At first blush, the yoga class seemed like any other — mats scattered across the floor, students sitting cross-legged. But the instructor standing before them held a poster with several Torah passages and Jewish prayers, revealing that this yoga session had a purpose greater than a good afternoon stretch.
This was Torah Yoga, a practice that links the ancient poses associated with Hindu religion to the teachings of Jewish sacred texts. It is among a variety of faith-based yoga practices now being embraced by Minnesotans.
"Practicing yoga is a new way to study Torah," said Diane Bloomfield, who taught the class last week at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul. "The Torah teaches there is wisdom from the Torah engraved in the body. But it's hidden. Yoga is a way to find and experience it."
Bloomfield is a pioneer in the practice. The St. Paul native lives in Jerusalem, where she has studied the Torah for decades, and offers classes internationally.
She admits some people think it sounds a bit "New Age-y." But she stresses it is firmly grounded in Jewish tradition, adding, "I'm an observant Jew."
Sunday's yoga class began with students doing warm-up stretches and exploring some Jewish symbolism.
Bloomfield stood before the group, reminding them that the festival of Purim would begin later this month. While Purim is best known for the masks and costumes worn by children, so do our exterior selves cover "the hidden aspects of who we are," she said.
Torah Yoga can uncover that.
The analogy continued as Bloomfield asked the class to shift into "warrior pose," which she said was appropriate for Purim, a festival commemorating a time when the Jewish people living in ancient Persia were saved from massacre.
"We are learning to be warriors fighting for light, fighting for goodness," she said.
For the next two hours, the students' poses such as "downward dog" and "upward reach" were intermixed with mini lectures from the Torah, the Kabbalah and other sacred texts.
"Go inside," Bloomfield urged the students lying on their mats. "Feel the life."
After the final poses ended, the students, many who have studied with Bloomfield previously, rolled up their mats quietly, as if still in a meditative state.
"It's very powerful," said Marlene Schoenberg of St. Paul. "You feel awakened. You want more."
You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate it, said Carol Weissner, a high school friend of Bloomfield who drove in from Afton. Weissner said she took a yoga class in a Lutheran church years ago, and feels comfortable that Torah Yoga makes the same spiritual connections.
"It's really meaningful, it's really deep," said Weissner. "Finding that inner light, it's the same God we all worship."
The class reflects growing interest in Jewish contemplative practices, said Sara Lynn Newberger, director of Hineni, the adult program arm of Talmud Torah of St. Paul, which co-sponsored Bloomfield's class. Newberger said that when she began organizing classes such as meditation and contemplative chanting four years ago, "there wasn't much out there."
Today many of the larger synagogues are offering such classes, she said.
Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, for example, sponsors classes in intuitive dance, laughter yoga and drumming. It allows practitioners to remain in the faith even as they explore new spiritual directions.
"We don't have to leave the Jewish world to find this," Newberger said. "We can mine it in our own traditions."