Women integrate dance, yoga and aerobics into prayer service

On Friday mornings at Congregation Beth David, a small group of Jews gathers in a circle, joining their tallitot over their heads and dancing.

This is not Israeli folk dance. Instead, it is a group of five women taking a class called "Moving to the Shacharit" led by Chaia May-Pienknagura, a performer and Jewish educator.

May-Pienknagura incorporates aspects of dance, beginning yoga, guided meditation, physical therapy and basic aerobic stretches into the meaning and content of the prayers in the Shacharit, the morning prayer service.

She has been leading the class in the Saratoga congregation's social hall since last fall.

Her unusual tack includes turning into a dance the blessing for putting on the tallit.

"Dancing with the tallit is unusual and wonderful, and we have the same purpose as the more traditional dancers who use the tallit because we're trying to reach the same level of joy," May-Pienknagura said. "The prayer says, 'May the tallit spread its wings over my life force,' and that's what we do in the circle."

By adapting each dance movement to the words of the corresponding prayers, May-Pienknagura is keeping with the spirit of the Conservative synagogue where she teaches the class, even if it does not look like a typical Beth David service.

"As a Conservative congregation, we work within the framework of tradition," said Beth David Rabbi Daniel Pressman. "But we know there are different paths of Jewish spirituality and some of them are more resonant for people than others."

May-Pienknagura, who works as the early childhood coordinator at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, said she decided to start the class after taking workshops about prayer at a Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

"When I started saying the Shacharit every morning, I began to wake up feeling gratitude and thankfulness," May-Pienknagura said. "And I realized that many women go to exercise classes but they don't go to synagogue to pray in the morning."

Her class is ongoing and people can join at any time, although it will stop for two weeks during the High Holy Days before resuming Sept. 24.

In addition to the Friday classes at Beth David, May-Pienknagura is leading the same class at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto on Thursday mornings, starting Sept. 2. She is also hoping to start a Wednesday evening class for the Ma'ariv service.

Following the traditional order of the Shacharit service, May-Pienknagura starts with the Birkat Hashachar, the morning blessings including Modeh Ani. She tries to put the prayers in their appropriate contexts, but May-Pienknagura also uses her own interpretation of the prayers to guide the movement that accompanies them, as in the prayer she calls "River of your Blessing."

"There is an image of God shining light on us and we receive it, so I created a visualization with a waterfall of light falling down," May-Pienknagura said. "We put our bottoms up like a bridge and the light flows through our organs to our heart. Then the light flows out to heal us."

For other prayers, however, May-Pienknagura uses music to guide the dancing and stretching. She has made a tape of the prayers that includes music ranging from Jewish Renewal to contemporary Israeli to folk and pop. One prayer, for example, is a Western-style dance accompanied by Debbie Friedman's song "Hail Blessing."

"We do it with scarves and it's very playful — the women tell me they feel like they are in junior high school again," May-Pienknagura said. "The blessing is about creation, so we think about what it is that women create and we paint it in the air with our scarves. Then we throw the scarves away and line up for a country dance."

Susan Desmond has attended the Friday morning classes since they started last year. She plans on taking the class again this fall and said it has motivated her to go to Shabbat services on a regular basis.

"It puts me in the right space for being open to the Shabbat experience," Desmond said. "We are using movement to extend the idea of personal expression in prayer. This class is a creative experience of prayer, but I don't treat it as an alternative replacement of the traditional prayer experience."

Desmond, who has two children, added that "Moving to the Shacharit" makes for a good transition between her early morning Talmud study class and the rest of the day on Fridays, when she prepares Shabbat dinner for her family.

May-Pienknagura, who also leads healing services for Beth David as a lay cantor, said she hopes that men will come to her class and that she can eventually incorporate some of her dances and stretches into the Shabbat service. For now, however, she is content using dance and yoga to make women feel more comfortable with Jewish prayer, as she did at a retreat for 90 women at Temple Isaiah of Contra Costa County.

"'Moving to the Shacharit' is a great bonding experience for women and it is a safe environment," May-Pienknagura said.

"It is very powerful because, during the movement, the mind is free to experience healing, reflection and the spiritual elements of Judaism. There is time for the women to have sharing and psychodrama and creative visualizations to make the prayers more personal."