At times, I appear to others as a spiritual fraud: born to a Jewish mother, married to a Muslim man, lighting candles in churches across the world for my deceased Christian father. But embracing the idea that “everything is linked” has led me to a place where I can thrive, through both religion and yoga.
In 2016, I was sick for an entire year, my body stuck in overdrive. I couldn’t breathe. Doctors were stumped, declaring me a beacon of health, despite the fact that my breathlessness made me unable to function in everyday life, sleep my only respite. Upon a friend’s suggestion, I visited a Chinese acupuncturist in New York City. On the first day, he took my hands in his hands, pressing a small machine, the size of a pen-head, to each fingertip. It squealed ten times. “Oh Elisabeth” he said, his eyes filling with sorrow. “This is not good.” I half-bragged, half-lamented that I lived life at twice the speed of others. He responded, “living life at twice the speed doesn’t mean you accomplish two times as much, it just means that you will live half as long.”
It was hard for me to slow down. To calm my body, I had to calm my mind. Fittingly, the yoga studio where I finally found my breath is called Breathing Room. Yoga was not a part of my upbringing, but I began to quickly yearn for it in all of its complexity—a practice of body, mind and spirit. I had dabbled in it for decades, but never found my stride. In the moments of meditation at Breathing Room, a sense of wholeness in my body and soul began to reinvigorate me, quieting my always spinning mind. I nodded as my teachers spoke of openness, energy, renewal and love, tears quietly streaming down my face.
Judaism, on the other hand, has always been a part of my life. I learned Judaism through my agnostic Jewish mother, from memorizing basic prayers to enjoying endless holiday feasts, and, of course, through books. From Hannah Arendt to Zygmunt Baumann, Primo Levi to Viktor Frankl, I sought the wisdom of those who had survived the Holocaust. My fixation was not unique, but a characteristic shared by many Jewish children. We did not live through the horrors of the Holocaust itself, but our lives were irrevocably influenced by it.
I found my way back to Judaism when I moved to Berlin to marry my husband in 2012, living on the edge of the old Jewish quarter, the ghosts of the city commemorated on stolpersteine (stumbling stones) inlaid into the streets. I learned Hebrew prayers of peace because I could not step on those stones, those names of lives lost and not properly put to rest, without acknowledgement. I learned to say, “m’chal’kel cha-yim b-chesed” (you nourish life with compassion), first a whisper that became a mantra I carried with me.
Yoga exists in the world because everything is linked. —Desikashar
I began whispering these words not only to the stones under my feet, but to myself, a reminder that I should show compassion to myself in everyday life. It took more than a year until I could breathe again, but I found moments of respite in my yoga practice, which I began with the same words of prayer, “m’chal’kel cha-yim b-chesed”. It gave me back hope. I found meaning on the mat that brought me out of my body, centered my mind and fed my spirit, bringing a new sense of balance.
Only months ago, I attended a funeral at Riverside Memorial Chapel in my hometown of New York City. The rabbi told a story from the Bible, ‘Chayei Sarah,’ translated not as the “life” but the “lives” of Sarah. In this story, Abraham searches for a place to bury Sarah, his deceased wife. The rabbi explained, to begin again, and move towards the future, one must not simply respect, but lay to rest parts of the past, while incorporating other parts into the lives we continue to live. In this moment, pregnant with love and grief, looking at a ceiling painted with stars, beside best friends wearing rainbow kippas and holding hands, I saw a glimpse of where I belong. I believe in unity and many lives, the potent presence of the past and the light which sustains all of our souls, even in the darkest of times.
Yoga gave me back to myself, uniting my mind, body and hardest of all for me, my soul. It bestowed the capacity to grasp for meaning in my everyday life, to recover my ancestry and spirituality with pride, beginning each practice with words of Jewish prayer and ending with gratitude.