Back in the ancient old days Jewish high priests prostrated themselves, only once or so a year. At a newly organized religious service in town, combining yoga and Jewish practice, everyone, Jew and gentile alike, not only hugged the ground frequently in the pigeon and other demanding poses. They also did the downward facing dog and then arced upward toward heaven in the peaceful warrior.
Rabbi Sarah Tasman (pictured above) led about 20 leotard and tights-clad participants, both Jewish and non, in an Eastern religion-inspiredhavdalah service.
Havdalah is the brief ritual that Jews traditionally perform at the of the Shabbat (Sabbath) every Saturday evening. They chant blessings over candle light, spices to remember the sweetness of the day of rest, and wine to mark the Sabbath’s fleeting liminal moments and to welcome the beginning of the non-holy time of the rest of the week.
“When you come into yoga, that’s like having a mini-Shabbat,” said Tasman (pictured in yoga pose by the candle).
A longtime yoga practitioner, Tasman said she was regularly making Jewish connections with Sanskrit terms and yoga concepts she heard from her yoga instructors.
“The chakras are so much like the [kabbalistic] sefirot,” she offered as one example. Meanwhile her students laid out the mats and prepared for an hour of breathing and yoga exercises in the run up to havdalah, which fell this past Saturday at 7:56 p.m., after the sun’s last light had disappeared.
There were many more points of tangency: “Compassion, that’s chesed, loving kindness. [And the Buddhist/yoga concept of] Intention, that’s kavanah, or the Jewish mindset for prayer.
“I see connections all the time.”
The result: Tasman took intensive training in yoga practice and also studied with the pioneer of what’s known as the “torah yoga” approach to spirituality, Diane Bloomfield.
“So many Jews come to yoga who don’t go to synagogue,” she said. She hastened to add she has absolutely no proselytizing agenda except to open doors for yoga or Judaism or the combination of the two if people ask.
Tasman came to New Haven—she earned her rabbinical degree from the trans-denominational Hebrew College in Boston—when her husband was admitted to Yale’s School of Management.
Tasman brought what she learned, an “embodied spiritual practice,” when she was asked to lead a congregation of 500 Reform Jews who gathered under the umbrella of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale for the high holidays last October.
It was so successful, she decided to offer the class around the region, including Saturday’s first of three lessons in town.
She began with a dharma talk—old-fashioned Jews would call that a d’rash, or commentary on the Torah section of the week. In this instance she reprised God’s words in Genesis after the arduousness of creating, even after he rested, the first Sabbath. She led her breath-aware, limb-stretching flock in Hebrew etymology: shavat vayinafash, the words signifying not only resting, but being rejuvenated, and all having the same Hebrew root as the word for soul and breath.
Naturally Tasman then went on to breathing exercises as a prelude to the series of yoga positions, or asanas. She explained the Sanskrit word for life force or breath is prana, whose Hebrew equivalent is ruach, or spirit.
“You take a breath in and out. That’s your ruach,” Tasman said in an unwaveringly tranquil voice.
Tasman then led her group in the familiar formalized positions of yoga: downward facing dog and cat; the various warrior poses. When people had assumed the pose and the lights were low and music soothing, Tasman said, “How can you allow this pose to be an embodiment of Shabbat? Let this be a moment of integration.”
She let a long, deep, “refreshing” silence fill up the room; silence and stillness belong traditionally more to Buddhism than to talky, group-oriented Jewish practices. Then Tasman shifted to light, an important element in the Jewish sabbath and the havdalah service.
“Imagine a glowing light like form the Shabbat candle. Let that light flow from your feet to the crown of your head. Let that light protect you and fill this room, and extend that light out to those who love you and support you. Send some of that light to them.”
The session concluded with reading from Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan on how celebrating the sabbath is like an artist pausing in his work. That was followed by a brief reading from the environmental activist and poet Wendell Berry: “Breathing is prayer.”
Tasman determined participants’ minds, breath, and bodies were at a point that she hoped might be “fully integrated and in alignment.” So she drew the exercises to a close with the traditional Buddhist greeting, “namaste,” meaning, “the light in me recognizes the light in each of you.”
Then she called the group near and conducted an old-fashioned havdalah service, passing the candle out for everyone to raise their fingers near the flame. Sshe passed around a small container of cinnamon to inhale the sweetness of the sabbath in the hope that all of what these symbolized might be carried forward into the week, along with the centering lessons of yoga.
Tasman’s next havdalah session at Breathing Room Yoga will bring what she called yoga’s wisdom to bear on preparing to celebrate Passover. That will be this Saturday.
The third event, on May 3, will focus on marking time and life transitions in Judaism and yoga.