A dose of Yiddish Yoga inspires me to hit the mat

A few months ago, “Yiddish Yoga” by Lisa Grunberger made its way to the tower of novels, historical accounts and biographies that j. receives for potential reviews. Noting that the small, 108-page book — with cartoons on almost every page — didn’t fit into those categories, I snagged it. I secretly hoped its tale of a 72-year-old woman trying yoga for the first time would inspire me to get back to the gym after months of neglect.

Well, I went back to the gym all right. And in the days that followed, all I could think about was having a massage, soaking in a jacuzzi or trading in my neck and shoulders for new ones. Thank you, yoga.       

I recently spoke to Grunberger, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Chicago Divinity School, by phone from Philadelphia, where she teaches yoga.

Inspiration for “Yiddish Yoga” came to her, well, during one of her classes. 

“I was standing on my head in a yoga pose, and my mother’s voice popped in my head,” Grunberger said. “It was something like, ‘For this, you got a Ph.D.? To stand on your head?’”

“Yiddish Yoga” is a poignant and funny tale written in the voice of Ruthie Brodstein, a widowed Jewish grandmother from New York who receives a year’s worth of yoga classes as a present from her granddaughter Stephanie.

Hesitant at first, Ruthie resurrects an old Adidas velour sweatsuit and attends her first class. It’s there that she meets Sat Yam, her Jewish yoga teacher. His real name is Schmuel Lupinsky; she calls him “Sammy” for short.

Sammy helps Ruthie with her equipment, turns the music down so she can hear his instructions and adjusts her posture — “Such a mensch he is,” Ruthie says in the book.

At my first yoga class Feb. 24, the situation was a bit different. My instructor, Lisa, didn’t ask my name or if I needed help with my mat. I didn’t mind though, since the room was full of yogis to emulate.

After all, I’m 27, a former college athlete and no stranger to the group class atmosphere at my San Francisco gym. Surely I could figure out the right mat to use and where to place it on the wood floor so I would have a good view. 

I picked the wrong mat — a thick one used primarily for sit-ups, not a thin one that grips the floor — and set it down directly in front of a wide pole. In my defense, I thought we would face the mirrored wall in front of the rectangular studio, not the side.

As the class progressed, I quickly realized that I was a rookie among the advanced. All around me, most of the participants stretched further, contorted better and posed longer than I could.

I wanted to stay in extended child’s pose (where you kneel on the floor with arms outstretched) or downward-facing dog (where the body looks like a bridge) but Lisa had other plans.

She showed us moves I swear only Cirque du Soleil performers could pull off. I had to torque my torso into bow pose by grabbing my ankles while lying on my stomach, then lifting my chest to become a human rocking chair.    

Then I stood in a lunge position with my left hand grabbing my left ankle and my right arm raised to the sky. I’m aching all over again.

About 45 minutes into the session, my stomach started to growl. Lisa advised us to focus on breathing by taking deep breaths in and out — all I could think about was how the veggie rolls I had for lunch had disintegrated into prolonged rumbles.

I had to laugh when I read about Ruthie’s similar experience of being famished during yoga. Warned that she shouldn’t eat right before class, Ruthie looks around for something to nosh on. A teacher advises her to “sip the air,” since it’s composed of 70 percent water, like the body.

What she really wants is a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s Deli.

After roughly 55 minutes of “torture,” Lisa invited us to lie on our mats in perfect silence and just think. I couldn’t remember the last time I allowed my mind to wander, but it was just what I needed.

Sure, my body was sore afterward. But it’s a small price to pay for a few minutes of peace of mind.

Amanda Pazornik
can be reached at [email protected]