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Worship service for body and soul

Yoga Shalom combines ancient traditions

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Reform Judaism, as its name implies, is founded on the belief that Judaism must constantly evolve, adapt and reform in order to remain viable and survive in an ever-changing world.

Reform synagogues, as a result, tend to approach the daily practice of Judaism and holiday and Sabbath observance differently and much more liberally than their Conservative and Orthodox counterparts.

This different approach is evident in most of the services and programs offered at Temple Shalom, Winnipeg's only Reform congregation. One such program is Yoga Shalom, a unique and unconventional Saturday-morning Sabbath activity.

Yoga Shalom is a worship service for body and soul that combines the ancient practice of yoga with the ancient prayers of Judaism. In Yoga Shalom, traditional yoga poses are matched to the traditional Sabbath and morning blessings and incantations. The program, dubbed an embodiment of prayer, was developed several years ago by Lisa Levine, an American cantor, and debuted at the Crescentwood synagogue last winter.

"A number of us attended the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial in Washington in December 2011," explains Temple Shalom president Miral Gabor, "and Ruth Livingston and Ruthie Maman, our temple administrator, attended a session of Yoga Shalom and just loved it."

Recognizing it would be an ideal fit for their congregation, they brought the program's instructional CD, DVD and book back to Winnipeg.

"Our regular Sabbath service is on Friday night, so Yoga Shalom is a good alternative to the traditional service (on Saturday)," says Gabor. "It allows people to be part of something spiritual while moving."

Temple Shalom, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, had been searching for years for ways to add physical activity to its programming and also to increase awareness of and attendance at Shabbat services.

"We tried a variety of Shabbat morning programming to try and interest our congregation in Saturday observance," says synagogue past-president Ruth Livingston. "Nothing really caught on sufficiently to warrant continuing it. We thought this would appeal to people in a different way."

And indeed it has.

A core group of congregants, intent on relaxing body and soul, regularly attend Yoga Shalom, and new people join all the time. The program is designed for all ages and all abilities, and features adaptions for participants who are older, less flexible or just new to yoga.

"I participate every week and I find it meditative, calming and uplifting," Livingston says. " I come out after the hour and a quarter feeling refreshed, calm and content."

The additional appeal of Yoga Shalom, as opposed to standard yoga, is that it provides an extra layer of spirituality to what is already a mystical and transcendent experience. It offers, according to Livingston, "a fusion of ways to be spiritual."

"Yoga and Jewish worship share the goal of opening practitioners to a deep connection with a higher power," says program founder Lisa Levine.

A long-time practitioner of yoga, Levine first combined traditional prayer services with her hobby while leading a yoga workshop at a conference in 1995. That experience confirmed her suspicions that the two practices were compatible, and inspired her to create a more formal yoga worship service.

"After that initial experience with yoga worship, I began envisioning the prayers in all of my yoga classes and interpreting which asanas, yoga postures, would fit best with each prayer," she recalls.

She began teaching her unique yoga program at a variety of venues and congregations across the United States, eventually developing instructional materials and teaming with writer Carol Krucoff to produce a book about the practice.

"Yoga Shalom is first and foremost a Jewish worship service that follows a format that resembles a prayer book," Levine says.

"The yoga postures and breathing practices that accompany the service are meant as a guide for understanding both the subtleties of Jewish worship as well as the ancient spiritual discipline of yoga."

Currently, Temple Shalom is the only local synagogue sponsoring Yoga Shalom. While it is possible that other denominations may eventually adopt the program for their own use, it is certain that the Reform synagogue will remain the only Winnipeg congregation to offer the program in lieu of traditional Sabbath morning liturgical services.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 J13

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