Exploring the Intersection between Jewish Identity and the Inner Yogi at TA’s 2nd Annual Kripalu Retreat
by Sharon Katz
I was thrilled to be able to attend the 2nd annual Temple Aliyah yoga retreat at Kripalu on March 19 & 20. As someone who has practiced yoga for the last 15 years religiously, and grappled with the spirituality and inner peace I have found on the mat but not always in synagogue, I was curious about the opportunity to explore the intersection between my Jewish identity and my inner yogi. I was not disappointed. In fact, I was invigorated, and am anxiously awaiting further opportunities within the synagogue community to continue this exploration.
We arrived at Kripalu in the Berkshires around 11am on Sunday morning, and immediately felt embraced by the serenity of the property, which is nestled on a hill overlooking a frozen lake. Inside, the slow paced, friendly, cellphone-free atmosphere welcomed us. People were sitting in the lobby by the sun-filled windows looking at the beautiful landscape outdoors. No one was rushing around. From beginning to end, the retreat provided opportunities to relax and rejuvenate -- on one’s own or with others.
In fact, although we enjoyed some programming specifically designed for our synagogue group, we were able to partake in all the offerings for registrants enrolled in the R&R package. This included the option of participating in three yoga classes a day (at different levels and including different genres such as yoga dance, Vinyasa yoga flow, restorative yoga, gentle yoga, etc.). Additionally, there were faculty led workshops on topics such as meditation and Ayurvedic healing, as well as guided outdoor activities.
The opening session for our group was led by Alan Teperow, TA’s Director of Planning & Engagement. We all sat in two circles with those in the inner circle facing the people in the outer circle. Alan led us in a brief ice breaker that allowed us to share/explore our reasons why we came on the retreat and our expectations/hopes of what we would experience/learn. Just as I’ve found during my participation in the Sisterhood retreats, I arrive knowing many of the participants but always enjoy meeting other members of the congregation who I did not know at all, or only knew by name.
Then, there was a choice of Kripalu YogaDance or a Vinyasa yoga class before lunch. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone a bit, and allowed myself to be open to experiencing the YogaDance which Kripalu promotional materials publicize as “Kripalu’s most delightful, popular, and loved activity… it will surprise you with joy.” And, it did! Every day at noon, there is loud music (both rhythmic and flowing) beckoning from the main hall. An instructor guides participants to move across the floor or stay in place moving gently and expressing one’s inner being. For some portion of the hour, I felt my childhood ballerina reawaken; I allowed myself to close my eyes and not overthink the movement that emerged.
Then came lunch - the first of many healthy, delicious meals in the main cafeteria. There was a plethora of fresh vegetables on the salad bar, as well as soups and hot items. In the lobby, there was a small cafe/shop that sold caffeinated tea, coffee, and baked goods. Kripalu advocates mindful eating, and to encourage this, there is a silent breakfast protocol. For some, this was the most challenging aspect of the retreat. To explore this notion, during one of our sessions about mindfulness and meditation, we each experienced eating one grape for one minute. In doing so, we realized that when we slow down, we actually taste the food more, notice the texture/flavor, and eat less. Rabbi Perkins also explored the Jewish practice of saying a bracha before eating as a Jewish way of adding mindfulness to one’s eating. Before eating, one must consider where the food came from and its contents, in order to decide which blessing is appropriate (i.e. borei p'ri haetz? borei p'ri hagafen? etc.). Since I have returned from the retreat, I have made a conscious effort to be more mindful in my eating, sitting down at the table and concentrating just on eating as well as trying to say a blessing before beginning. For me, this has been a contrast from eating meals on the go in the car, while watching tv, or while reading a magazine. Although I haven’t been able to achieve this goal 100% of the time, I have managed in a week to stop and think more about my eating habits and notice what I’m doing.
