Doing Yoga on Shabbat Under a Chuppah

Yoga under the chuppah in the basement of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. | Joshua Needelman

Deborah Glassman and I took up yoga for many of the same reasons. Chief among them: stress relief. Our circumstances were a little bit different, of course. Glassman was a medical student at New York University when she started. I was very much not a medical student; I was a journalism major at the University of Maryland, where Glassman later completed her residency.

She’s now a urologist with Jefferson University Hospitals, but on the first Saturday morning of every month, she unfurls her mat, places her hands together in front of her heart and welcomes her students to the basement of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. It’s called ShaBhakti: A Shabbat Yoga Experience.

It’s been about 25 years since Glassman took up yoga and 10 years since she completed her teacher training course. She had long noticed the spiritual parallels between her yoga practice and her Judaism, so she was delighted when BZBI leadership approached her two summers ago and asked her to teach a class.

The first session was on Yom Kippur morning. It was “light yoga,” she said, designed to serve as a reprieve from Torah study. I imagine it hardly resembled Aug. 5’s session, which was anything but light.

As prayers echoed from the auditorium above, Glassman welcomed 10 students, including myself, in the way she always does, by going over the week’s Torah portion. This week was Eikev, which recalls Moses informing the Israelites that if they follow God’s laws, the nations that dwell across the Jordan River will not harm them.

Glassman related the edict to the present day: “Keep walking in the footsteps of God, and you will get good things,” she said. By the same token, Glassman noted, eikev translates to heel in English, and so the class began not with Child’s Pose or Downward-Facing Dog but with a gentle walking meditation.

“Maybe each breath, take a step or two and exhale. Maybe close your eyes and just start to notice: How does it feel when you walk? Where does your heel strike?” she said.

One week, the portion called for readers to clarify the difference between offerings and sacrifices, and Glassman encouraged the class to question how they offered themselves. They proceeded to perform a series of postures related to opening the heart, like Bridge Pose, Camel Pose and Boat Pose.

After the walking meditation, we returned to our mats, our minds on our heels, and got to work.

What followed was about 60 minutes of twisting, bending and pushing our bodies to their limits. I remembered why I was drawn to yoga in the first place: It forces you to stretch body parts you didn’t know you had.

I also remembered why I hadn’t done yoga in nearly two years: It forces you to stretch body parts you didn’t know you had.

My arms vibrated during Downward-Facing Dog, threatening to give out, but Glassman uplifted the mood with well-timed maxims. “We always lead with our head. Maybe sometimes we need to lead with our heart. Maybe this world would be a little bit better place if we did that.”

Later in the class, Glassman encouraged us to give Cobra Pose a whirl. Cobra Pose, in scientific terms, is really, really, really, really difficult. A quick tutorial, from

“Squat down and place your hands flat on your mat about shoulder-width apart with the fingers spread wide. Now, keep the hands and feet where they are but lift the hips way up toward the sky, bend the knees and lift the heels off the floor so just the balls of the feet are down. Gently press the knees in to the backs of the triceps and begin to shift your weight into the fingertips, picking one foot at a time off the floor. Bend the elbows if necessary for balance.”

Yes, reader, you are correct: That is impossible. And yet, there Glassman was, squatting, lifting and bending, lifting, pressing and bending. We all tried it, inevitably tumbling to the floor. Glassman was ready.

“You can be afraid to fall. Totally, legit, afraid to fall. We should all be afraid to fall in life, but we all know that when we fall and we pick ourselves up, [it] is our greatest learning experience,” she said. “At least that’s what I keep lying to my children.”

At one point while we were lying on our mats, Glassman instructed us to let our knees fall to the right, lengthen our left shoulder down to the ground and bring our right hands to our right thighs to accentuate the twist. I nailed it.

“That’s great, yeah,” Glassman whispered, approaching my side. “Just don’t forget to breathe.” She chuckled, addressing the rest of the class. “Don’t forget the breathing part, guys!”

Glassman intends to turn teaching into a side business, bringing her class to various Jewish organizations in the area. Part of her motivation is to connect with young Jewish people turned off by traditional religious structure.

As we finished with Savasana Pose, silent, reflective, the prayers from upstairs trickled down. “Baruch atah adonai … ” 

jneedelman@jewishexponent; 215-832-0737


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