“I pray you’ll be our eyes and watch us where we go and help us to be wise in times when we don’t know.” ~ The Prayer, Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli
It’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish New Year. It’s the Day of Atonement, the day when we fast and ask G-d for his forgiveness for any and all of our sins. All day we pray to be entered into the Book of Life, and when the sun sets, the gates on this opportunity close until this same time next year, when we get to pray for forgiveness again.
This year, the High Holiday has fallen on a Saturday. I wake up and brew some coffee and then mix up a green shake. I tend to faint when I fast, and so it’s been a while since I have. And with my children all grown up, I no longer belong to a synagogue. And so these days I opt to spend the high holidays at hot yoga, where I’m always able to find something spiritual in the sweat. Today I shower and sign up for a class and leave the house with my hair still wet.
When I was a little girl, I would spend the better part of this day in the synagogue with my family. Always excited to get dressed up, I’d wear my patent leather party shoes and get to carry a purse. Of course, there’d never be anything in my purse, except for the year when I wrote myself pretend love letters and rolled them up like cigarettes. That year, I carried several of those in my purse, because my sister had a boyfriend, and I wanted one, too.
I arrive at practice and see a friend of mine standing near the door. I put my things in a cubby and walk over to say hello.
“Oh, good, you’re here, too!” she exclaims. “And we’re not the only ones!” She points out a young man whom I gather has also opted to pray in the same manner as we are today.
When I was little, we were very observant. On Yom Kippur, my father did not go to work and my siblings and I did not go to school. We didn’t eat. We didn’t write. We didn’t spend money. Later, when I grew up, I married a man who was not very observant, and the holidays became fair game for all of these activities. We even shopped for furniture on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I couldn’t believe it myself! Just parking the car and crossing the street to the store made me feel like the daring, wild child that I never was, even though I was already a newlywed.
This morning’s sky is endless in its brightness. It’s clear and blue and framed by the multiple windows that surround the studio. I pick a spot in the second row and unroll my mat. This class is not on my usual schedule, and the instructor comes over to say hi. He has no idea that today I’ve chosen him to be my temporary rabbi.
I join the others in a comfortable seat at the top of our mats, where the instructor asks us to settle into ourselves.
“Close your eyes or soften your gaze to a point in front of your nose,” he says. “Turn inward.”
And just like that, we’ve come into prayer. I call this prayer, but really it’s something called pratyahara, the Sanskrit term for the withdrawal of the senses. It’s one of the steps toward meditation, and today for me it happens quickly. In moments I’m on the inside, and it’s startlingly different from the endless brightness outside. Inside of me is a mystery that I’m unable to grasp, where the view is obscure and overwhelmingly vast.
After sitting like this for just a little bit longer, we come into our beginning stretches and then stand at the tops of our mats for the opening of the practice. The instructor asks us to recall what it was like when we went inside and then to set that as our intention. I set mine as that mysterious vastness and then join the others in reciting three Oms.
Some say that Om is the spiritual sound of the universe. It’s a hum, a sound without beginning or end, and so it serves as a sort of universal Amen. And this serves me well today, when I’ve come to sweat instead of pray.
As a little girl in synagogue, I would sit next to my father and wait for him to wrap me in his tallis, or prayer shawl. At some point in the service, he would put his arm around me, bringing his tallis around me, too. All wrapped up like that, I’d feel important and loved, and, best of all, I’d get to play with the tzitzit, the silky fringe that hung from the ends of the tallis. I’d braid them again and again and try to replicate their fancy knots.
There’s a surprise at this morning’s practice! Today there’s music playing instead of the usual silence! In the heat, one song melts into the next, and we flow through our Sun Salutations and standing postures. Inversions and arm balances are also on today’s menu, and throughout the practice, we’re offered several chances to level up. I move into Bird of Paradise and Bound Half Moon, and later on I move into their reversals, too.
I spent many Yom Kippurs in synagogue, sitting next to my father each year and reciting the prayers. On this holy day in particular, several times throughout the day, the congregation says a special prayer called the Al Chet, the Confession of Sins. And several times throughout the prayer, we ask G-d to forgive us. Like the other men there, my father would gather up the four corners of his tallis in his right hand and knock on his heart for each of the sins in the prayer. And I’d pray next to him and knock on my heart, too.
I have to say, this prayer was right up my alley. I was a conscientious little girl, always trying to do the right thing. In fact, throughout the year, there would be more than one occasion when I would climb up on my father’s lap and exclaim, “I have a confession to make!” And so I liked the idea of praying for a clean slate before the closing of that year’s gate.
Today the heat is doing a good job. It’s time for the seated part of the practice, and we stand on our knees in Camel, before making our way down to our abdomens for Locust and Bow. Then we turn on our backs for some Bridges and Wheels, before we sail into our Boats.
I don’t know how old I was when I began fasting on Yom Kippur. The services would extend throughout the day, and, midway through, we’d get to take a break and go home. Without much to do and convinced I’d never been hungrier, I’d lie on the sofa in front of the television and eat up all the commercials for my favorite foods. Then, toward the end of the day, we’d return to the synagogue for the closing service, where I’d anxiously await the sound of the shofar. That’s when my mother would pass around the brownies she had smuggled inside of her purse.
It’s the end of the practice, and now I’m lying in Pigeon pose. I fold over my front knee and extend my back leg out behind me. This is the pose that encourages us to let something go, and, more often than not, it works, even when I can’t think of anything in particular. And that’s what happens today. In this practice of effort and ease, I lie in Pigeon and feel okay.
We move into our final inversions, and I stand on my head and then return to a comfortable seat at the top of my mat for the end of the practice. The instructor asks us to recall the intentions we had set at the start.
I think back to that place inside, only now it’s not so startling. It’s still a mystery, but now I think it might just be the part of me that’s without beginning or end, a place so vast that’s always there and has forever been. And inside this vastness are the echoes of a little girl who’s knocking on her heart, and mixed in with those are echoes of Oms from her now adult counterpart.
It’s time for the closing, and the class recites a sea of Oms, one after the other. The sound is everywhere, and I eagerly join in before it ends, because this practice is my prayer, and I want to say Amen.