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Parsha and Yoga – Lessons From the Weekly Parsha and Yoga

Parsha and Yoga – Lessons From the Weekly Parsha and Yoga

Torah, Judaism’s most important text, is a deep and meaningful book that is applicable to all cultures and all times. Torah is the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and known as the Five Books of Moses. The five books are Bereishis/Genesis, Shemos/Exodus, Vayikra/Leviticus, Bamidbar/Numbers, and Devarim/Deuteronomy. The Hebrew name is first and the English name follows. Each book of Torah consists of weekly parshas.

Torah is the story of the Jewish people from the creation of all things until the death of Moses. In Torah you find science, history, philosophy, ritual, ethics, stories of individuals and families, wars, slavery and more. All phases of human life are represented in Torah. It is a living Torah, relevant today to our lives and relationships, as much as it was when given at Mount Sinai. Torah is the foundation of ethics and morals for most cultures in the world.

Torah is written on a parchment scroll. Parchment is a thin material made from the split hide of a calf, sheep or goat. The scroll is then wound around two wooden poles. This is called a “Sefer Torah” and it is handwritten by a scribe who copies the text 100% accurately and then has it proofread by another trained scribe. There is no margin of error. These words are the same Torah words that were given to Moses. Wherever in the world you go, whatever synagogue you visit, every Torah is exactly the same. If a Torah gets damaged, or a letter rubs off, it is no longer “kosher” and must be fixed or replaced.

In modern printed form, a book, the Torah is usually called a “Chumash”, which comes from the Hebrew word for the number five. My primary source for my weekly parsha reading is the Stone Chumash, published by Mesorah. This Chumash includes Rashi notes.

There are so many levels of Torah understanding. Those of us who learned the parshas in Hebrew school or Bible school learned by reading marvelous stories. As a child, I never got further than the events of the story. My adult understanding of Torah consists of the people and their characteristics, the situations and life lessons.

Women who have heard the Torah stories will enjoy this book for the parshas’ deeper meaning and the connection to their lives. They will learn lessons of character trait improvement and develop increased understanding of self.

The word yoga means “union,” referring to the mind, the body and the soul. Yoga is the practice of physical postures or poses that enhance stretching, balance, strength and flexibility.

Yoga is a routine for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. We discover ourselves on all these levels through our yoga practice. We physically do the exercises and make our bodies healthier by practicing on a regular basis. We pay attention and concentrate on our poses; our mind is focused on our yoga practice. We feel good about ourselves. We have accomplished our goals of a healthier body and enhanced concentration. A sound mind and a sound body augment our soul and encourage growth in positive directions. We develop our soul by becoming the best “me” that we can be using the tools of the mind and the body that were given to us. Yoga enhances the way we live with wisdom, insight, discernment, mindfulness and acceptance.

We are each created in God’s image (Bereishis 9:26). All the attributes of God are one. We humans are one. Our mind, our body and our soul are encompassed in one entity. Our life goal is to be the best “one” that we can be using all of our qualities. We elevate the body to holiness by improving our character traits. We bring this wisdom to our physical selves. During life there is no separation of the body from the mind or the soul. We use the mind and the soul to sanctify the body. We need to protect and care for our body so that we can learn and develop to our highest abilities. The mind functions only in our body.

When the soul leaves the body, there is no further opportunity for growth of our minds or our spirit. This is the teaching of Torah. We are commanded to improve our character traits, or middos, by doing mitzvahs, or commandments. These mitzvahs are actions performed by our body. Doing mitzvahs is how we make our body holy. All human functions that engage the body and the mind are sanctified by mitzvahs. For example, we say a blessing over the food we eat, we make holy our life cycle events, and we watch our tongues so that we do not speak evil.

Yoga teaches mindfulness, concentration and oneness of mind, body and soul. Yoga postures improve our body, which allows our mind and soul to open and learn.

I have practiced yoga for more than twenty years and I have studied Torah for many years. The wisdoms of Torah and the benefits of yoga combine to enhance the learning of each. The concentration needed to do the yoga poses and the adaptability of each pose to the level of the student led me to a connection of yoga to the Torah. Just as we understand Torah at the level of learning we have reached, so we practice our yoga at the level of flexibility and strength of our body.

