The Practice of Kaballah and Yoga
A way to bring body and mind and cultures together
Illustration Credit: Star of David by June Moon
Today’s kaballah typically happens from the neck up. Most students of this ancient Jewish mysticism sit on their butts and study. Eyes squint at translations, brains strain through mystic theory, tongues cluck with questions.
Today’s yoga typically happens from the neck down. Most practitioners of this ancient Hindu mysticism roll out their mats and stretch. Muscles burn, joints compress, lungs expand, hearts pound.
It wasn’t always this way.
Kaballahists used to dance. They’d wander through the woods, ecstatically incanting midnight prayers. They’d gather on Sabbath Eve, clasping hands and spinning beneath the stars. Ancient kaballahists served the Creator with their bodies, from the soles of their feet to their yarmulke-capped heads. They danced to know God through their blood and bones.
Yogis used to sit. They’d spend lifetimes in meditation, working to weave the brain’s animalistic, limbic structures with their more sophisticated frontal lobes. Yogis revered the power of the mind. They stretched not to look good, but to prepare their spines and limbs for long hours of contemplation.
When I teach kaballah and yoga together, students ask: Did the kaballahists and yogis of old ever entwine these traditions? Did they ever even meet? Or is this kaballah/yoga blend another manifestation of today’s salad-bar approach to wisdom traditions? Well, I’m not the first rabbi to teach yoga, but it’s part of the salad bar that I came to on my own.
Initially, I blended kaballah and yoga to improve my yoga practice. I had begun to notice that, on different days, I brought dramatically different qualities to the mat. One day, my analytical mind might be firing on all cylinders while my imaginative, intuitive brain hid beneath the covers. The following day, I’d step onto the mat and discover the reverse. Or, during one session, I’d feel easygoing and buoyant, yet lacking in focus. The next session, I’d feel the reverse.
This internal ebb and flow reminded me of a kaballahistic teaching. God created reality, taught the kaballahists, by refracting divine energy through 10 different channels called sefirot. When God’s unified energy poured into these 10 channels, the energy transformed into 10 spiritual emanations: being (keter in Hebrew); inspiration (khokhma); understanding (bina); kindness (khesed); strength (gevurah); beauty (tiferet); achievement (netzakh); acceptance (hod); foundation (yesod), and manifestation (malkhut).
Every aspect of reality—as well as every human being—contains different portions and combinations of these 10 sefirot. Some of us, for example, may operate with abundant kindness, yet very little strength. Others of us possess tremendous strength but have trouble tempering this strength with kindness.
The unique combination of sefirot within us can change. Strong individuals who lack kindness, or kind individuals who lack strength, can shift the scales. Many kaballahists employ spiritual practice—meditation, prayer, scriptural study, song and dance—to awaken dormant sefirot. With every chanted psalm, with every circle dance, kaballahists can work to gradually improve their spiritual alignment.
Balance Your Sefirot During Your Asanas
According to kaballah, we possess 10 sefirot, 10 spiritual qualities: being (keter); inspiration (khokhma); understanding (bina); kindness (khesed); strength (gevurah); beauty (tiferet); achievement (netzakh); acceptance (hod); foundation (yesod); and manifestation (malkhut).
Kaballah yoga allows us to develop and balance these sefirot. The next time you step on a yoga mat, try these explorations:
- Being (keter) To explore the quality of being, begin and end your yoga practice in stillness. Standing, sitting, or lying down, explore what it feels like to just be, without movement or manifestation, without posture or purpose. When we develop our capacity of being without doing, we develop the sefirah of being within.
- Inspiration (khokhma) To explore inspiration, choose a word, a mantra, to repeat throughout your practice. Choose a word that inspires you to become your best self on the mat. Especially if you feel confused or frustrated during practice, center yourself with this word. Through a mantra, we get to know the sefirah of inspiration.
- Beauty (tiferet) The kaballahists defined beauty as a balance of kindness (khesed) and strength (gevurah). To explore beauty on the mat, practice moving in and out of postures with a blend of kindness and strength, compassion and discipline, grace and power. Anytime you sense kindness overshadowing strength or strength prevailing over kindness, work to restore balance between the two. As we discover the balance of kindness and strength, we discover the sefirah of beauty within.Could the practice of yoga perform a similar function? Could my sweating and stretching on the mat not only align my spine but align my sefirot, as well? I started exploring. When I stepped on the mat, wanting to rock the perfect pose, my sefirah of achievement everabundant, I would adjust my mindset, focusing less on achievement and more on acceptance. As I practiced acceptance on the mat, I began to practice acceptance off the mat, too. I navigated the rest of my day with greater acceptance of the people and situations I encountered. I moved through my life with greater acceptance of myself. Sure enough, this kaballahyoga blend was helping me grow.