2020 has been anything but relaxing, and Deborah Glassman wants you to breathe.
Glassman, a urologist at Jefferson Medical College and registered yoga teacher, began practicing yoga to manage her mental and physical health as a medical student. Twenty-five years later, she is still using it to center herself and others in a world that is even more stressful than her medical school days.
Glassman leads Shabbhakti, a series of Jewish-inspired yoga workshops, at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. Now that the pandemic has forced participants into isolation, she has moved the classes to Zoom and created new programming designed to help people cope with the stress and uncertainty of their new reality.
Shabbhakti emerged as a way for Glassman to bring more embodiment to Jewish ritual.
“I call it ‘prayer in motion’ because, truly, Judaism started as an embodied practice. We brought sacrifices to the Temple, and it was much more physical and about our being in touch with how we hold ourselves in the world, rather than prayer-based,” she said. “Over the last three years, I’ve really developed the program to try to hold to that and have that be my mission, to live Judaism through our physical self.”
Glassman begins each of her practices with a short d’var Torah on the weekly parsha that introduces the theme of the session. Poses and sequencing are centered around the theme. On Rosh Hashanah, Glassman led a class focused on the binding of Isaac and themes of trust.
“We talk about how it is really a test for Abraham and Isaac and that it was truly about letting go of ego, learning to trust and simultaneously learning that by being bound to something we can find greater freedom,” she said. “Where can we use our body to hold ourselves and find greater freedom of movement? Where can we, when we are challenged, let go of our ego and realize that we are in a space that we need to be in?”
Sharri Horowitz, a Shabbhakti participant, enjoys traditional services at BZBI but appreciates Glassman’s alternative approach to prayer and spirituality. For her, the physical aspect of yoga emphasizes the presence of God in individuals, and the mind-body connection feels moving and spiritual.
Like many classes during the pandemic, Glassman’s Zoom sessions are still attracting participants, with people from Massachusetts and Florida joining the BZBI regulars.
However, Shabbhakti’s coronavirus pivot is more than simply transferring in-person classes online. Glassman is also reenvisioning the role yoga can play in her students’ lives with the creation of the workshop “Finding the Chutzpah to Exist in this Meshugganah World.” This new class, which Glassman plans to run in the winter, focuses not simply on stress relief but on cultivating inner strength and courage in the face of adversity.
“It’s still using all of the same principles of Jewish spirituality with the intention of finding the chutzpah, finding the nerve, finding our guts to navigate this uncertain world we’re living in right now,” Glassman said.
She plans to expand her roster of Jewish yoga workshops, either online or in-person if circumstances allow, in the coming months.
Glassman is not the only instructor combining Judaism and yoga practice.
Jewish communities all over the country offer yoga classes at synagogues, Jewish mindfulness retreats, stress relief sessions and other forms of yoga practice designed to appeal to those who want to take a different approach to their spirituality. Judaism and yoga also have certain practices in common, like meditation.
“Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and many more Jewish holy men were shepherds who spent long hours in meditation, while the tradition of meditation before prayer was common for the sages, the mystical Kabbalists, and for many Chassidim from the days of the Ba’al Shem Tov to the present,” Rea Bochner wrote in Jewish Community Voice in 2019.
Glassman expects the trend to continue to grow. She believes there are many people who, whether due to the social isolation of the pandemic or other personal reasons, find it difficult to connect to traditional prayer now.
“My goal is to help people find their Jewish spirituality in a way they may not have been able to previously,” she said.