Eleven Months, Part 2: Yoga and Tefillin

My arm hurts a little. Probably because the small box of Torah verses strapped there is digging into it as I pray.

“Bind them (mitzvot) as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet (totafot) between your eyes” (D’varim [Deuteronomy] 6:8)

Jewish mindfulness is pretty literal.  Those words are bound to my arm and to my head with leather straps. Why actually do this?  Isn’t it much better to take the verse from Deuteronomy as a metaphor? The teachings of the Torah are to be treasured, “like a piece of jewelry.”

Nice, right?

Nice, but not quite enough, at least for me. I like putting tefillin on. I like the fact that when I enter the synagogue each morning, I have to pause, to concentrate on wrapping the straps around my arm. I can’t just walk in with my mind on something else. I have to be where I am. I like the slight discomfort reminding me that I am bound to something much bigger than myself, like this teaching, or the people with whom I am praying.

Fast forward to a yoga class. The teacher is giving us a lot of instruction for Ardha Chandrasana, the pose we are in:

“Be aware of your foot planted on the ground, the rotation of your lower leg, your femur should be moving back toward the wall, settling into your hamstrings. Are your shoulders equally open? Your upper foot should be engaged, as if it’s also planted on the ground. Is your upper leg working as hard as the lower leg? How is its rotation affecting your groins?  Stretch out through your side body to lengthen your spine. Now, keeping your hips even, try to dial your sacrum to move your tailbone towards your thigh, like we did in Trikonasana….”

“Wow,” I say, laughing, “You gave us like fourteen different things to think about during that pose.”

“Yeah,” comes the reply, “But you’re not thinking about anything else, are you?”

In another class, the teacher “invites us to enjoy Eka Pada Rajakapotasana.” There is no enjoying this asana for me. Being true to my smartass self, I ask the teacher “Ever notice how when you ‘invite us to enjoy’ something, it’s going to suck?”

Sometimes yoga asanas involve some discomfort. Sometimes exploring our connection to something bigger hurts, maybe just a little, like having a box strapped to your arm. But concentrating on all the various parts of an action keep us in the moment.  The word yoga literally means “yoke.” Yoga binds us to existence. Putting on tefillin is another reminder of that.