Sunday, August 10, 2014

Yoga-Like Techniques in the Jewish Tradition - Lost and Found?

Yoga-Like Techniques in the Jewish Tradition – Lost and Found?

I recently received the below questions via email. I am sharing here my slightly revised response:

“I am investigating the ways in which certain elements of Judaism seem to have been stripped out of or fallen away from our practice over time.  Most notably, traditions like Yoga have preserved physical techniques and practices for sublimation of energy or for entering higher states of consciousness. 

Do you know of any Jewish literature (preferably from the Tanach or Gemara) that discusses actual practices and techniques a Jew can use in order sublimate sexual energy? What about other techniques/practices like integral breathing that are described by our sages?

Why have these techniques been lost to the Jewish tradition?” 

It is difficult to answer the question about why certain techniques of spiritual development have been lost to Jewish tradition. I can offer some observations and speculations (Jews have a long history of engaging in speculation!). For whatever reason, traditional Jewish practice that has evolved over the centuries has focused mostly on a few spiritual approaches that parallel certain yogic approaches. The primary traditional Jewish approaches are threefold: 1) devotional, comparable to bhakti yoga, which engages the emotions, found in our prayer practices both in shul and at home; 2) intellectual, comparable to jnana/gyana yoga, which engages the intellect, found in our study practices both in yeshiva and solitary; 3) through action, comparable to karma yoga, as contained in the directive to observe the mitzvot. What is lacking in these traditional Jewish approaches are techniques related to training and coordinating the body, breath, and mind leading to meditation. This is the system of ashtanga/raja yoga. My intuitive suspicion/hunch, based upon some hints and evidence I have found in my studies, is that these kind of techniques probably have existed and continue to exist in Jewish practice, but have been and remain traditionally reserved for secret circles of kabalists, and have not been committed to writing the way that other elements of our “oral” tradition have been eventually written down, or in the manner found in yogic literature. I believe that mystical Judaism, even more so than many other mystical traditions, maintains that such practices are rightly preserved for direct transmission from master to disciple through demonstration and unspoken revelation, more than any kind of traditional verbal or written teachings. So in some sense, these techniques have not been “lost” or “stripped out of or fallen away from our practices over time”, but rather sustained, but through small secretive circles, even to this day. If you are meant to be exposed to such teachings, then you will be invited/happen upon them when you are ready. I am a great believer in the idea that the guidance you need will come to you (often times in unexpected ways), but you need to be open and receptive to it (without expectations or pre-conceived notions), or you may miss it.

Concerning Jewish techniques for sublimating sexual energy, breathing, meditation, for entering higher states of consciousness, I am not aware of very much in Tanach or Talmud. You generally have to go to what I call “secondary” sources. One reference is made to what has become known as the “prophetic position” in the Tanach at I Kings 18:42 concerning Elijah bending down to the ground and putting his face between his knees. I imagine this as similar to the child’s pose in yoga. There are other references to raising up from this kneeling position and spreading the hands upward (II Chronicles 6:13 and Ezra 9:5). An oft-cited quote in support of Jewish meditation comes from I Kings 19:11-12, Elijah perceiving the “still, thin sound/still, small voice”.

Concerning secondary sources, I commend you to the works of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. You can find an entry on my website under “Bibliography/Book Reviews” about him and his writings. There is also a website dedicated to him with a particular article on point:

A secondary source relating specific Jewish breathing techniques quite similar to yoga-type of breathing techniques is a Chasidic site:

Concerning sublimation of sexual energy, I refer you to an article on my website under the “Articles” section, “Spiritual Sexuality: Kundalini, Tantra, Taoism and Judaism”. It refers to an article on a Jewish website which I viewed critically.

I am happy you discovered my website and found it inspiring. I encourage you to look over my articles on Jewish meditation. These are not just inventions that I concocted from my imagination, they are based in traditional yogic and Jewish practices (as confirmed by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his books). Try them, you might like them!


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Quote of the Week 381 - Heaven

Heaven is all round,

Translated to sound.

--Michael Hedges



Announcing Publication of New Book, DIMENSIONS: Navigation the Spiritual Spectrum

I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book, DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum, now available at Amazon, in paperback print and Kindle versions. It is easily found by searching my name, or by searching the full title and subtitle. You can also click on the image of the book in the right hand column of this blog.

What a great way to start the New Year, cozying up to a fire, real or imagined, and reading a new spiritually inspiring book, sure to become a classic!

DIMENSIONS: Navigating the Spiritual Spectrum

Grounded in the traditions of Torah and Veda, Steven J. Gold takes us on an oceanic tour of the depth and breadth of spiritual consciousness. Sharing personal stories and insights into various traditional scriptures as examples, he urges us to adopt a spiritual worldview, to “ponder infinity, awake and arise,” to “find your inspiration and follow it.”

“The chapters…are records of what happens when Steve’s right mind, and heart, are given full freedom to wander where they wish. As discoveries and correlations are made, his well-trained left mind and sharp wit give his observations shape and form…” – Brother Shankara, Resident Minister, Vedanta Center of Atlanta

“Universal Ice Cream: Dive deep into Steve’s wonderful book to help find your favorite flavor on the Spiritual Spectrum.” – Rabbi Mitch Cohen, Spiritual Leader, Congregation Shalom B’Harim, Dahlonega, GA

“Steven J. Gold’s Dimensions is an exploration of spirituality from the inside out. If you are looking for a guide through the pathless land of truth, read this book.” – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The World Wisdom Bible

Interfaith/Inter-Spiritual Contemplative Groups

Please check out the following, which is an ongoing activity that may be of interest: