two images: the cover of the book "I Am The Tree of Life: My Jewish Yoga Book," which features an illustration of a dark-skinned boy in a yoga tree pose; and a photo of the author, a smiling white woman with long dark hair standing in front her synagogue.
"I Am The Tree of Life" is the first children's book by Rabbi Mychal Copeland. (Photo/Norm Levin)

S.F. rabbi’s picture book brings kids to Torah by way of yoga

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

The rabbi is a yogi. And now also a children’s book author.

With her colorfully illustrated debut, “I Am the Tree of Life: My Jewish Yoga Book,” Rabbi Mychal Copeland is aiming to introduce young children to Judaism through the vehicle of yoga, because, well — it has worked for her.

“In our tradition, the body is a way we connect to the Divine,” explained Copeland, a rabbi for 20 years and a certified yoga instructor for 15. “The body is a vehicle for prayer. We bow, we loosen our spines — you don’t just pray with words. It’s all intertwined.”

Copeland is just finishing her third year at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, where in addition to her rabbinical duties she teaches some adult yoga classes. Previously, she was director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and a university rabbi for 13 years, first at UCLA and later at Hillel at Stanford. She’s also exercised her writing skills as a columnist for J., Huffington Post and OnFaith.org, and as co-editor of a book on LGBTQ inclusion in religious life.

Copeland’s personal and career paths have given her ample opportunities to explore what is known as ”embodied Jewish practice.” That is, the recognition that “our spiritual selves are integrally interconnected with our physical selves such that when we eat, drink, dance or pray, we can enliven our spiritual practice,” she said.

Because children learn so much through their senses and movement, she believes childhood is a great time to capitalize on that and direct them toward an awareness of the spiritual.

“There is growing interest in teaching children through movement, drawing on the link between mind and body,” Copeland said. “When we pair learning a concept like a Torah narrative with embodied practice, the learning can be accessed differently than if it were only read.”

Her 32-page book, which was published in April, introduces common yoga poses, such as “tree” and “crescent moon.” Simple instructions enable any participating adult to guide children through the movements. The book is recommended for grades K-2 on the publisher’s website, and for grades 2-3 on Amazon.

“In yoga, we don’t pretend to be a tree. No, you become the tree, the lion, the fish, the mountain,” she said. “It’s about seeing the self as part of the world.”

Copeland’s interest in yoga began decades ago, and she has studied various yoga traditions that she brings to her classes.

the tree pose page of "I Am The Tree of Life": a white girl stand in tree pose next to a tree sprinkled with images from biblical stories and the text: "I am the Tree of Life. The Stories of the Torah come alive in me."
A page from “I Am The Tree of Life,” which is illustrated by Andres Ceolin.

The idea of writing a book came to her in 2015 on the porch of a girls’ cabin at Camp Tawonga, where she was a summer rabbi-in-residence for many years. “We were having so much fun and the girls were asking about some of the Torah stories we were discussing. The yoga movements sparked more questions,” she said.

What brought it all together, she recalled, was the tree pose.

“In the Jewish framework, Torah is a tree of life. The idea really came through that Torah is alive, not something we interact with passively. And when we use our bodies in this way, stories come alive in us.”

Copeland already had developed some of the material with her own two children — now 12 and 15 — when they were babies, and has had other opportunities to work out the yoga-Torah connection with older kids. Her concept for the book was to introduce children to movements, and use them to spark some identification with the stories and their lessons.

“Kids go on a journey through Torah, bringing our stories to life through movement. They will stand like Mount Sinai, dance at the Red Sea and become the giant fish that swallowed Jonah,” she said.

Her publisher, Apples and Honey Press, an arm of Behrman House, gave Copeland’s manuscript to an illustrator in Brazil, André Ceolin, whom she had never met.

“One of the pieces that was important to me in creating the illustrations for this book was that the children doing the poses in the book would represent a diversity of children. There is not enough diversity represented in our children’s lit,” Copeland said.

She described Ceolin as “whimsical and expansive … an incredible artist.”

The book, her first for children, was published when the coronavirus pandemic largely was confining people to their homes. Soon after, she was able to use it as the basis of a virtual children’s yoga class she offered to her community on Zoom.

“It’s a useful book for these times,” she reflected. “I’ve been thinking about having kids at home for many months, and how to keep active when sheltering at home. The book gets children moving — and their parents, too.”

“I Am the Tree of Life: My Jewish Yoga Book” by Rabbi Mychal Copeland (Apples and Honey Press, 32 pages)

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.