What my Jewish body seems to know

By Debbi K. Levy

I am celebrating the 10-year anniversary of my very first yoga teacher training. The opportunity to become certified required an extensive application with thoughtfully answered essay questions, proving up my earnest desire to train with Tim Miller and the discipline he practiced, Ashtanga Yoga. Upon acceptance into the training and then following an airplane ride to California, I couldn’t escape this recurring feeling that I was treading the well-worn path of my biblical ancestors when it came to “leave-taking,” to discover something unknown and grow as a person. It almost felt familiar in my body.

I was one of the oldest students at 48. I had been practicing for more than one year, and I was driven to this practice in an indescribable way, even hungry for it. Before leaving for Encinitas, California, that summer, I walked miles each day, in addition to my regular daily practice, to condition my body for the strenuous training that lay ahead. Inspirational music on my headset propelled me to jog and skip as I wound around my neighborhood, feeling strong and confident.

Meditation started at 6 a.m., with a light breakfast and a long, instructor-led yoga practice after that. In Ashtanga, a Mysore practice is additionally offered, with no instructor, but, instead, a map of poses that never change to move through at your own pace, find consistency and give one time for examination of the mind/body.

The first day of training, I woke early to shower and straighten my hair, wanting to impress. As the practice commenced in the non-air-conditioned studio with sweat dripping off the ends of my hair and dropping on my mat, I let go of exterior societal pushes and pulls in favor of authenticity and welcome imperfections.

We sat on our mats rather than chairs, learning from Tim and taking copious notes. We took turns volunteering to be adjusted into a deeper space within the posture we were dissecting. You should have seen those bendy spines, the open-hearted backbends of my classmates. And although it is not the practice to compare yourself in yoga to another, I couldn’t help focusing on working more diligently with my body, to open those areas that were proving resistant. Although I did make some progress, my Jewish body and soul reflected its sacred boundaries, DNA and deep knowing. Today, I am grateful for all my body did and does to protect me, and to protect and hold my heart.

I have never forgotten those black-and-white glossy, still, unimaginable images I was shown in religious school as a sixth grader.

I remember, too, as a little girl, when a news story broke on one of three channels on our television, an elder in the family would yell out the dreaded question, “Is he Jewish?” for we all took on some responsibility for crimes committed by community members.

My grandmother once told me a story of her childhood, when her own mother lit the Shabbos candles, with only a box of candy she had been saving as a substitute for the usually anticipated sumptuous holiday meal.

My grandfather, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had been told as a young boy during the Depression that hosting a friend for dinner meant he would have to share his portion.

My mother grew up living an abundant life here in Dallas, Texas, and loved her BBYO experience. That’s a good thing, because social norms precluded diversity in activities such as dating or dances or slumber parties. Social experiences were clearly boundaried around Jewish kids. Jewish kids stayed together for those reasons and with the enthusiasm of their parents, who envisioned a long line of Jewish grandchildren. 

My wise teacher, Tim Miller, put his foot right in the gap he was trying to help me form between the back of my shoulder blades, with enough pressure to invite release and expansion. Perhaps he envisioned prying open my heart space just a bit more, as well. The usual resistance followed.

“What is this, shame? Fear?” he queried. “Maybe,” I thought.

Today, 10 years later, a profound “Yes!” to that decade-old question. Shame for crummy stereotypes of Jewish people, and fear for a history that felt familiar but was only a part of my life story and the life stories of my beloved ancestors. All these recognizable today, through the eyes of a 58-year- old Jewish woman. A strong one. 

I teach and practice yoga through a Jewish lens. I need to see through that religious lens because it deeply encompasses and envelops who I am. As I stretch out in a downward-facing dog pose, or reach high above me, a little closer to the heavens above, a little bit of trauma (inherited and gained through life experience) begins to find its way out of my body and soul. The spark of the Divine is powerful. And upon invitation and sometimes even insistence, like my teacher’s adjustment, that precious spark leads the trauma and anxiety and things that simply don’t serve you, to an exit door within the body. You’ll know it when it happens to you, for you’ll let out a much-needed sigh, and you may even be tempted to utter an “Amen.”

Debbi K. Levy is an experienced registered yoga teacher. You can find her at the JCC, Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Shearith Israel.

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