. The cantor or person leading the service chants a prayer and the congregation responds. I have always found them very uplifting.
(Unfortunately, many congregations do not recite these piyutim, which I think is a great loss because they have a wonderful energy.)
Since I was the solo participant in my personal prayer service, I played the role of both the rabbi and cantor, these call and response chants were of course included.
There is a yoga practice of call and response chanting, which is called Kirtan. There is also a practice of repeatedly chanting divine names or scriptural verses (called Mantra Japa). These are staples of Bhakti yoga, or the yoga of devotion. Both Kirtan and Mantra Japa are performed at Ananda. Odd as it may seem, their respective energies seem to me to be similar to the call and response chanting of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Obviously, the content of these two sets of practices is completely different. Yet, the "vibrational energies" of these two sets of practices seemed similar. Listening to Kirtan and Mantra Japa at Ananda actually enhanced my chanting of the call and response piyutim on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
(This reminds me of a humorous incident that took place at the very first Kirtan I went to many years ago—with a wonderful Kirtan artist named Wah. My immediate and instinctive reaction at the end of the Kirtan was " I finally found a shul that I like!")
I had several important take-homes from my experience of observing Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur at Ananda.
1) Issur melachah - My observance of this practice at Ananda on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur was done as a spiritual practice, in conjunction with my yoga sadhana. It was not done as a mitzvah—ie, an obligatory divine commandment whose violation entails all sorts of unpleasant consequences. (How the experience of issur melachah differs when done according to these two different sets of assumptions would be another, more detailed, essay).
2) I had some really wonderful discussions with some of the staff and guests at the Ashram about my experiences, including integrating issur melachah into my Jewish religious practice. Perhaps the most interesting discussion I had was with a visiting Indian scholar, who was a both a devotee and scholar of the great 20th century Indian saint, Sri Ramana Maharshi. Sri Ramana was famous for extolling the spiritual virtues of silence and in fact much of his teaching was done in silence. The Indian scholar I discussed this with immediately saw the parallels that I did between the two traditions on this point.
Finally, I would like to clarify one point that perhaps was not entirely clear. While I practice both yoga and aspects of Judaism, I do not practice or advocate an amalgam of the two, which is sometimes called "Jewish Yoga.” While I certainly believe that both yoga and Judaism can engage in a very fruitful dialogue, and we can all learn much from this interaction, I also feel that trying to create an amalgam of both does justice to neither. Yoga is yoga and Judaism is Judaism.
The title of this post is inspired by a book called Men in Dark Times written by Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher whom I greatly admire. The book, which made a strong impression on me, consists of a series of essays about extraordinary individuals who did indeed live during "dark times" and what their reactions were.
The daily barrage of bad news accompanied by graphic images can be disorienting, leaving us feeling drained and paralyzed. Many students and friends say they’re overwhelmed and feel helpless and want to know whether yoga can be of use in today’s dark times.
The answer is an emphatic "yes!"
To begin with, yoga postures (asanas) help us to tone and relax our bodies. The more we are in tune with our bodies, the more our bodies will strengthen us to withstand the turmoil that besets this country and the world at large. Yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation re-center us, calm our nervous system, create feelings of wellbeing and deep relaxation, and help us regain our equilibrium.
Yoga also has many important and lesser-known dimensions that are particularly valuable in dark times. Practicing yoga will shift our perspectives, allowing us to fine our true purpose in life.
The yogic term for this is Svadharma. “Dharma” can be translated as “the order of the Cosmos.” Svadharma means one's own individual place in the cosmic order and specifically what activities in your own life are most in alignment with the universal Dharma.
This is difficult to discover intellectually. Most of us try to “figure it out” or vacillate, not knowing where we "really" belong or how we can participate in healing the suffering world. Yogic practices can put us in touch with our higher intuitive self, allowing us to discern our unique Svadharma.
Yogic postures help our bodies to become finely tuned instruments that enable us discover who we are and what draws us. The relaxation and centeredness that we gain from breathing and meditation enables to be more receptive to our inner wisdom and guidance.
As we deepen our practice, we begin to realize that each of us in our own unique way can bring light to the dark times in which we live. Some of us will participate in direct social/political activism while others may choose more individual acts of compassion. And a calm, compassionate presence brings healing to everyone you meet, regardless of what “formal” activities you’re involved with.
The more we learn about ourselves and our gifts and capacities, the less helpless and more empowered we are, allowing us to better navigate the dark times in which we live.
Recently, I turned 68, which got me thinking, yet again, about what yoga has to offer us as we get older. Certainly, many of yoga's benefits for the elderly have been widely documented: a greater sense of wellbeing, greater flexibility, a heightened sense of balance as well as others. New advantages of yoga for the elderly are constantly being demonstrated.
Yet for me, yoga provides something beyond the crucial benefits mentioned above. Here, we might note a difference between contemporary American and traditional Indian society. In America, older people are all too often considered expendable and, indeed, are often invisible.
America is a youth-oriented society and one of the greatest compliments to an older person seems to be, “Wow, I never would have guessed that you’re seventy, you look twenty years younger.” And the market is filled with “anti-aging” products from supplements to lotions and even surgeries designed to make the face or body look younger.
In addition, you may be struggling with watching technology gallop at a breakneck pace, with teenagers seamlessly whizzing though Internet or cellphone functions that you are still mastering. If you have retired, you may wonder about your purpose in life now that it is no longer structured by a job. And if you are like me, you may be watching some of your friends develop chronic or acute illnesses, or passing away, bringing not only sadness but also larger questions about mortality. Who are we? What happens when we die?
Does this really have to be a senior’s experience of aging?
As mentioned, in traditional Indian circles, aging is seen as a great opportunity: specifically, an opportunity to single-mindedly pursue spiritual goals and move towards union with the Ultimate Reality, whatever that means to each of us. In India, this is framed as being finished with the "householder" stage of life and now being free to devote ourselves to our spirituality, if we choose to. At this stage of life, yoga can provide spiritual meaning and a way to age gracefully and to expand our world.
Of course, there are other benefits to yoga as well. Yoga postures (asanas) can strengthen our bodies and mitigate many of the conditions associated with aging, such as osteoporosis, arthritis, and heart disease. Yogic breathing (pranayama) and meditation calm the nervous system, improve mood, and can also contribute to greater physical and emotional strength and vitality. In addition, breathing and meditation allow us to access higher states of consciousness, which can offer a new window into larger questions of mortality and meaning in life and afterward.
One of the most inspiring people in my life is my teacher, the yoga master Sri Dharma Mittra who, at age 79, still teaches and performs mind-boggling asanas, as well as other techniques of yoga designed to bring us to Self-Realization. There are many accounts of yogis who continue into a vigorous old age, strong in body and peaceful in emotion and spirit.
Yoga offers us an uplifting set of practices that allow us to both maintain our physical health and move into more expansive realms of consciousness and spirit, whatever our age or state of health.