Yoga & Religion

From Andrew Kahn

Owner and Director 

Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio and School

Below are some answers to questions that have been raised within my own community. While the questions relate to Judaism, I believe they (along with the answers) speak of and to concerns common to those of other faiths who are also considering taking up the practice of yoga. On the topic of maintaining health and vitality and also below are some teachings from a great Jewish doctor known as the Rambam.  

There are also some relevant Peaceful Presence audio clips which aired on Talkline with Zev Brenner. 

Watch video where Rabbi Wolowik gives his blessing to Andrew and to the work of the Peaceful Presence Studio. 

I am fortunate to live and work in a community where I have a great deal of contact with and mentoring from orthodox Jews, including numerous rabbis. While I have come a very long way from where I began, I have (I hope) a very long way to go toward my goal. As I now see it, my aim is to be a pure reflection of goodness, knowledge, peace, happiness, love, and light. Toward this end, I will do my utmost to progress. I will try to make the most of all of the wonderful, bright, and caring people who wish to share their light with me.  

I invite your help in educating religious leaders and others about the compelling reasons for yoga practice. We can also promote awareness and clarity to keep those who choose to practice this rapidly growing discipline on solid ground. 

A great deal has been written about the relationship between yoga and various religious faiths. You can easily find appeals, often passionate, both for and against the practice of yoga for the observant individual. Often the discussion comes down to this question: Does yoga help the observant person become a better (fill in the blank) ______ or is it a distraction (or worse)? Below are some answers to questions. 

Much of the writing below has been edited and names have been removed. The published material can be found in the Thursday, April 22, 2010 5 Towns Jewish Times. It is in a Letters to the Editor section and titled, "Meditating On The Origins Of Yoga".

Q: Should we (those who are observant) desist from the practice of all aspects of Eastern practices, such as yoga, Chinese medicine, and tai chi because they may have idolatrous origins or be derived from idolatrous practices? Should we go to great lengths to avoid idol worship (avodah zarah)?

A: No and Yes, respectively. Of course one should be very careful to avoid idol worship! However, the decision that we must avoid everything that has historically interacted with it is an unfortunate conclusion. Do we deny ourselves the privilege of the contributions made by various cultures throughout the centuries because their religious beliefs are different from ours?

Many contributions have been made to the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and medicine from followers of Hindu, Arabic, Greco-Roman, and Egyptian cultures. The Incas of Peru can be said to be the originators of modern neurosurgery. They were the first to drill into skulls of humans as religious practices. Shall we desist from the practice of surgery because it derived from people who used it as part of their pagan practices?

Krav Maga is the hand-to-hand fighting technique taught to the Mossad and IDF soldiers. But Krav Maga, also called Israeli jujitsu, includes elements of the Asian martial arts. Asian fighting methods are well-known to be associated with Buddhism, Daoism, Shinto, and more. They also include elements of meditation. Need the IDF and the Mossad find a new “kosher martial arts form” in which they can safely participate without violating the teachings of Judaism?

Q: Why do you say that you try to follow in the footsteps of Aharon HaKohein who was truly a peaceful presence, who drew people to Torah?”

A: I say it not because I am perfect or even better than others but because I am committed to making those choices that will render me as much of a peaceful presence as I can be. As I learn, I will share what I think might benefit others. To me peace within, peace in the home, and peace in the community have a relationship with one another.

Q: What Jewish authority can I turn to if I want to learn about meditation?

A: Aryeh Kaplan's Jewish Meditation is a must-read for Jews interested in learning about meditation. 

Q: Didn't yoga begin in India? Isn't India also where the Hindu and Buddhist religions have their origins? 

A: Yes, Yoga did originate in India. Yes, both of these major religions can be traced back to India.  

It is difficult to separate the discipline of yoga from the religion of many of its early practitioners. I believe that the inspiration of yoga came before the codification of the religion of this region. There is in fact archaeological evidence of an early form of yoga from the Indus river valley around 3,000 BCE, which predates Hindu codifications and texts.

Q: Does Peaceful Presence Yoga have its roots in Kripalu Yoga, which is named after a yoga master who lived in India? 

A:  I want to be clear that while I gained much discipline from my time at Kripalu, Kripalu yoga is not at the very root of my learning and teaching. I had been practicing and teaching yoga for many years before I ever heard of the Kripalu Center. My mother, Barbara Kahn, was my first yoga teacher. Her father, Felix Recht, was a quiet and serious man whose family in Poland was wiped out during the Holocaust. My mother taught me the coping skills that she found most helpful growing up in a post-WWII environment: stretching, strengthening, deep breathing, and meditation.

