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Entering Elul – Meeting the Beloved in Consciousness

August 26, 2014

By Rabbi Chava Bahle

Friends in two short days, the cycle of the Hebrew calendar will bring us back, once again, to the month of Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the beginning of the new year, Rosh HaShana. I suppose if you do yoga that day, it’s called Rosh HaShanasana. 🙂

Bear with me. This will eventually be about yoga practice.

Rabbis love to create word play, and the letters of the name of Elul are often read as a series of five acrostics of holy verses that point us to the spiritual significance and inner work of the month.

1) “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs). Here we read about love, belonging, reciprocity, seeing the self in each other. The world would be completely transformed if we were able to look into each other’s faces and see that same Self residing within. Elul challenges us to see Mother Theresa’s teaching that, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Love and meeting the beloved in all its forms, seeing Self in each other.

2) Cities of Refuge (Exodus). In the bible, cities of refuge are places where people accused of crimes are protected from “frontier justice” and get a fair trial. Like our Buddhist cousins we might ask, “In what do I take refuge?” Many of you know I live by seven vows, which I revisit and revise annually at this time of year. These vows are my “refuge” – they include careful speech, having no enemies, eyes that see, ears that hear, a heart that understands, etc. Mine are based on the traditional language of Judaism, flavored with the idea of “taking refuge” from Buddhism. What are yours? Carefully considering the sacred “vows” that guide your actions.

3) Tzedakah – charitable giving (Scroll of Esther). As in Islam, this value of sharing resources is different than the notion of “charity” which comes from the Latin caritas, the type of that arises spontaneously in the heart or “caring”. In Judaism, tzedakah (in Islam, zakat) comes from the notion of justice – that is, there is great wealth disparity in our society, and we have a moral obligation to move resources to the people and places that are in need. Judaism and Islam also have ideals about giving from the heart – called g’milut chasidim, benevolent giving which we are expected to do as often as possible (“without limit”). Tzedakah has to do with society inequality. Supporting social justice.

4) T’shuvah (Deuteronomy) – taking stock of the places where we have veered from a path of goodness and making every attempt to return. This might mean the kind of “searching, fearless moral inventory” that is taught in recovery. In this past year, have a wronged anyone, and do I owe and apology? How might I make amends? Whom do I need to forgive? Also it can be read as “what questions is my life asking me, and what re the answers I am giving through my behavior?” Returning to center, forgiveness, reading life.

5) Hope (“redemption”, Exodus) – we live in a time when it is easy to lose hope: violence, racism, social inequality, war – all these things can make us doubt that the future can be any better. This month is a time to connect with hope for the future – for ourselves, our community, the world. Feed the part of your heart and brain that can know hope: read about groups doing great things and support them. Learn about heroes bravely working for peace. Don’t engage in social media arguments that go nowhere. Spoonfeed hope to your heart and soul.

So whether Elul is your tradition or not, as we move from summer to fall and its many forms of resumption, this is a great time to work with these themes: love, your guiding principles, social justice, returning to center and hope.

In the end, yoga is a spiritual system more than it is a form of exercise. Check out the awesome film Breath of the Gods for more on this. (It is available on Netflix.)

Every time we have the bald faced courage to step on a mat, we are calling up the deepest truths of our lives. YOGA IS AN ACT OF SPIRITUAL COURAGE where we meet all our inner allies and demons.

Begin your practice always, always, with love – for yourself, for the grace and good fortune to practice, for your teacher and her/his lineage. Take a moment to dedicate your practice to something of beauty: an ideal, a principle that guides you through your practice. Recognize that as you cultivate a little more inner peace and self-acceptance, true yoga demands that we take those qualities into our life away from the mat. And finally, have hope! Yoga requires deepest patience. One of my teachers reminds us that, after years of doing salabasana [locust pose], you may only be able to come up an inch higher! Hope means persistence and listen for hidden goodness, as Emily Dickenson wrote,

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

Whether Elul is a holy month for you or not, never stop singing and let your yoga practice support you in finding your voice.

Finally let me add that each morning of this new month (except Saturday, our Sabbath) – to the great (not) delight of our neighbors – I sound the ram’s on the front porch. It is a wake up call, a shrill sound meant to awaken the sleeping soul and to rouse us to the compassion that is beyond “sides” and beyond “us and them”: the place of perfect love and equanimity that in many ways is the aim of yoga. Using pranayama breath to sound this most ancient of instruments, we awaken to that place in us that already in perfect harmony. The sound of the shofar is a rousing Namaste.

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