Many people learn physically. “They use touch, action and movement to learn. The same breathing and relaxation exercises of yoga helps them to focus and open their mind to new things. Focusing keeps people who are very physical calm, centered, relaxed and aware” (from the website learning-styles-online.com). This is known as kinesthetic learning or tactile learning. Learning takes place by carrying out a physical activity in addition to listening to a lecture or watching a demonstration. Perhaps you have had the experience where someone has shown you how to do something and you said, “Let me do it. I learn by doing it.”

Yoga teaches us to focus on what we are doing. Our mind is like a laser beam concentrating on the yoga position. Our aim is to maximize flexibility of our joints and increase the strength of our muscles. We try to be in the best posture for the pose and pay attention to our body parts so that the yoga practice is the most meaningful. Our mind is totally focused on the yoga movements and the yoga breath.

Focusing is a habit, just like many other characteristics. When we are in the habit of centering on our yoga practice, it spills over to other parts of our life. We will find that we are more in the moment and not daydreaming. We are attentive and aware. Our attention is in the present and not wandering.

“Monkey brain” is the brain that keeps a constant conversation going on in our head, even when we are doing something else. Sometimes, when we do our daily activities, study Torah, or when we say our prayers, the monkey brain keeps going. We speak the prayer, read the parsha, go to the store, but in our heads the monkey brain is going. “I have to make a shopping list, I have to clean the guest room, I need to make an appointment with the dentist, why did she say that and I should have said this.” All of this is going on in our heads and it keeps on going regardless of what else we are doing. It takes away from the experience of what we are trying to do or to learn or to understand. Yoga will teach us how to stay focused and will keep the monkey brain at bay. We can have more meaningful prayers and Torah study. We can actively be in each moment of our day.

The book focuses on using our God-given potential for growing and being our best: for taking ownership of our deeds, being responsible for our actions, and being considerate of others. Focusing our mind to have clarity of purpose, being mindful, fully conscious and aware of the present moment are lessons taken from yoga and applied to Torah study and daily prayer.

Our job in this world is to become the best “me” that we can be. We don’t have to become the best person in the world, we just have to use what God gave us and use it well. There is a business expression that says “Don’t leave anything on the table.” This means that when you negotiate, don’t give away what you don’t have to give away. We are born with characteristics and abilities. What a crime to leave them unused “on the table.”

Although God created the world and keeps creating everything that happens, we retain free will. We make the choices of how we will deal with the situations in our lives. We decide how they affect us.

Our yoga practice is the yoga practice that is best for our body. We each may do the same position but the way the position is done, the depth that the position is taken and the control in retaining the position is different. When we are doing yoga, we decide how far we can go in a position. We take our body to the maximum extension of the pose that we can do today. It may be different tomorrow when we may be a little more flexible or, perhaps, a little more tired. Our yoga practice is a daily accommodation to what is happening. Each of us makes our yoga practice unique, just as our lives are one of a kind.

Our trust in God is based on knowing that each of the events in our lives is for our benefit and that whatever happens is the best thing for us. It might not seem that way when it is happening and we might not always get the long view, but we know that our life is the life that we need to live. The lessons we are learning and the growth we are doing are the lessons and growth that are necessary for us to be our very best, to meet our potential.

My Torah knowledge comes from books and classes in Jewish studies. I am a ba’alas teshuva (a Jewish female from a secular background who becomes religiously observant in an Orthodox fashion later in life) and have practiced yoga for more than twenty years. The yoga practice that is best for beginners is one that emphasizes flexibility and stretching. Personally, I have downloaded several yoga audios to my computer and do my own yoga practice at home. Many videos and audios are available online and in shops. Find one you enjoy. If you find a class that is right for you, join it. Yoga works with repetition and should be practiced at least two times a week.

My goal is to make Torah interesting, relevant and accessible to more women. It is wonderful to teach Torah along with the physical and mental benefits of doing yoga. The word Torah means to teach and it is a mitzvah to learn Torah and to teach Torah (Deuteronomy 6:7). Join me in our study of yoga and the parsha of the week. Let me share with you my understanding and love of Torah and my appreciation for the benefits of yoga.

In the book there is a sketch of the yoga pose and simple steps for the position. This book is not written to take the place of a yoga class. I strongly suggest that you find a class that you like and learn yoga with the personal attention you will receive from an instructor. The yoga pose that I selected for the parsha lesson will remind you of the message of the parsha of the week. Please consult your physician before you begin any exercise program.