Q: What is your background with Kripalu?

A: I took my first retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health around 1990. I returned (in lieu of completing my Ph.D. program in clinical psychology) in order to deepen my own practice in the comforting and beautiful Berkshire mountains in Massachusetts. While the center, which was opened in 1972, is named after a spiritual leader, it evolved into an educational institution which serves seekers from all different backgrounds and religions. Many of the Kripalu yoga teachers I met were positive forces who strove to promote a gentler, more compassionate and tolerant world.

Q: Sometimes there are idols in yoga studios or centers. Is that the case at the Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio?

A: No, there are no idols. At the Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio, there is no idol-worshiping and there are no religious rituals. The goal of our stretching, strengthening, and deep breathing is to achieve greater health, vitality, and peace. This is consistent with the teachings of the Rambam.

Q: Do teachers trained at the school become Kripalu Yoga teachers?

A: Teachers who graduate from the Peaceful Presence Yoga School are not “Kripalu" yoga teachers; they are “Peaceful Presence" yoga teachers.

Q: Why should a religiously observant person practice yoga at the Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio (PPYS)?

A: Because at PPYS that person will find a practice that is only consistent with and supportive of his or her most cherished values. 

Yoga can be a very valuable tool to be used by all people. Obviously there is absolutely no question of the health benefits of a solid hatha yoga practice. Our studio offers an oasis of peace and calm for people to escape to from their hectic lives. Our students come in and learn valuable yoga movements and breathing techniques, get our personal encouragement to promote their own good health, and gain strength to support their families both physically and emotionally. Some come in completely overwhelmed before a Jewish holiday, or exhausted from a tense workday. Of course there are those who come in just to work out or develop greater flexibility, and that is valuable as well.

A recent article in the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, dated October 24, 2009, includes an in depth special report on the health benefits of yoga and Tai Chi. Educators and psychologists are using yoga in private therapy sessions.  Physical therapists are being trained to combine yoga in their practice. Yoga is being used to treat eating disorders, to help students learn to focus, and so on. 

Q: Who comes to the studio?

A: We are open to and welcome people from all backgrounds. We have many fine observant women and men of the highest integrity who benefit from our classes. 

Q: So are you saying that yoga in general is perfectly ok for the observant community?

No. There are some approaches to teaching yoga and meditation that do not foster core Jewish values, so one must be ever watchful.  Several of our students have consulted authorities prior to undertaking this study. The bottom line is that everyone is encouraged to consult their own rabbi or religious leader.

Q: If one can not come to the Peaceful Presence studio in NY what should one look out for when choosing a yoga studio or a yoga teacher? How can one choose well?

A: Ask your Rabbi or other religious leader for a recommendation. That is not enough though. One should also look carefully at how the teacher actually behaves and listen carefully to his or her words.  Look around the studio in question to see if there are any inappropriate objects or postings. Is there singing or chanting going on? If so what is the meaning of it.  Check all of this to be sure that it is consistent with your beliefs. Stay aware and don't be afraid to question anything you don't understand. If everything checks out you ought to relax and enjoy the wonderful discipline you are gaining and all of the benefits you are experiencing.

Q: What else would you suggest for those in the observant community who are seeking relief from tension and stress.

A: I encourage all to follow their tradition’s literature and local knowledgeable resources.

Here is a list of some of the suggestions that we have recieved that may prove useful:   

-Mussar sefarim such as Alei Shur and Sifsei Chayim are replete with mussar-based meditations. 

-Also the seeking out of chassidic leaders who can teach chassidic hisbodedus and other forms of meditation. 

-Find serenity in doing mitzvos and giving of one's time and efforts to local charities. 

-Seek inspiration from cognitive meditations offered on CDs and tapes by Rav Avigdor Miller, zt’l. 

If you have more suggestions for this list or would like to see more about this topic please let me know. Also, let us know if you'd like to have a Peaceful Presence Yoga teacher visit your community or if your interested having us give yoga teacher training or begin a new studio near you. You never know. When we work together for the good and seek to truely tap into the One, anything is possible.  

Click here to get in touch.

If you'd like to help us spread the word about how The Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio of Cedarhurst, NY is specifically serving the needs of the local Jewish community click here for a flyer to download, forward, print, and/or post.

