It’s customary for Jews to dress appropriately for Friday night services. At Sixth and I last week, that meant stretchy, athletic black pants and moisture-wicking tops. The gym outfits weren’t out of place for the debut of Shabbasana, a monthly yoga class designed as a warm-up for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of Jewish programming at the synagogue, came up with the concept as a way to help her congregants connect with religion through more than just prayer.
“To overgeneralize only slightly, Jews can get stuck in their heads,” Stutman says. “I’m hoping this combination will hit them in their heads, souls and bodies. It’s a holistic experience you can’t have sitting your bottom on a pew.”
For the new monthly program, she enlisted Greg Marzullo, an instructor at Flow Yoga Center. He’d once led a class sandwiched between Yom Kippur services at Sixth and I and had served as a cantor for a reform synagogue. What didn’t matter to Stutman is that Marzullo, who was raised Catholic, isn’t Jewish.
“Choosing someone spiritually deep, a committed yoga practitioner, was more important than someone being Jewish,” Stutman says. “I can do the Jewish part.”
And students brought their own spirituality on Friday (as well as their own mats, although there’s a stash for people who don’t have one).
“I feel most connected to God on a yoga mat,” said Amy Fleischer, 29, who’s been struggling to integrate her Judaism and her yoga. She typically goes to yoga classes on Friday nights as a way to observe Shabbat but had never before been to one in a synagogue. “I’ve been longing for more events like this.”
Becky Cook-Shyovitz, 26, wasn’t sure what to expect from Jewish-inspired yoga. But just practicing in a synagogue was already more uplifting than her usual spot: her office’s dark basement gym.
As Marzullo turned on soft Jewish music, he invited his students to consider the significance of when and where they were practicing: “We’re coming into a sacred time. Let go of the day, the week that came before it.”
He directed students to stand, lift their arms and then pull them back down, as a way to both stretch their bodies and connect with a Jewish ritual.
“We know this from lighting the Shabbat candles,” Marzullo said, referencing the arm circles women typically make while blessing the flames.
The flowing movements that followed allowed options for the mixed-level group. Marzullo carefully walked through every pose, including a shoulder-rolling version of cobra and a thigh-burning warrior series, to make sure no one was left behind. At a few points, he suggested advanced variations, such as binds, but there was never any pressure to try anything students weren’t comfortable with. (No need to do jump backs into plank on Shabbat, he joked.)
To make sure they continued to be comfortable throughout the evening, Stutman emphasized that yoga clothes were welcome in the sanctuary, too. She was wearing sweats on Friday for services even though she didn’t manage to make it to class — she was too busy preparing her sermon on “how we use our bodies in prayer,” which included getting the whole congregation up and dancing in the aisles.
“One way yoga is similar to Judaism is we’re not supposed to leave our learning on the mat,” she said. The intention of a service is to carry the lessons out of the synagogue and into the world.
As Marzullo said at the end of the practice, “Shabbat shalom. Namaste.”
Sixth and I will host Shabbasana on the second Friday of every month. Class ($6) is at 6 p.m., followed by a free service at 7:15 p.m., and then dinner ($8). The first class sold out; register in advance at Sixthandi.org.
The Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington at Adas Israel (2850 Quebec St. NW) hosts yoga classes every Sunday at 10:45 a.m. The sessions, which are donation-based and open to everyone, weave in Hebrew chanting and Torah discussions.