Practitioners of yoga have long claimed that its various poses can help a person develop equanimity or humility, but can the East Asian practice complement the ancient Jewish practice of mussar, an approach to Jewish ethics first developed in the 10th century?
That’s the big idea in Edith Brotman’s new book, Mussar Yoga: Blending an Ancient Jewish Spiritual Practice with Yoga to Transform Body and Soul, published earlier this year by Jewish Lights Publishing.
Brotman believes that mussar is “a spiritual bridge” between yoga and Judaism, and that yoga puts mussar into physical practice so that one can work on the middot — Hebrew for positive character traits — in body, mind, and soul.
“I think of mussar yoga as the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of spirituality: two spiritual practices that work deliciously together that make life more wholly holy,” she told NJJN in a phone interview.
On Oct. 28, Brotman came to two area Reform synagogues to provide a mussar yoga workshop at each. Held in the morning at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills and in the evening at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, both were sponsored by the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey.
Yoga, of course, is an ancient Southeast Asian approach to spiritual enlightenment using physical poses and controlled breathing.
Mussar originated in the 10th century as a solitary practice of cultivating certain character traits through study and contemplation. Launched as a movement in 19th-century Lithuania and most closely associated with Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, it evolved to include practices to develop 13 specific middot, from gratitude to tranquility. Its main practitioners and teachers were murdered in the Shoa.
While some of mussar’s teachings continued on in the curricula of Orthodox yeshivas, until recently it was largely lost to liberal Jews. It is currently enjoying a kind of renaissance, aided by the founding of the Mussar Institute in 2005 by Alan Morinis, who wrote Everyday Holiness, The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar in 2007. He supplied the foreword to Brotman’s book.
She was first introduced to mussar in Baltimore in 2010 as a Wexner Heritage Fellow, a high-level training course for Jewish volunteer leaders. Always connected to Reform Judaism, she began searching for a spiritual portal in her early 20s.
In fusing yoga and mussar, Brotman matches each of the middot to specific yoga poses. She advocates spending one week with each, cycling through all 13 four times each year. As with mussar, there are specific methods for working on each of the middot, including questions for journaling, mantras for meditating, and relevant yoga poses.
The Baltimore resident, mother of two, and former Towson University sociology professor was careful while highlighting the kinship between yoga and mussar not to obliterate the distinctions.
“I do believe that essentially the desire to connect with something greater than oneself, whatever you call it, is like a round house. There are lots of doors that open into one large room. Lots of paths all get you to the same place,” Brotman said.
“I am not putting yoga on mussar or vice versa. In so many ways they share similarities, especially in their ultimate goal of transcending the self and connecting to a great energy/spirituality/presence.”
As an example, she compared the notion of truth in both traditions — emet in Hebrew and satya in Sanskrit. “There are differences in nuances and differences in approach,” she said. “The satya offers a sense of absolute truth that is very cut and dried…. In Judaism it’s much more nuanced with difficult circumstances, like, is it OK to lie to save someone’s life?
“I try not to superimpose one on the other and pretend they are the same, but tease out the differences and ask: What works for you in your life?”
Nevertheless, she acknowledged, her approach won’t appeal to an absolutist or purist of either tradition.
Annihilating the ego
About eight women attended the evening workshop at Temple Ner Tamid, including this reporter. Brotman, at 48, has a gentle demeanor and a yoga technique that could make a person less focused on mussar studies envious.
Following a brief introduction to the history and essence of mussar, Brotman focused on two of the 13 traits: humility and equanimity. Divided into pairs, participants discussed our respective relationships with the trait. Following these conversations, Brotman led us through the recommended yoga poses in order to experience the trait in our bodies.
The poses for humility included several sun salutations flowing into down dog (hands and feet planted, buttocks high in the air) and warrior pose (think of an archer who has just released her arrow). I started to worry: Do I have the pose right? Do I look ridiculous? And then, it struck me: Oh yes, humility. As Brotman put it, “Let the ego be annihilated.”
Equanimity poses were, by design, difficult on the thighs and painful to hold. Brotman acknowledged she was attempting “to create a physical storm” that could be weathered only by becoming the eye of the storm, distant and calm.
This one made little sense to me, until the next morning, when, about to be buffeted by a metaphorical storm raging in my house, I remembered the poses and suddenly felt calm settle over me. I am also working on making my body straight in “mountain pose,” which helps me contemplate whether the rest of my life is “straight.”
If only all the traits and all the poses went this smoothly.