For teachings from the Rambam that are in many cases consistent with and in some cases identical with yoga philosophy read below.   

Here are some interesting teachings from a great Jewish doctor 

(who served as a physician to royalty), scholar, and philosopher 

who lived in Spain until 1204. He is know as the Rambam.

While some of his teachings appear dated, a good deal of it is as true, 

I believe, today as it was when he said it. 

He has much to say about dealing with constipation (Halacha 6 below), diet (7 to 12), 

and the emission of semen (19). Yoga philosophy says a lot about the latter too.

Below are some of the Rambam's teaching in Chapter four of the Mishne Torah. 

Many points are consistent or virtually identical with what I have found in the yogic teachings.

Check it out if you are interested in what one great doctor had to say. I'd be interested in hearing any of  

your thoughts.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Maimonides (disambiguation).

Moses ben-Maimon, called Maimonides and also known as Mūsā ibn Maymūn (موسى بن ميمون) in Arabic, or Rambam ( רמב"ם – Hebrew acronym for "Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon"), was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. He was born in Córdoba, Spain on Passover Eve, 1135, and died in Egypt (or Tiberias) on 20th Tevet, December 12, 1204.[6] He was a rabbi, physician and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt. Although his writings on Jewish l aw and ethics were met with acclaim and gratitude from most Jews even as far off as Spain, Iraq and Yemen, and he rose to be the revered head of the Jewish community in Egypt, there were also respectful critics of some of his rulings and other writings particularly in Spain. Nevertheless, he was posthumously acknowledged to be one of the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history, his copious work a cornerstone of Jewish scholarship. His fourteen-volume Mishneh Torah still carries canonical authority as a codification of Talmudic law. In the Yeshiva world he is known as "haNesher haGadol" (the great eagle) in recognition of his outstanding status as a bona fide exponent of the Oral Torah.

Halacha 20 

Whoever conducts himself in the ways which we have drawn up, I will guarantee that he will not become ill throughout his life, until he reaches advanced age and dies. He will not need a doctor. His body will remain intact and healthy throughout his life. 

One may rely on this guarantee] unless [his body] was impaired from the birth, he was accustomed to one of the harmful habits from birth, or should there be a plague or a drought in the world.

This can be found at <> 

Chapter Four

Halacha 1 

Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God - for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is ill - therefore, he must avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger. 

They are as follows: a person should never eat unless he is hungry, nor drink unless thirsty. He should never put off relieving himself, even for an instant. Rather, whenever he [feels the] need to urinate or move his bowels, he should do so immediately. 

Halacha 2 

One should not eat until his stomach is full. Rather, [he should stop when] he has eaten to close to three quarter's of full satisfaction. 

One should drink only a small amount of water during the meal, and mix that with wine. When the food begins to be digested in his intestines, he may drink what is necessary. However, he should not drink much water, even when the food has been digested. 

One should not eat until he has checked himself thoroughly that he does not need to relieve himself. He should not eat until he has taken a stroll which is sufficient to raise his body temperature. 

Alternatively, he should work or exert himself in some other way. The rule is that he should engage his body and exert himself in a sweat-producing task each morning. Afterwards, he should rest slightly until he regains composure and [then, he should] eat. If he were to bathe in hot water after exerting himself, it would be beneficial. Afterwards, he should wait a short while and eat. 

Halacha 3 

One should always eat while seated or reclining on his left side. He should not walk about, ride, exert himself, subject his body to startling influence, nor take a stroll until the food has been digested in his intestines. Anyone who takes a stroll or exerts himself after eating brings serious and harmful illnesses upon himself. 

Halacha 4 

Together, day and night make up [a period of] twenty four hours. It is sufficient for a man to sleep a third of this period; i.e., eight hours. These should be towards the end of the night, so that there be eight hours from the beginning of his sleep until sunrise. Thus, he should rise from his bed before sunrise. 

Halacha 5 

One should not sleep face down or on his back, but on his side - on his left side at the beginning of the night and on the right side at the end of the night. He should not retire shortly after eating, but should wait some three or four hours. 

One should not sleep during the day. 

Halacha 6 

Laxative foods such as grapes, figs, mulberries, pears, melons, certain types of cucumbers and certain types of zucchini should be eaten first, before the meal. One should not eat them together with his main meal. Rather, he should wait until they have descended from the upper stomach and [then] eat his meal. 

