Edith Brotman has recently published Mussar Yoga: Blending an Ancient Jewish Spiritual Practice with Yoga to Transform Body and Soul (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014), using research funded by the Dorbrecht grant.
While there are no statistics on the number of Jews participating in so-called Eastern religious practices, yoga and Buddhism anecdotally appear popular among liberal Jews in North America and even in Israel. According to Rodger Kamemetz, author of The Jew and the Lotus, the first known American convert to Buddhism in the late 19th century was a Jew named Charles Strauss. In the 1960s and 70s the term Jubu (or interchangeably, Buju) emerged as a way to refer to a person of Jewish religious and ethnic heritage who practices Buddhism in some manner or degree. The term is sometimes ironically used to refer to Jews who simply have a lifestyle that is highly infused with Eastern traditions such as yoga or meditation.
With the seeming rise of interest in yoga, there is growing curiosity and acceptance of spiritual parallels between Judaism and yoga’s philosophy and practices. Mussar Yoga draws on my own research into the similarities of the Jewish tradition of Mussar and yoga to offer a blended practice which draws on the similarities and strengths of the two.
Both Mussar and yoga are products of both the ancient and contemporary worlds. The yoga sutras date from around the Fourth Century CE, but yoga as we know it today is a likely outgrowth of the creation of the modern Indian nation-state. About the same time that the yoga sutras were written, Mussar, which means “instruction” was a recognized ethical discipline. In late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, the Mussar Movement headed by Rabbi Israel Salantar developed as a community and yeshiva based approach to Mussar study. For many decades Mussar appeared to be another victim of the Holocaust. Currently, however, the practice is experiencing a revival.
The concurrent resurgence of both Mussar and yoga spotlights parallels between the two. One parallel is the ethical principles—such as truth, zeal, loving kindness, order and moderation. Another are the methods. Both practices work as conversations between the behaviors of every day life and the precepts of sacred texts. And, meditation, mantras and chanting are employed by both Mussar and yoga. The spotlight also reveals differences as well such a yoga’s greater use of the physical body as template for change, and the Jewish emphasis on action rather than intention.
The book, Mussar Yoga, works as an approachable “how to” manual with a discussion of the two traditions and how together they can facilitate transformation of body and soul. The book offers insight into thirteen different middot (ethical precepts) from both Jewish and yogic perspectives and includes photos and instructions for yoga poses, suggested mantras and questions for daily journalling.