In Israel, Chanting ‘Om’ Between Missiles
The morning yoga class that I teach started late, each of us stressed and skittish. Seconds after we had all taken a comfortable, cross-legged seat, the unmistakable up-and-down air-raid siren wailed. I stood, opened the door to the sealed room and ushered in my students—a Middle Eastern melting pot of students from America, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Britain, Canada and Turkey as well as a few sabras.
Frantic, they dialed home to check on children and spouses. A far-off muted boom, followed by a second, louder boom made the hulking steel door and walls throughout our house shudder. After hearing alerts and running for cover for the past 10 days in Raanana, a peaceful city in the center of Israel, we knew that either a missile had landed or that the Iron Dome defense system had felled it, causing fragments to fall from the sky. This was neither our first time, nor sadly would it be our last, spent huddling while missiles targeted Israel.
Alert over, the class and I trudged back to our mats. It was tough to assume the position of teacher. My students expected me to lead them, to help them experience the magical mind-body connection of this ancient practice, but I was wallowing in sour-smelling, foul-tasting fear.
In my basement studio, we faced each other, closed eyes, inhaled deeply and chanted “om”—a vibrational, lulling sound meant to represent all the sounds of the universe—in an attempt to re-center, to press reset.
In Sanskrit, the word yoga means “yoke,” the union of the individual spirit with the universal spirit. How apt to teach it here, in Israel, where the personal is forever entangled, or yoked, with the political. Where hamatsav, “the situation”—a euphemism for unrest, operation, war, suicide bomb or any malaise du jour—is every citizen’s birthright. One day, car rammings, another day, kidnappings.
Just because I was certified to teach yoga, what right did I have to tell anyone in this room to soften or let go, especially if they recently had sent their son or daughter to their army unit or their spouse to reserve duty?
After every flare-up of tension or violence, I wrestled. Pictured myself on my azure blue mat, my legs spread wide in the pose called Standing Straddle—one foot here, the other in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was born and grew up, feeling the irreparable pull between them. How many times had I dropped the F-bomb or practiced a grounding breathing exercise to block out my spinning mind? How many times had I cursed myself for agreeing to my husband’s request to leave our comfortable lives in White Plains, N.Y., and return to the country where we first met and married two and a half decades earlier.
There are no exact numbers or studies on the practice of yoga in Israel. Gilad Harouvi, a longtime member of the Israeli Yoga Teachers’ Association, estimates that there are roughly 370,000 yoga practitioners in Israel—approximately 5 percent of the country—a number that includes Jews and Arabs. Some Israeli yoga teachers estimate that the total is much higher, around 500,000.
Since returning here in 2011, I’ve seen the scene in Israel blossom, with annual festivals and meetups throughout the country—from daylong events in Tel Aviv to the annual three-day Yoga Arava festival, which will take place this year in November in Beersheba. There is even a program that offers free yoga sessions to young men and women in the Israel Defense Forces. Founded in 2012 by Karen Zivan, who moved to Israel from New York, it is called Masa L’Koach, Journey to Power, and teaches meditation and mindfulness as well as asanas, or poses.
Over the years, I’ve often compared yoga in the United States to its practice in Israel. Like in America, every style exists here. I teach Vinyasa, which links conscious breathing with fluid movements, as well as prenatal yoga. There is the popular and energetic Ashtanga; Kundalini, which includes chanting, singing, breathing exercises and repetitive poses; and Acro yoga, an athletic style that combines acrobatics and yoga poses and is often practiced in partner teams.
There is even an internationally recognized style created by an Israeli, Orit Sen-Gupta. Called Vijnana, it is slow, gentle and therapeutic and focuses on relaxing and quieting the mind.
Unlike in America, yoga teachers in Israel generally have a more tactile approach. Influenced, perhaps, by a less litigious society, greater cultural acceptance of physical contact and the warmer climate, instructors will make adjustments to their students’ poses through appropriate touch.
Many teach in apartments or parks, at beaches or on rooftops, either in addition to or in lieu of a studio or gym that is more the standard in the United States.
As fellow yoga teacher Rony Stav, who runs Yoga to the People Tel Aviv, said to me in a recent conversation: “The stakes here are high. We watch our backs, knowing nothing is certain. But during sirens, Covid and, lately, the current political crisis, people always come. They want their yoga.”
I want my yoga, too. Not only to keep me physically flexible and strong, but also to keep me mentally centered and quiet. Teaching here in Israel is meaningful, potent. It anchors me. It makes me accountable, forces me to summon my inner warrior and reminds me of the quintessential and admirable Israeli life-must-go-on stoicism. It prepares me for inevitable, unexpected setbacks that impact the world around me, like the Covid pandemic, or personal setbacks, such as being diagnosed with and removing a melanoma about five years ago.
But what I most appreciate, which I acknowledge every time I chant “om,” is how it highlights our shared humanity. That we are all in this together.
Jennifer Lang runs Israel Writers Studio in Tel Aviv and writes about her yoga journey in her forthcoming memoirs, Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-miniature and Landed: A yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses, both by Vine Leaves Press. She also teaches YogaProse (using your practice to write your story) and will be holding two events at the 92 Street Y in New York City in the fall.