Foods which are constipating, such as pomegranates, quinces, apples, and crustumenian pears should be eaten immediately after the meal and not in quantity. 

Halacha 7 

A person who desires to eat poultry and meat in one sitting, should eat the poultry first. Similarly, if he desires to eat both eggs and poultry, he should eat the eggs first. If [he desires to eat] both meat of large cattle and that of small cattle, he should eat the meat of small cattle first; [i.e.,] he should always eat the lighter fare first and the heavier fare afterwards.

Halacha 8 

In the summer, one should eat unseasoned foods without many spices and use vinegar. In the rainy season, one should eat seasoned foods, use many spices, and eat some mustard and/chiltit/. 

One should follow these principles in regard to cold climates and hot climates, [choosing the food] appropriate to each and every. 

There are foods which are extremely harmful and it is proper that one should never eat them, for example: large fish that are aged and salted, cheese which is aged and salted, truffles and mushrooms, meat which is aged and salted, wine from the press, cooked food which has been left over until it produces an odor, and any food with a bad smell or a very bitter taste. These are like poison to the body. 

There are [other] foods which are harmful, but their harmful effects do not compare to those first [mentioned]. Therefore, a person ought to eat them only sparingly and after intervals of many days. He should not eat them regularly as his main fare or constantly as a sidedish with his food. 

[They are] large fish, cheese and milk which has been left over for more than twenty-four hours after the milking, the meat of large oxen or he-goats, horse-beans, lentils, chickpeas, barley bread,matzot, cabbage, leeks, onions, garlic, mustard and radishes. All of these are harmful foods. It is fitting that he should eat them very sparingly and only in the rainy season, abstaining entirely in the summer. [Of these], horse-beans and lentils alone, should not be eaten either in the summer or winter. Squash may be eaten in the summer season. 

Halacha 10 

There are foods which are harmful, but less so than these. They are water fowl, young pigeons, dates, bread roasted in oil or kneaded in oil, flour which has been sifted so well that no bran is left, fish brine and pickled fish oil. They ought not to be eaten in quantity. 

A man who is wise, overcomes his desires, is not drawn by his appetites and eats nothing of the aforementioned unless he needs them for a medical reason, is [indeed] heroic. 

Halacha 11 

One should always avoid fruits. He should not eat of them in quantity even [when] dried and, it goes without saying [when they are] fresh. When they are not sufficiently ripe, they are like swords to the body. Carobs, too, are always harmful. 

All pickled fruits are harmful and should be eaten only sparingly in summer weather and in hot climates. Figs, grapes and almonds are always beneficial, both fresh and dried. One may eat of them as much as he requires. However, he should not eat them constantly even though they are the most beneficial of fruits. 

Halacha 12 

Honey and wine are harmful to the young and wholesome for the old. Certainly, this applies in the rainy season. In summer, one should eat two-thirds of what he eats in the winter. 

Halacha 13

A person should always try to have loose movements throughout his life, tending slightly towards diarrhea. This is a cardinal principle in medicine: Whenever one suffers from constipation or has difficulty moving his bowels, serious diseases will beset him. 

How can he induce loose movements if he has mild constipation? If he is a young man, each morning, he should eat well-cooked halimi which have been seasoned in olive-oil, pickled fish oil, and salt without bread daily; or drink the boiled water of [cooked] spinach or cabbage, [seasoned] with olive oil, pickled fish oil and salt.

If he is an old man, he should drink honey diluted with hot water, in the morning, wait approximately four hours and then eat his meal. 

He should do this for one day, or three, or four, if necessary, until he has loose bowels. 

Halacha 14 

They have given another principle with regard to physical well-being: As long as one exercises, exerts himself greatly, does not eat to the point of satiation and has loose bowels, he will not suffer sickness and he will grow in strength. [This applies] even if he eats harmful foods. 

Halacha 15 

[Conversely,] whoever is idle and does not exercise, or does not move his bowels when he has the need, or is constipated, even if he eats the proper foods and takes care to follow the rules of medicine, will be full of pain for all his days and his strength will fade away. 

Overeating is like poison to anyone's body. It is the main source of all illness. Most illnesses which afflict a man are caused by harmful foods or by his filling his belly and overeating, even of healthful foods. 

This was implied bySolomonin his wisdom: "Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from distress" (Proverbs 21:23); i.e., "guards his mouth" from eating harmful food or eating his fill and "his tongue" from speaking [about things] other than his needs. 

