Jewish prayer is a largely sedentary activity. We stand up, we sit down, we gently bow now and then.
Things are a little different at Rabbi Jaymee Alpert’s “Neshama Body & Soul,” a combination prayer service and workout class at Congregation Beth David, a Conservative synagogue in Saratoga.
I’m not in great shape, I do not enjoy movement, and I find exercise to be among the least relaxing activities available. To make sure my reflections on the experience weren’t entirely negative and agonized, I brought along my girlfriend, Julianne. She enjoys movement and loves trying new exercise classes. To varying degrees, we both like going to services.
About 15 people showed up to the Dec. 16 service, most in their 40s and older. The room was the so-called library, a large, carpeted, multipurpose space with not very many books in it. Exercise mats were provided and we spaced ourselves out in rows facing Alpert.
Alpert, 44, wore her dark-blond hair in a ponytail and the modern workout uniform: form-fitting tank top and leggings. Her manner was authoritative but inviting, a tone fit for both rabbis and fitness instructors.
We began by saying Asher Yatzar in English, reading from stapled packets of prayers created for the service. We would be doing a very light skeleton of a traditional prayer service, but Asher Yatzar was a great place for this embodied service to start. It commends God as one who “fashions the human body with wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs … should but one of them fail to function, it would be impossible to exist” (from the translation in Siddur Lev Shalem, the most recent Conservative siddur).
And then, suddenly, I was doing jumping jacks. And then mountain climbers, which were worse than the jumping jacks. Alpert encouraged us to notice our breath and any stiffness in our bodies. I noticed that I was out of breath, and had plenty of stiffness in my body.
Julianne later told me, “Singing and exercising are both so deeply about your breath. It was hard to sing a prayer sometimes because I was out of breath. I really had to focus on breathing.”
Soon we were singing Ashrei (Psalm 136) to a soothing chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold, the influential Renewal chant composer. I longed to stay there, but it was on to planks and lunges, exercises in “core strengthening,” which one hears about endlessly from fitness-oriented friends. Said Alpert, “A strong core is also what we need ethically, morally, spiritually.”
Between prayers, while we worked out, Alpert put on a playlist featuring musicians like Nava Tehila, an Israeli liturgical music collective that has played in the Bay Area several times and whose music one hears more and more often in American synagogues, and Hillel Tigay, the iconoclastic musical leader of Los Angeles congregation Ikar. Then we chanted Kol Haneshamah. And then — more planks. And pushups. I hadn’t done pushups since they were used as a punishment in gym class. As it turns out, I can’t do them anymore.
“This is about what you can do,” Alpert told the class/congregation. “Push yourself, but not to the point of breaking.” The planks were pushing, but pushups would be breaking. Julianne suggested I do the pushups on my knees — that was doable. Things overall looked easier for her and most of the class than for me, but even those in great shape were pushed. It was a serious workout.
At one point, we did something Alpert called “needle and thread.” We pushed ourselves up on our sides, balancing on one leg and one arm, reached upward with the other arm, then brought it down through the gap between the supporting arm and the ground. Grueling. “How often do we lay on our side, twisting our arm through, looking at the ground,” she asked. (Never.) She said something similar later while we held an agonizing plank: These exercises alter our perspective on our bodies and the space we occupy.
At the time, we were a week away from the Torah portion that tells of the Burning Bush. “God tells Moses to take off his shoes,” Alpert said as we held another cursed plank. “Feel the ground under your arms and feet. Think what it means to integrate the physical and spiritual selves.” I thought of nothing but keeping my body up in this position at all, and awaited the next song to exercise my spirit.
Blessedly, we then chanted Ozi Vezimrat Yah. And then came a ludicrous feat (how did I even do it?!), a plank-like pose in which we raised one leg and made circles in the air with our bent knee. Throughout the class/service, I never felt unsafe, but sometimes thought I could use a little more instruction on the poses.
We said the first line of Shema, one breath per word, holding each one out as long as we could. We did so twice. “Notice how the breath feels different the second time,” she said. Indeed, the first time I was still catching my breath. The second time I was able to relax into it a little more. Repeatedly during the service, I made the logical connection between the breathing and the prayer, and I saw what was going on in my body, but it did not move me in the way that I know body-and-soul practices profoundly affect many people.
I hadn’t done pushups since they were used as a punishment in gym class.
One of God’s names, she told us, is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, often translated as “I Will Be What I Will Be.” “God is not static,” Alpert said. “If God can change and move, we can too.” Soon she had us crawling backward and forward on hands and feet, and said something about “new perspective, new year” that I didn’t quite catch because we were nearing the end and I was spent.
“Torah Yoga” is a well-known trend now. Alpert, who has also been a boxing instructor, told us after the service that she had spent a lot of time doing strength training, so she wanted to add that to the yoga offerings available in many Jewish communities.
She is a newcomer at Beth David, coming from a synagogue in New York where she developed “Neshama Body & Soul” with a friend who is a personal trainer. Before she arrived, the congregation already had a Torah Yoga service, as well as other alternative prayer options. Alpert’s unique interests made her a perfect fit for this congregation.
I am uncomfortable working out, especially in front of other people. But I’m comfortable in synagogues, which made this a workout class I felt comfortable attending. “Neshama” was marketed to the Beth David community, so it drew mostly synagogue people. But there must be potential in this concept to draw in others who are comfortable in gyms but not in synagogues.
“Usually, we go to pray, or we go to the gym,” Alpert said. “This is an opportunity to get in touch with our whole selves … exercise is not always easy, and prayer is not always easy.”
“Neshama Body & Soul” has great potential as a service, but it’s not quite there. It was more exercise than prayer, although suffused with a kind of prayerful intention. But I never quite felt like I was davening. Perhaps that’s because it is not the manner in which I am accustomed to praying. It’s not the service for me — but maybe it is the workout class for me. I am willing to give it another shot.
“It was not the intensity of workout I typically seek out, but I got my heart rate up, and I’m a little sore,” Julianne said. “When she was guiding us through the plank for a full minute and asked us to think about our body, it was essentially silent prayer. That was the highlight for me, as an intersection of prayer and exercise.”
But that intersection didn’t always quite happen, we agreed.
The following week, Alpert planned to lead a hike with prayer in the woods. Forty people had signed up. There is certainly an appetite for this kind of thing. I wish I had more of an appetite for it myself.
I looked back at the room as we left — a few participants stuck around for Torah Yoga. But for us, it was time for lunch.