Passing food, chattering, singing, laughing and perhaps even arguing may not be quite the image of contemplative tranquility that one imagines for spiritual practice. Yet spiritual growth occurs in the midst of community just as in the solitude on our yoga mats.
As a rabbi and yoga teacher, for me, yoga is a method for reclaiming the embodied Jewish traditions. The Jewish calendar celebrates a cycle of spiritual holidays that feature tangible opportunities for marrying personal spiritual growth with nudging from a lively extended family.
Sitting down for the annual Passover seder is like stepping back on the mat for yoga practice; cumulative experiences of familiarity, probing and deepening take each diner to a unique place. Attention on breath teaches us that our inhalation relates to intentional intake. The ritualistic actions of the seder unite intention and practice the moment we place a taste on our lips.
The Passover seder is a ritual reenactment of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt to the promise of arrival in Israel. The seder is a kinesthetic experience that headlines freedom, and this journey from slavery to liberation is a central theme repeated daily in Jewish prayer and practice. Gratitude for redemption from oppression permeates our lives each and every day.
Through this annual community-based celebration of freedom, we are compelled to examine our inner lives and clean house (both literally and spiritually) of anything fermenting within our bodies, minds and souls. The eight-day lifestyle change recalls an intense yoga retreat with pranayama (attention to and control of the breath), detoxification, spiritual inventory and returning to the basics of asana (posture).
"Through each breath and each bite we enact the ultimate intention of yoga and Jewish spiritual practice: creating unity, fostering a deep internal connection, and freeing each soul to act with love, compassion and service."
When communities of Jews worldwide gather for the Passover seder, we expect to participate in traditional family rituals with symbolic foods and a retelling of the ancient journey from slavery in Egypt. We may anticipate overeating, quarreling with a cranky uncle and playing games. Together we will imagine, as generations before us have done, that we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. We may relate these feelings to the enslavement we experience enmeshed in addictions, family expectations, financial burdens or political disillusionment. We eat matzoh, the unleavened bread of affliction that symbolizes humility and the necessity of rushing to freedom. We eat raw horseradish and remember the bitterness of oppression, and charoset (a mixture of apples and walnuts) reminiscent of the bricks our ancestors built while enslaved by Pharoah.
We pause to meditate on the symbolism of food, eating and sharing a meal, and connection or lack thereof between nourishment and healthy body image. At a deeper level, we create a spiritual community in a wholly embodied experience.
One expression of this spiritual journey involves facing personal challenge. Every excursion on the mat provides the opportunity to breathe; this is akin to the challenges faced at a community table, especially with family where you may be tempted to stuff feelings or become numb through imbibing wine. The enticements of a full table may create other gastronomic allurements. Through the ritual meal, you may face your own spiritual heritage, and it may feel foreign and irrelevant. True freedom is not wandering off on your own, freedom is distinct from escape in that it involves journeying within roots and relationship in sacred community.
I experienced a specific entré in this journey when I led a Passover seder in a maximum security women’s prison. The Jewish inmates were serving life sentences, and yet they looked forward each year to celebrating a freedom that they surrendered in criminal acts. One woman taught me that it was only within prison where she found freedom of thought. That is precisely the spiritual practice of Passover.
Through each breath and each bite we enact the ultimate intention of both yoga and Jewish spiritual practice: creating unity, fostering a deep internal connection, and freeing each soul to act with love, compassion and service. In both traditions, these pursuits require partnership with others via our family and community as well as partnership with the divine.
In the midst of matzoh ball soup, traditions and heated discussions, we are called to struggle, claim our souls and connect to our whole mishpacha (family). Our personal seeking can engender great rewards; the deepest spiritual development ripens with creation of sangha, yogic spiritual community or kehilla, Hebrew conscious interconnected community. This meal may involve surprising dining partners as we break matzoh in a raucous spiritual learning community, moving through ritual together, sharing breath, intention, song and joy.
Rabbi Heather Altman shares embodied Jewish wisdom through teaching Rav Yoga, offering spiritual direction and creating meaningful ceremonies; her work of creating sanctuary for your soul is presented on www.rabbiheatheraltman.com