underground israeli yoga: one couple’s commitment in an ultra-orthodox community
In North America, we’ve become so used to seeing yoga studios on every urban street corner that it could be difficult to imagine a clandestine studio. But Avraham and Rachel Kolberg have carved out their studio space on the second floor of their home at the end of a street in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a city located 30 kilometres west of Jerusalem. Haaretz.com, an online newspaper which covers Jewish life in Israel and the diaspora, profiled the couple and the highly sensitive nature of their underground yoga work.
SNAPSHOT OF A YOGA CLASS
Shortly after the start of a class, an embarrassed girl appears. She hastens to get dressed and a few minutes later reappears with pants under her long skirt. Her black stockings will remain on her feet throughout the entire class. A women whose clothing indicates she belongs to an extreme Hasidic sect doesn’t even change her clothes and tensely hastens to find a spot for herself in the room. She and her friends sneak in here like thieves in the night. As they come in they seem to shrink their bodies – they are uncomfortable with the other women’s gaze. They do not write their names on the disposable water glasses as is customary, for fear of being identified. But it seems they are longing for this tranquility, agonizingly acquired. And anyone who hasn’t seen a Hasidic woman resting on her heels and closing her eyes in a typical yoga pose has never seen rest in his life.
According to Kolberg, a minority of her students are religious women from English-speaking countries who know why they are coming. The others, she says, the strict Hasidic women and Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox ) women, “would never have imagined practicing yoga, and for them there is a problem. They are cut off entirely form their own bodies. Usually they come here only after they are in dire straits health-wise.”
IT’S NOT ONLY THE WOMEN WHO ARE CUT OFF FROM THEIR BODIES
Avraham Kolberg relates that there are instructions the Hasids have a hard time following, in part because “they don’t know the names of some of their body parts. They don’t know how to raise their arms. They come to the class in their everyday clothes and insist on keeping on their tzitzis (fringed undershirt ). They don’t have sports clothes.”
Rachel believes that when one is cut off from one’s body there is no possibility of doing spiritual work. “This is my challenge to the ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “When my son sits in the lotus position in his Gemara lessons at the yeshiva, they yell at him that he is acting like a Gentile. Why, if this helps him to concentrate? This is a tool they refuse to use.”
THE KOLBERG’S YOGA CREDENTIALS
[Rachel says,] “Like a good Russian girl I did acrobatics from an early age. When I came to Israel I tried other areas until someone introduced me to yoga. I was swept away and I swept up my husband.” They lived in the Sharon area, practiced yoga and taught at the Beit Berl College School of Art – he, photography and she, painting. In 2000, married and with a 3-year-old son, they went to India to study the Iyengar method. (B.K.S. Iyengar is the father of modern yoga.)
“The yoga bug grabbed us hard,” says Rachel. They were not classic backpackers: They didn’t go to Goa, they didn’t smoke drugs. They lived in a small city, woke up early every morning and went to study yoga.
THE KOLBERG’S HASIDIC CREDENTIALS
The fact that the Kolbergs are themselves strictly observant members of the Breslav Hasidic sect, and the fact that men and women are taught separately has not softened the opposition to yoga in this Haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh.
About two weeks ago a student at a Hasidic seminary (high school for girls ) came close to jeopardizing her future when someone tattled to the school administration that she was practicing yoga. She had in fact begun learning yoga upon the advice of her homeroom teacher but when the principal heard she was going to a “place of idol worship,” as she said, the girl’s parents were warned she would be expelled from the seminary unless she stopped. Expulsion from the seminary could destroy her chances of a good match; the girl gave up yoga.
REACTIONS FROM RABBIS
The recoiling from yoga is deeply rooted. “If they ask a rabbi he will tell them it is idol worship,” says Avraham Kolberg. For Kolberg, yoga is a way to worshipping God. “The moment a person needs to be aware of his heel, with his eyes turned to a certain place and I ask him to concentrate on a different place in his body, observation of what is unseen is created. This is spirituality.”
… [Rachel] asked a rabbi about yoga. “He said to me, ‘It is your craving. Don’t work, devote yourself to your children.’” And indeed she devoted herself to her children for two years, and stopped doing yoga even though, as she says, “I nearly went crazy in that loneliness, with four sons at home and without the yoga.”
RACHEL KOLBERG ON TEACHING YOGA TO HASIDIC WOMEN
“Yoga gives these women an opportunity to meet with themselves,” she says. “I see this as a kind of return (in the sense of a return to religion). These women experience a return to themselves and then they can examine whether they love, whether they are doing the things they love and whether they love the place where they are. If they persist with yoga, there are ramifications.”
To access the full article, register at Haaretz.com. YogaDork posted an album of photos from their home studio space.