Halacha 16 

The [proper] manner of bathing is that a person should go to the baths once every seven days. He should not enter [the bath soon after mealtime; nor when he is hungry, but when his food has begun to be digested. 

He should bathe the entire body in hot - but not scalding water - and his head, only, in scalding water. Then, he should bathe his body in tepid water, followed by bathings in successively cooler water, until he has bathed in cold water. [However,] he should not use tepid or cold water for his head, nor should he bathe in cold water in the winter. 

He should not bathe until after he is in a sweat and his whole body has been massaged. He should not linger in the bath. Rather, as soon as he is in a sweat and been massaged, he should rinse off and leave. 

He should examine himself to see if he needs to move his bowels before entering the bath and after leaving it. Similarly, he should always examine himself before and after eating, before and after sexual intercourse, before and after exertion and exercise, before and after sleeping, all in all, on ten [different occasions]. 

Halacha 17 

When one leaves the bath, he should dress and cover his head in the outer room [of the bathhouse], so that he not catch a chill. He should take this precaution even in the summer. 

After leaving [the baths], he should wait until he regains his composure, and the warmth [from bathing] has receded, and then eat. 

A nap before eating, after the bath, is very beneficial. One should not drink cold water on leaving the baths and it goes without saying, that he should not drink while bathing. If he should be thirsty upon leaving the bath and cannot refrain, he should mix the water with wine or honey, and drink. 

It is beneficial for one to rub himself with oil at the baths, during the winter, after he has rinsed off. 

Halacha 18 

One should not accustom himself to constant bloodletting. He should not be bled unless there is an extreme necessity. He should not be bled in the summer or winter, but slightly inNisanand slightly inTishrei. After the age of fifty, he should not be bled at all. He should not be bled and go to the baths on the same day, or leave on a journey after being bled; nor should he be bled on the day on which he returns from a trip. He should eat less than usual on the day of a bloodletting. He should rest on that day, not exert himself, nor exercise, nor stroll. 

Halacha 19 Semen is the strength of the body, its life [force], and the light of the eyes; the greater the emission [of sperm], [the greater] the damage to the body, to its strength and the greater the loss to one's life [span]. This was implied by Solomon in his wisdom: "Do not give your strength to women" (Proverbs 31:3).

Whoever is steeped in sexual relations, old age springs upon him [before its time], his strength is depleted, his eyes become dim, a foul odor emanates from his mouth and his armpits, the hair of his head, his eyebrows, and eyelashes fall out, the hair of his beard, armpits, and legs grows in abundance, his teeth fall out and he suffers many pains beyond these. The wise of the doctors have said: One of a thousand dies from other illnesses and a thousand from excessive intercourse.

Therefore, a person must take care in this mater if he wishes to live in good [health]. He should not engage in intercourse except when the body is healthy and particularly strong, when he has many involuntary erections, the erection is still present even when he makes an effort to think of something else, he finds a heaviness from the loins and below, the tendons of the testicles seem to be stretched, and his flesh is warm. Such a person needs to engage in intercourse and it is medically advisable. 

He should not engage in intercourse on a full or empty stomach, but after the food has been digested. He should examine himself to see if he needs to move his bowels before and after intercourse. He should not engage in intercourse while standing or sitting, nor in the bathhouse, nor on a day on which he goes to the bathhouse, nor on a day on which he lets blood, nor on the day he departs on a journey or arrives from a journey, nor [on the day] before or afterwards. 

Halacha 20 

Whoever conducts himself in the ways which we have drawn up, I will guarantee that he will not become ill throughout his life, until he reaches advanced age and dies. He will not need a doctor. His body will remain intact and healthy throughout his life. 

One may rely on this guarantee] unless [his body] was impaired from the birth, he was accustomed to one of the harmful habits from birth, or should there be a plague or a drought in the world. 

Halacha 21 All of these beneficial habits which we have stated apply only to a healthy man. In contrast, a sick person, or one who has a single organ which is not healthy, or one who has followed a harmful way of life for many years, each of these must choose different patterns of behavior in accordance with his [particular] illness as it is explained in the medical literature. 

Any change from the conduct which one normally follows is the beginning of sickness. 

Halacha 22 

Where there is no doctor available, neither the healthy nor the sick man should budge from all the directions given in this chapter for each of them ultimately brings to a beneficial result.