On the first night, Rabbi Perkins presented a session about spirituality and prayer through a Jewish lens. He examined the Jewish notion of praying with intention -- kavannah, as well as the idea of praying with spirit -- ruach. He then discussed six Jewish spiritual pathways: mitzvot, prayer, rituals (i.e. lighting Shabbat candles), study, liturgy/services, and life cycle/transitional events. Through all these avenues, Judaism helps us lead lives where we can encounter God in our daily existence throughout the year(s). This session allowed me to explore ways I engage in Jewish spirituality that I previously might not have considered more than habits/traditions.
Later that evening, Alan’s wife Suzanne shared with us her knowledge of meditation and her musical talents to help lead us in a meditative chant. Rabbi Perkins also introduced a niggun (repetitive, melodic tune) that we would sing several times during the retreat. On Monday morning, Alan, Suzanne and the Rabbi led us in a Shacharit Gathering (not a traditional service). We sang Jewish songs/prayers (Hinei Ma Tov, Shema, & V’ahavta), but also enjoyed hearing participants share readings they brought that dealt with meditation, spirituality, or nurturance. Suzanne led us in an engaging and meaningful meditation using a Hoberman expandable sphere. This plastic child toy (which is shown in this video link) serves as a visual representation as one breathes in what s/he would like to welcome, and as one breathes out what s/he would like to eliminate. I found the experience remarkably powerful. We each took a turn holding and expanding the sphere as we silently had the opportunity to take stock of ourselves. Suzanne also led us in a Hopi chant for love, “Shima.” I must admit that I have found myself singing this while driving to work recently.
On Monday morning, most of us took part in an incredible guided hike. Although the sun was shining and the hope of spring was in the air, there was still snow on the ground so we needed to attach microspikes to the bottom of our boots. To help climb up the mountain trail, some of us used walking poles. All of us relished the fresh air along with the peaceful embrace of trees and the snow covered woods. When we arrived by a pond after about 30 minutes of walking at a steady pace, we stopped for a guided meditation among a grove of hemlocks. Some of us leaned against trees and others sat in the snow. For five minutes or so (I’m not sure how long because I lost track of time), we listened to the sounds of nature, hearing birds chirping and wind rustling through branches. We saw the sun glistening on the snow. For me, it was a highlight of the retreat. The pure beauty of the untouched outdoors was a stark contrast to the man-made hustle and bustle of my daily life.
After lunch and more yoga on Monday afternoon, our final session as a group was led by Rabbi Perkins along with Micah Mortali, Director of Education at Kripalu. Their talk was entitled, “The Rewards and Risks of Eastern and Western Spiritual Practices.” Now this really made me stop and think, because I had never considered that yoga or prayer might have negative/detrimental aspects. This session revealed the drawback whenever one crosses the line into fanaticism, and in doing so isolates oneself from family, friends, and the community.
In our closing circle, we took 10 minutes for participants to share their reactions to/experiences about participating in the retreat. Universally, all seemed to be more serene and were appreciative of the time to escape the busy demands of routines at home. Several mentioned the desire to slow down and be more mindful about choices. For me, I have consciously reduced the amount of time I spend on Facebook. I have also listened to my grandmother’s voice in my head saying, “Why do you have to do more than one activity a day?” So, one night last week, I chose not to go to the lecture I had listed on my calendar, and instead went to a restorative yoga class with my daughter. It proved to be the right choice, allowing the stress of the workweek to dissipate.
Back in Needham, we are charged with the challenge as a community to continue the conversation about how to bring spirituality and meaning into our lives by bridging Jewish teachings with yogic/meditative traditions. I encourage others to join me on the first Shabbat of every month at the wonderful morning meditation that Naomi Litrownik leads from 9:15-10:15 am. In addition, there is one last Shabbat yoga service on this year’s calendar for May 6th. (See flyer.) I find both of these opportunities at Temple Aliyah to be welcome additions to the synagogue offerings since they alleviate the guilty choice of attending a yoga class in town rather than going to synagogue.
In conclusion, it seems appropriate to end by saying, “Namaste.” Or in other words, “"The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you."