Lisa Levine puts the om in shalom. The Olney cantor and yoga practitioner is the creator of Yoga Shalom, introducing a new way for Jews to pray using both body and soul. Levine's recently released book Yoga Shalom, which features a companion instructional DVD and CD of accompanying liturgical music, is a friendly user's guide for yoga novices and yogis alike who want to put a Jewish twist on the ancient physical and spiritual practice that coalesced around the rise of early Buddhism in India in about the second century BCE. At last month's biennial for the Union for Reform Judaism, Levine's book was unveiled when she led workshops for more than 100 participants. This Saturday evening at her home synagogue, Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, Levine will lead a Havdalah service marking the end of Shabbat, introduce Yoga Shalom and sign copies of her book.
Yoga is everywhere these days - in local gyms, high school physical education classes, prenatal classes and JCCs.
"There are a lot of men and women taking yoga at JCCs and gyms now because they want to get in shape," Levine said. "Yoga Shalom gets their spirit in shape as well. It's a double whammy."
The book guides users through a traditional morning service, Shacharit, covering the key prayers and combining them with specific yoga poses and flows. For example, with the introductory prayer Modeh ani participants are asked to sit on a mat (or chair) with legs crossed. They lengthen their spines and take full deep inhalations to fill up the belly and rib cage with air. Upon exhaling, they should release negative thoughts and stresses.
With each chapter, Levine offers guided kavanot - prayer intentions - and additional space for readers to write their own. Later the prayer Yotzeir or, which praises God as creator of light and darkness, is combined with a classic yoga sun salutation. Beginning standing, one lifts the arms up exhales and sweeps them down into a swan-dive forward, touching fingertips to the floor. Next one lunges back, exhales and presses up into a classic downward dog pose, where hands and feet are on the floor and hips hinged upward to the ceiling in a pike-like position. The flow continues into a plank on the floor and the upper body arches back before one gently rises back up to standing.
With clear instructions and photographs that illustrate the poses, along with the accompanying DVD, Levine feels that anyone can experience and benefit from Yoga Shalom. In working with co-author Carol Krucoff, a former health editor for The Washington Post and long-time yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., Levine ensured that each exercise and pose would be accessible to everyone no matter their fitness or flexibility level by offering modifications that can be performed seated in a sturdy, armless chair.
Levine found yoga out of necessity, she said. "I started doing yoga because I was completely stressed out to the max. I was a student, I was living in New York, commuting from Brooklyn, trying to hold down a student job and work. I decided to take up yoga in order to de-stress and focus my mind more on what I was doing."
She quickly realized that yoga provided more than simple stress relief: "It quieted my mind and channeled my breathing and enabled me to channel and focus into my own prayers on behalf of my congregation and with my congregation." Not to mention, the breathing exercises helped her singing. In fact, whenever she had a congregational audition or has a large service to lead, like during the High Holy Days, Levine makes time to practice yoga to calm her nerves and focus her mind.
"Stretching and do my breathing really opens my body and my heart so that I can ... emote the music better," she added. She practices yoga everyday, either at home or Yin Yang Yoga Center in Olney.
A full Yoga Shalom service includes introductory prayers, the Sh'ma - stating the central Jewish belief in one God; an Amidah - a silent devotion; the Aleinu concluding prayer; a Mourner's Kaddish and finishes with a healing circle, where the group or congregation comes together and stands with arms around one another in quiet repose. If one does the service alone, it concludes sitting comfortably on a mat with hands placed at the heart center.
Levine suggested that congregations or Jewish groups like sisterhoods that want to incorporate Yoga Shalom into their programs can easily use the DVD to do the practice. If there are experienced yoga teachers or students available, they can lead along with the DVD. Or, professional yoga teachers can use the book and CD and evolve their own yoga exercises in conjunction with the music, which includes both instrumentals and contemporary liturgical singing. While completing an entire Yoga Shalom service takes about an hour and 20 minutes, Levine said that congregations and minyanim - prayer groups - might want to just take one segment, perhaps the Modeh Ani prayer or the Sh'ma, for example, and insert it into their regularly weekly services.
"I see this as something that could be incorporated for everyone," Levine said. "You can incorporate this practice with your regular Shacharit service with everyone sitting in a chair. It's a matter of people being open to the idea of something new. I want to expand what people think the idea of prayer could be. While it may not work for a bar or bat mitzvah, obviously, for a regular Saturday minyan, I certainly would recommend it."
Presently, at Temple Shalom Levine offers Yoga Shalom about four times a year on Shabbat. She also teaches often on Sunday afternoons at Bet Aviv in Columbia and travels the country offering special workshops to mainly but not exclusively Reform congregations.
Although many think of Judaism as a cerebral religion, Levine finds the opposite to be true . "Judaism is a physical religion," she insisted. "Think about the choreography we do in services, like coming up three times on our toes, bowing at certain times and when you think of Chasidic Jews you think of them shuffling, which is movement. ...
"Jews are a physical people. I've just taken it to another level of physicality."
Yoga Shalom is available at www.URJBooksandMusic.com. There will be a book signing and Yoga Shalom experience on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. Participants should wear comfortable clothing, bring a yoga mat or towel and a bottle of water. A reception and book signing will follow.