The thoughts we have, the words we chose and the movements we make profoundly affect and influence our souls. Therefore, as Jews, we have an obligation to ensure that all of these garments (machshava, dibur and ma’aseh: thought, speech and action) are kosher in their source. It is very easy to think that by making alterations to non-kosher things, we have made them kosher. But often, at the very best we have perhaps removed some of what makes them treif (non-kosher) but there is still a very far and often unbreachable leap between something not being treif and it being kosher. And ultimately, even if it has been accomplished we must be careful not to refer to it by its treif name and then add the word “kosher.”
All the more so when the concept or essence of something is not just treif but Avodah Zarah (idolatrous ritual and worship). In recent years, the practice of yoga has become incredibly popular as a form of exercise. And for many it helps with flexibility, posture, balance and relaxation. There are claims that rabbinical authorities have said that as long as it is removed from its Hindu sources and that the practice does not involve anything connected to idol worship (such as a Buddha in the class or the ringing of bells/chimes) that it is OK. And from here has developed the concept of “kosher yoga.”
Rav Ginsburgh’s position is that yoga is treif. Yoga is intrinsically connected, at its source, to Avodah Zarah. And therefore there can be no such thing as a kosher form of it. It would be like making the statement: “Kosher Avodah Zara” again, a contradiction in terms at the most fundamental level.
If you look up the definition of yoga it is clear that yoga is inherently connected to Hinduism, all of the poses are a translation (or are) from Sanskrit, and its literal meaning is that of “union” or “connection” which is the belief system in idolatry.
Furthermore, yoga, in its practice, is intended to be a holistic union of mind, body and soul which is why the movements are intrinsically connected both to the worship of things (be it animals, nature, etc.) and is done with specific breathing as the breathing is intended to connect to one’s soul as the breath of life.
As Jews, we are intended to move like the angels, not like animals, which is foundational to yoga. The majority of yoga poses are named after animals and much of yoga philosophy explains that we are intended to connect to the animals through these poses and to understand and emulate them. And in Hindusim the cow is considered holy and sacred. So there is a world of difference between moving in a way that would be described as “bending forward, with legs straight and arms straight and stretching the quads and calves” and calling it “downward dog.” As soon as the term “downward dog” is used, at its source, the goal is to connect and relate to the dog in thought, in speech (its name) and in action.
Therefore, some of the movements and stretches are, in and of themselves, not problematic, but their labeling and use in the context of “yoga” is where there is an issue. Many of the poses are used in a variety of exercise, be it pilates, Barre, strength training, core work, etc. So if one wants to work on back flexibility, any trainer would use movements that stretch the back in a variety of ways. And the terminology would be on the stretches and movement rather than poses. The issue is once those movements are called “cow pose, “cobra pose” or “camel pose.”
If the names of animals are problematic, all the more so when one uses the terminology and poses that are named after Hindu sages such as “Bharadvaja’s Twist” or poses such as “Half lord of the fishes pose – ardha matsyendrasana” which is used in almost every exercise class for stretching but can be explained as a half spinal twist. And there are other poses which are all about spiritual connection, making ourselves receptive to these higher powers, etc. such as “mountain pose.” All the difference in the world between one who is standing upright, and one who then calls that position “mountain pose.” And likewise, the traditional “warrior poses” all relate to Hindu mythology with stories about their most renowned being, “Bhagavad Gita” which is directly connected to avodah zara.
There are many ways of exercising and moving for one’s health, flexibility, strength and balance. The issue is once these movements are called by their Sanskrit names and in conjunction with the stories and philosophy that a traditional yoga workout entails. It is not sufficient to remove the Buddha from the classroom, not ring the bells or chimes, and yet have participants then get in the “downward dog” pose and inhale and exhale as they count to “mountain pose.” To even claim that one can think about Hashem during these poses is a contradiction at the most fundamental level. To claim that “modern Yoga” is no longer associated with its original form (and yet is called by the same name) is like saying that there is no issue with having a Christmas tree or celebrating Christmas as it is no longer a Christian holiday but an American, cultural day. These things are problematic at their root and cannot be made kosher without being completely disassociated.
Furthermore, while this is not the main issue, there is something else to be taken into consideration. There is no definition or set of rules that define “kosher yoga.” This means that every instructor decides what is “kosher” based on his or her ideas or perhaps even guidance from a rabbinical authority. However, not only is there much room for misinterpretation and mistake, for the unknowing participant, if “yoga” is being offered at their local synagogue, Jewish center or in any Jewish context, then the message is that yoga is OK. So then when they attend another yoga class, they have no basis for understanding or determining that in this other context it is being taught in a way that is unquestionably forbidden as it is outright Avodah Zarah.
In Jewish law there is the concept of mar'it ayin, which loosely translated means that if something appears to be non-kosher (even if it isn’t in actuality) it still is not allowed as others will not understand the difference and it could lead them to breaking actual Jewish law. For example, if someone sees a rabbi “eating” in a non-kosher restaurant (when in actuality he is only drinking water in a disposable cup) one can think that it must be OK to eat in that restaurant because the rabbi is in there, and then go in and eat non-kosher food. All the more so with yoga, as the above explains how there is no true form of “kosher yoga.” But even a practice of yoga that is seemingly removed from its idolatrous connections would still give the impression that yoga (in any form) would be permissible to be practiced, and that, is a serious problem.
To conclude, at the very least, if a person chooses to exercise and use movements that are found in yoga, those movements should be termed by how they work the muscles and joints and affect the body. They should never be called by the terminology of the yoga poses and the overall movements and exercise should not be referred to as yoga or “kosher yoga.”
However, as Jews it is not enough to do things that simply disassociate from their treif source. But rather, we have a responsibility to create truly kosher paths in all we encounter. It is definitely possible to create a completely new system of movement, breathing and exercise which is kosher from its conception and at its source. This would require movement which has the kavanot (spiritual intentions) and terminology truly in line with Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy with a goal of using these movements to bring G-dliness into this world.
Rav Ginsburgh has been working with his students for a number of years to develop kosher movement. At this time some of these movements are being taught in India by Dror Shaul in Daramsala and by Zohar David in Rishikish. The goal is to expand the movements and create a fully rectified approach for both body and soul. In the end, this will be healthy and healing for both Jews and non-Jews alike, and will be a method for revealing G-dliness in all and to all.