Yoga for teens: Stop, breathe and learn sacred text

Imagine a room full of Berkeley teenagers. But instead of grooving to hip-hop music, they're stretched out on the floor in a yoga position, quietly meditating on a passage from Torah, Talmud or Midrash.

That's the surprisingly blissed-out scene at "Yoga, Art and Sacred Text," a 10-week class for Jewish teens sponsored by Midrasha, the East Bay Jewish community high school program.

Says Julie Emden, the program's coordinator and teacher, "My goal is to give teens tools and resources they can always use: to be able to quiet their minds, listen to their bodies, and contact themselves on a deep level."

A faculty member of Midrasha, Emden was one of 15 candidates selected a year ago for a Tikea fellowship and given seed money to develop a program specifically for Jewish teens.

The former dancer came up with the pilot version of "Yoga, Art and Sacred Text," which enjoyed a successful trial run last year. Now she is set to expand it with a new series of classes starting Sunday. The 10 Sunday sessions, held from 2 to 4 p.m., are for teens in grades eight through 12.

"Teens need meaningful Jewish education beyond bar and bat mitzvah," she says. "They're bombarded with so much outside input from peers, teachers, parents and media. The trick is to help them identify what they feel inside."

The Cincinnati native grew up in a Conservative home and enjoyed a thorough Jewish education, which included living in Israel for a year.

She later studied dance with Anna and Daria Halprin (co-founders of the Tamalpa Institute in Marin County) and Joanne Tucker, founder of Dance Midrash and the Avodah Dance Ensemble.

"I always felt most prayerful as a dancer," says Emden. "The more I connected with the body, the more deeply I connected with the divine."

Emden has practiced yoga for 10 years, and has taught a class on yoga and Hebrew prayer still offered at Midrasha's Berkeley campus.

Once she received funds through a Tikea fellowship, she set out to deepen her own knowledge, taking classes on Torah and Talmud at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

"I was seeking insight from the rabbis about the relationship between body and spirit," she says. "I found that the prophets and patriarchs had a distinctive physical posture when communicating with God: standing, then falling on the face."

Not that Emden has kids fall on their faces. Rather, her program draws on various disciplines — yoga, drawing, journal writing, music, study and discussion — to help students calm the mind, relax the body, and expand their Torah consciousness.

Initially, she held class at the studio of Nancy Katz, a well-known Jewish artist in Berkeley. Two-story-high floor-to-ceiling windows, and walls covered with Jewish art, added to the milieu. Nowadays, the class is held at the Berkeley Yoga Center at the Strawberry Creek complex.

Emden views her program as a collaborative inquiry into the relationship between body and spirit. "Every time we discuss a line of Torah, I learn something new," she says. "These kids already have the spiritual inclination and the wisdom. They're young rabbis."

One satisfied customer is Lilly Padia, 13, a Midrasha student and now alumnus of Emden's class.

"Life can get so crazy sometimes," says Padia, "and it's nice to have a class where you get help slowing down, relaxing, and getting into a spiritual place. Julie is a great teacher."

For Padia, the class gave her both a physical and a spiritual tune-up. "I learned a lot of yoga and did a lot with Hebrew prayer, which helped me connect with my body and my spiritual side."

Though the program is offered through Midrasha, the high school program of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Center for Jewish Living and Learning, applicants do not have to be Midrasha students. All are welcome.

"Teens need structure," says Emden. "Teens need to be physically active and social in their learning. So we offer an alternative to Bay Area teens to explore their spirituality."

The mother of a 9-month-old girl, Emden harbors big ambitions beyond "Yoga, Art and Sacred Text," including the establishment of a center for people of all ages to explore Judaism through expressive arts, dance, yoga and music.

But for now, she's perfectly content to work with her young students. Says Emden, "The ability to stop, breathe and take a minute to check in is extremely valuable."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.