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God Is in the Deltoids

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Spiritual benefit Theo Kisch, 40, a painter who lives on the Upper East Side, goes to weekly Shabbat services at B’nai Jeshurun, but the Wave, he says, gives him something he can’t get from synagogue. By focusing on, say, his hips or elbows as he dances, he is able to “live in the moment” in a way that synagogue-going doesn’t foster. Dropping your inhibitions and dancing freely with a group of strangers, he adds, helps him “see the beauty in everything.” By the end, he says, “I feel in awe of everyone there.”

Embodied Judaism
The instructors Ari Weller, 34, and Jay Michaelson, 33. Weller is a former bodybuilder and celebrity trainer (P. Diddy was a client) who revamped his exercise philosophy after “too many clean-and-jerks” and the like resulted in a double hernia, a blown-out knee, and a torn rotator cuff. He integrated yoga and Pilates into his classes, then set about merging his day job with a renewed midlife interest in Judaism. With his graying beard and crocheted kipa, he could easily pass for a rabbi—if rabbis had ripped biceps and wore cargo pants. Michaelson is a writer and teacher of Jewish mysticism.

Where it meets Sol Goldman Y on East 14th Street in Manhattan (90-minute classes, dates vary; $25) and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat in the Catskills (six-day retreats, dates vary; $300). Weller also offers private sessions at Fitness Results, a Flatiron-district gym (by appointment; $95). Embodiedjudaism.com.

Religious affiliation/philosophy Jewish, with a yoga bent—but not only a yoga bent (the subtitle of the class is “Not just yoga with a yarmulke”). Weller and Michaelson believe that when you combine Judaism with physical movement, it intensifies the effectiveness of each. “The religious community says exercise takes away from study,” Weller says. “But I say they’re lazy. If you study and exercise at the same time, it’s a double mitzvah.”

What it looks like Weller stands before a semicircle of mostly neighborhood locals who are outfitted in loose-fitting bohemian workout gear. As he leads the class through a Gyrotonic-style warm-up (gently tapping every body part from head to toe to promote circulation), followed by some Pilates-style core work and a bit of yoga, Michaelson provides the Kabbalistic interpretation of the movements. While the class does upper-body work, Michaelson draws the Sefirot, the Kabbalistic map of the body, on a white board. He points out Hesed and Gevurah, the energy on the right and left arms, respectively, which symbolize loving-kindness and judgment. The point is to make the students aware of the concepts associated with the various body parts so that they might understand their humanity more fully. “The body is the metaphor to understanding the map of the soul,” says Michaelson. After taking his class, he notes, “you also start to understand Madonna songs better.”

Physical benefit It’s like a good yoga or Pilates class: a lot of lengthening and strengthening, without a lot of bulking up.

Spiritual benefit Michaelson says he wants students to build a fresh understanding of God through the body: “This is the God we’re interested in, not the story of some man sitting on a throne.” That seems to work for Nick Dine, an interior designer who lives in the West Village. “I have an aversion to organized religion. I’m interested in spirituality as a personal journey,” Dine says. Weller, he adds, is like a healer—“and kind of like a rabbi. But he doesn’t proselytize. I get spirituality by osmosis.”

Outward Bound for the Soul
The instructor Niles Goldstein, 38, a brawny, stubble-faced rabbi with a black belt in karate.

Where it meets Could be anywhere. Sometimes Goldstein takes members of the New Shul, the progressive synagogue he co-founded in Greenwich Village, on day hikes upstate (no charge); other times, he leads groups on dog-sledding treks in Alaska (prices vary). He also leads retreats at Elat Chayyim and the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck (from two to seven days; $300 to $500). 212-284-6773 or newshul.org.

Religious affiliation/philosophy His days of college rugby behind him, Goldstein took up martial arts when he was studying to be ordained as a way to keep in shape, and to provide an outlet for his aggression (his book, God at the Edge, begins with him in jail for ripping a urinal out of a nightclub wall). Along the way, he discovered that his karate lessons mirrored his spiritual training. “How do you build muscle tissue?” he asks. “You break it down first. You can apply that same dynamic to our souls.”

What it looks like Extreme sports, Jewish-style. The activities themselves are no different from the usual outdoor adventures. What distinguishes them are the lessons. Last October, Goldstein led a group of college students on a rock-climbing expedition in Boulder, Colorado, in which their lives depended on their partners’ ability to hold their safety ropes. After the climb, Goldstein brought out a text from the Talmud that dealt with the importance of trust. “They said, ‘Wow, this 1,500-year-old text that I thought was completely irrelevant to my life is actually incredibly contemporary.’ It taught the same message they just learned climbing that mountain face: that we are all interconnected.”


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