Spirituality & Health Magazine

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By:
2014 May-June

Finding Your Flow—in Hebrew?

The ancient asanas of yoga find a surprising new partner: Jewish liturgical chants.

At first glance, a session of shira yoga might look like a typical yoga class. But hang around to listen, and you’ll notice that, instead of traditional kirtan music or a flowing electronic groove, the room is humming with an ancient Hebrew chant.

Currently available in New York and Boston, and launching later this year in San Francisco, shira yoga was conceived as a fresh new way to help people connect to piyut, or Jewish liturgical poems. Traditionally sung or chanted during religious services, the verses of the piyut can be performed in a wide range of musical styles and have been experiencing a cultural and religious revival in Israel for the past decade.

Now a new organization, Piyut North America, is seeking to bring that revival to the United States, hoping to increase the appreciation of piyut, as well as to offer Jews—and non-Jews—a creative way to connect with their faith.

Organizer Eva Heinstein, an Israeli American ethnomusicologist and yoga practitioner, said shira yoga seemed like a natural pairing.

“We looked for a community that had an interest in music, chant, and spiritual practice. For many people, that’s yoga and meditation,” she said.

In a typical class, students will follow both a yoga teacher, who will lead the asanas, and a musician or chanter, who might play a guitar while guiding the group through the Hebrew verses of the piyut. Julie Newman, a musician who leads piyut yoga sessions at Boston’s Down Under Yoga, says she keeps things simple so people of all backgrounds and ability levels can join in.

“The most we’ve ever used is two melodies,” she says. “The trick here is not to engage too much left brain. Piyut are also really long, so we just take a couplet. We get the line or two that we really think evokes something.”

After the musical introduction, the class moves on to the asanas, flowing through poses that have been designed to evoke the theme of the poem: a series of forward bends inspired by a poem about humility, for example; or, for a poem about gratitude, a series of heart-opening poses.

“We’re literally embodying these texts,” Heinstein says. “All these words were written to move the heart, spiritually and emotionally.”

Heinstein says that at first she wasn’t sure how the concept would be received—she worried that a room full of American yogis might be reluctant to take part in the chanting, especially in Hebrew. Instead, she found the group to be enthusiastic. “From the very first class there was full participation,” she says. “It really did transport me.”

Alison Singer, a regular yoga student, signed up for the shira class in Boston because she was intrigued by the notion that it could provide an avenue to connect with her faith.

“I don’t go to temple, and I don’t have any Jewish components to my lifestyle,” she says. “It’s the perfect way to integrate my faith and spirituality with something I like to do.”

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