How Yoga Made me a Better Jew

It’s been over three decades since my Bat Mitzvah. I was raised in a conservative Jewish family on Long Island, New York. I attended yeshiva¸ Jewish day school, from ages 7 until 13.

Reflecting on my Jewish upbringing, one thing stands out. In all my years of studying Jewish law and participating in customs and rituals, and singing prayers to the heavens, I cannot recall ever feelinganything inside. While I now know there is beautiful, rich, and deeply sacred mystical tradition in Judaism, this was not something I learned about as a child or teenager.

My education was centered on traditions, values, and behaviors, rather than the inner experience that gives meaning and substance to those observances. I learned what it meant to live as a Jew in the world, rather than Judaism as a spiritual path. In short, I learned how to be Jewish on the outside, not on the inside.

For a long time, being Jewish remained a socio-cultural identity for me. It was certainly important, but not transformative. At 23 I started practicing yoga. By ‘yoga’ I mean meditation, chanting and study of sacred texts, selfless service and asana. I got to know my inner being through these practices.

Yoga unveiled the authentic, deepest experience of me. And, it taught me that this deepest self was the divine. This felt true and beyond any one religion or outer form. I understood, in fact, that the inner mystical experience of meditation was at the core of every sacred tradition.

I remember the moment my relationship with Judaism shifted into something more meaningful. I was in my late 20s and had returned from my Guru’s ashram in India for a visit. I attended synagogue with my parents. We were singing Adon Olam, “The Master of the Universe”, which is a beautiful hymn to the glory of God composed in the 11th century. As I was singing, I actually felt something. It was an expansive, powerful and loving inner presence. I was experiencing what the song describes – the majesty and magnificence of the divine – inside.  And, simultaneously, I felt love and devotion to that inner presence.

In yoga, this devotional inner feeling is called bhakti. I sang the rest of the song like I meant it. It was yoga, meditation specifically, which allowed me to get inside the experience of that prayer. It was (and is) the experience of loving union with the divine presence inside that fuels my desire to become a kinder, more generous and compassionate person, to share my gifts with the world as service, to respect and honor my family and ancestors, and to live as a responsible human being.

In short, the experience of yoga gives substance to my Jewish identity. It impels me to embody the virtues that Judaism teaches. Meditation opened the doorway to the divine within me, the glory of God in the form and being of my person. Having this experience, I can’t help but want to share it as who I am and in the kind of life I lead.