Meet the Kolbergs. The family lives in Israel and doesn’t miss an opportunity to practice yoga or teach it to the Hasidic Jewish community however awkward, underground or unorthodox.
The family was recently profiled in online newspaper Haaretz on what it’s like to do yoga as Hasidic Jews living in Israel, their travels to India, being disconnected from their bodies and making it their mission to teach the very un-orthodox practice of yoga to the community. It’s a fascinating read. Check out the excerpts below and the full article here.
According to Kolberg, a minority of her students are religious women from English-speaking countries who know why they are coming. The others, she says, the strict Hasidic women and Lithuanian (non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox ) women, “would never have imagined practicing yoga, and for them there is a problem. They are cut off entirely form their own bodies. Usually they come here only after they are in dire straits health-wise.”
The two teachers regard changing the attitude toward yoga in the ultra-Orthodox world as their mission. It took some time until they realized that the hardest cases from the extreme religious factions were being sent to them, instead of being referred to the authorities.
Avraham Kolberg relates that there are instructions the Hasids have a hard time following, in part because “they don’t know the names of some of their body parts. They don’t know how to raise their arms. They come to the class in their everyday clothes and insist on keeping on their tzitzis (fringed undershirt ). They don’t have sports clothes.”
The recoiling from yoga is deeply rooted. “If they ask a rabbi he will tell them it is idol worship,” says Avraham Kolberg. For Kolberg, yoga is a way to worshipping God. “The moment a person needs to be aware of his heel, with his eyes turned to a certain place and I ask him to concentrate on a different place in his body, observation of what is unseen is created. This is spirituality.”
Rachel believes that when one is cut off from one’s body there is no possibility of doing spiritual work. “This is my challenge to the ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “When my son sits in the lotus position in his Gemara lessons at the yeshiva, they yell at him that he is acting like a Gentile. Why, if this helps him to concentrate? This is a tool they refuse to use.”
The Kolbergs began their turn to religion in India, through the study of yoga. Rachel, 39, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1990, when she was 17 years old. Her name in Russian was Yula and she grew up in Moscow. Her father was a Spanish teacher and was Fidel Castro’s personal translator into Russian.
A year after she arrived in Israel, she did full matriculation exams in Hebrew. In her 20s she met her husband under his former name, Dagan Yifrah,. He hen lived in Ramat Hasharon. At that time she also discovered yoga. “Like a good Russian girl I did acrobatics from an early age. When I came to Israel I tried other areas until someone introduced me to yoga. I was swept away and I swept up my husband.” They lived in the Sharon area, practiced yoga and taught at the Beit Berl College School of Art – he. photography and she, painting. In 2000, married and with a 3-year-old son, they went to India to study the Iyengar method. (B.K.S. Iyengar is the father of modern yoga.
“The yoga bug grabbed us hard,” says Rachel. They were not classic backpackers: They didn’t go to Goa, they didn’t smoke drugs. They lived in a small city, woke up early every morning and went to study yoga.
“In India they live the tradition and this aroused our envy,” says Rachel. “Suddenly we were aware of holidays. There was also the matter of discipline at the yoga school – not discipline for the sake of discipline, but in order to efface yourself and obtain a different rung of spirituality.”
She asked a rabbi about yoga. “He said to me, ‘It is your craving. Don’t work, devote yourself to your children.’” And indeed she devoted herself to her children for two years, and stopped doing yoga even though, as she says, “I nearly went crazy in that loneliness, with four sons at home and without the yoga.”
Photos by Michal Fattal via Rachel Yula Kolberg, the lovely lady seen above in Iyengar style. Express yourself.