My husband has become increasingly involved with yoga, meditation and mindfulness over the last year or so. He says that his practice helps him calm down and feel more peaceful. I notice that he seems much more interested in these activities than anything synagogue- or Jewish-related, and this worries me. I don’t think he is setting a good example for our children, and I worry that his hobby can become cultish.
Interest in meditation and mindfulness has skyrocketed over the past few years. Enthusiasts describe psychological benefits such as stress reduction, better mood and greater awareness. Physical benefits include improved flexibility and strength. In theory these practices emphasize psychological and physical awareness and are religiously neutral. In other words, they need not conflict with Jewish tradition. In fact, our Jewish heritage has a rich meditation lore deriving in the main from chasidic teachings.
Objections to Jews participating in mindfulness, meditation and yoga practice fall into two main camps. The first is that many of the popular programs have strong connections to eastern religions. Imagery invoking Buddhism or Hinduism is often visible in yoga classes. While a statue of a Hindu deity isn’t necessary for either meditation or a headstand, the presence of such an icon at the front of a room can feel idolatrous. Similarly, much of the written material uses terminology from eastern traditions and can be off-putting. However, the basic principles of awareness, intention and loving kindness underlying meditation traditions have much in common.
The second objection is a concern that meditation and mindfulness practice might lead to excessive focus on the individual self and distract from religious and communal obligations. Certainly this can be true of any intense pursuit that becomes an all-consuming passion. Sports and the Internet are frequently cited absorptions that sap spouses’ energy from participating in family or community activities. Ideally, the clarity and calm achieved from mindfulness, meditation and yoga would enhance the rest of life, not become an end to itself. For example, yoga and meditation might be used to prepare for formal prayer.
I suggest that you spend some time getting to know what your husband likes about his new pastime. Talk with him about his experience, maybe even attend a class. Try to understand what he is getting from mindfulness/meditation and yoga that he doesn’t feel has been there for him in organized Jewish life thus far. Look into the Jewish literature on mindfulness and meditation. Perhaps you and your husband might read a book or attend a class that will connect his interests with Jewish tradition. Talk with people at your synagogue or Jewish community center about trying to arrange programming that combines yoga, meditation and mindfulness with Jewish spirituality and practice.
Dr. Michelle Belfer Friedman, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, invites Jewish Week readers to send questions to email@example.com. Issues related to psychology, psychiatry and the interface of mental health and general culture are welcome.