Monday, November 19, 2012

Hasidic couple introduces yoga to Israel's ultra-Orthodox 

Avraham and Rachel Kolberg at their yoga institute in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

The yoga studio that Rachel and Avraham Kolberg run is situated at the end of the street, a useful location for preserving secrecy. And secrecy is vital because the Kolbergs, a couple in their thirties, teach yoga to ultra-Orthodox residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh, where the practice is widely regarded as taboo.

The fact that the Kolbergs are themselves strictly observant members of the Breslav Hasidic sect, and the fact that men and women are taught separately has not softened the opposition to yoga in this Haredi neighborhood of Beit Shemesh.

About two weeks ago a student at a Hasidic seminary (high school for girls ) came close to jeopardizing her future when someone tattled to the school administration that she was practicing yoga. She had in fact begun learning yoga upon the advice of her homeroom teacher but when the principal heard she was going to a "place of idol worship," as she said, the girl's parents were warned she would be expelled from the seminary unless she stopped. Expulsion from the seminary could destroy her chances of a good match; the girl gave up yoga.

The seminary administration did not spare Rachel Kolberg either. "They said this is a place of impurity that encourages immodesty," she relays, "and that I stay with the girls after the classes and introduce them to prohibited things." Lately she has been waking up every morning with the fear that derogatory pashkavils [wall posters] with her name on them are plastered around the neighborhood.

The studio, a bright and intimate space paneled in wood from the floor to the high and sloping ceiling under the tile roof, does not look as though it belongs to the ugly street outside. It is on the second floor of the Kolberg home and to reach it, it is necessary to pass through the family's living quarters. Despite the holy books and the pictures of rabbis, there is a personal touch in the apartment and a mysterious and pleasant atmosphere, as the sound of a clarinet playing a Hasidic melody wafts from one of the rooms.

Shortly after the start of a class, an embarrassed girl appears. She hastens to get dressed and a few minutes later reappears with pants under her long skirt. Her black stockings will remain on her feet throughout the entire class. A women whose clothing indicates she belongs to an extreme Hasidic sect doesn't even change her clothes and tensely hastens to find a spot for herself in the room. She and her friends sneak in here like thieves in the night. As they come in they seem to shrink their bodies - they are uncomfortable with the other women's gaze. They do not write their names on the disposable water glasses as is customary, for fear of being identified. But it seems they are longing for this tranquillity, agonizingly acquired. And anyone who hasn't seen a Hasidic woman resting on her heels and closing her eyes in a typical yoga pose has never seen rest in his life.

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. For example, at one of the classes for men given by Avraham Kolberg, a teenager showed up with the story, "He's bored but his parents won't let him quit the yeshiva until the match is made for him," relates Rachel. Eventually they found out that the youngster admires Hitler and tortures cats. After a while he disappeared and subsequently he was tried for rape and went to prison. "The community," says Rachel, "isn't really interested in solving these problems. They give some kind of alternative treatment, Ritalin, and then they think: 'We'll marry him off and it will go away.'"

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.


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