How can we turn a negative into a positive? Last Monday marked the summer solstice and the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It is one of the two points of the year when the sun is farthest from the earth, but despite the distance, it is also one of the brightest days of the year. In Britain, revellers greeted the dawn at Stonehenge and midsummer madness took its toll as for some people, as their joy turned to sadness when they were arrested by the local police (for drug dealing). Their day of intended blessing turned into something of a curse.
Our Kosher Sutra: Balak, King of Moab, hates Israel. He sends the inspired prophet Bilaam to curse the people of Israel. Bilaam rides his donkey on the mission, but the donkey sees an angel blocking his path and swerves off the road. Bilaam beats the animal three times, and eventually the donkey starts talking, asking his master ‘what have I done to you?’ (Numb 22:28). Bilaam eventually gets ready to curse the Jews but starts to find that whenever he tries to say a curse, it is blessings that pour from his mouth. These blessings are so powerful that they are still said today.
This reads like a fantasy. The timing could not be more apt, reading this on the week of the summer solstice, as it sounds like something from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, the character of Bottom wakes up to find his head has suddenly changed into that of a donkey, much to the bemusement of his friends Snout and Quince;
O Bottom, thou art changed! what do I see on thee?
What do you see? you see an asshead of your own, do
Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art
I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me…
A Midsummer Night’s Dream III:i.
Shakespeare, too, has blessings pouring from one of the characters.
The Baal Shem Tov taught a powerful interpretation of the verse; ‘When you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its load, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him’ (Exodus 23:5). He explained that chamor, the Hebrew word for donkey, can also be translated as ‘material matter’ (chomer). This verse can be read as referring to the way we treat our body; teaching us not to treat ourselves as the enemy, not to beat ourselves up and not to afflict or punish ourselves.
The path of yoga begins with Ahimsa, non-violence, and it is essential that we avoid doing violence to ourselves at all stages (Yoga Sutras 2:30). Harmful thoughts can leave us depressed, whilst self-denial can leave us feeling ill or damaged.
But there is more to be revealed on the path of the yogic donkey. A way that we can actually raise ourselves to a higher level, turning pain into pleasure and curses into blessings. There are two men who began their journeys on a donkey; Abraham and Bilaam.
The sages considered how we can learn from both of them and taught that someone who is amongst the ‘disciples of Abraham’ should have ‘a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul’, whilst the ‘the disciples of the wicked Bilaam’ have an ‘evil eye, an arrogant spirit and an inflated soul’*. It seems there are two ways to ride a donkey after all.
A Bibliyogic reading takes us deeper into the soul and the Hebrew for a meek spirit is nefesh shfalah which can be translated as a contained or low exhale – in other words, controlling our breath. ‘Humble soul’, ruach nemuchah, can also be translated as a sweet or pleasant breath.
The practice of pranayama, breathing control, is central to yoga and allows us to focus our mind and achieve inner stillness. When we are truly still and focused it is usually possible to see the blessings all around us and even consider how apparent curses might contain hints of blessings. If we are able to apply this pranayamic breathing in the midst of madness, we can find stillness in the most turbulent times and use this for strength and sanity.
Bilaam set out to cause trouble and curse Israel but ended up becoming an ass and praised the people for the way they ‘get up like a lioness and rise up like a lion’ (Numb 23:24)**.
This strength of a lion is within the reach of all of us; it’s far better than being a donkey.
Be strong, be blessed and be a blessing to others.
* Ethics of the Fathers 5:19. Rashi makes the connection between Abraham and Bilaam in his commentary on the Torah, noting that both were prophets and both of them began their journey with a donkey, albeit with very different outcomes. Bilaam has a ‘haughty spirit’ according to Rashi, which is presumably why the mishnaic sages were inspired to write this comment in Ethics of the Fathers.
**’Kelavi’ can be translated as lioness or sometimes lion – it is one of the six Biblical words for lion.
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THE KOSHER SUTRAS © MARCUS J FREED/BIBLIYOGA 2010/5770
Marcus J Freed is the creator of Bibliyoga, USA & North America Director of Yoga Mosaic – the association for Jewish yoga teachers, and yogi-in-residence for JConnectLA and Jewlicious Festivals.
Horse stance originates in martial arts but is excellent for practicing yogic breathing.
i. Stand in mountain posture and step your feet apart so that each of your heels are on the mat with your feet pointing on the opposite diagonals.
ii. Bend your knees outwards and lower your pelvis.
iii. Keep your tummy tucked in and bring your hands into prayer position with your thumb by the solar plexus.
iv. Tip your pelvis upwards so that your lumber spine is lengthened. This is Cat Tilt and releases pressure on the lower spine.
Benefits: Developing smooth, deep yogic breathing.
HORSE STANCE BREATHING
The key with horse stance breathing is to make the movement last as long as your breath and this is about measuring clear, smooth breathing. One of the most common challenges is to make sure that you have a gentle exhale that gradually releases the breath rather than holding onto it.
i. Stand in Horse Stance and inhale your hands out towards the sides, palms facing upwards. [Photo]
ii. Exhale your palms back together, coming back to Prayer position with your thumbs resting on your solar plexus.
iii. Breathe in and out through your nostrils enabling the ‘ssssh’ sound to happen, which occurs when you use the Ocean Breath.
Benefits: Ocean Breath purifies the air as it comes into the body by filtering it through the nostrils. This results in much smoother thinking, meditative stillness and greater calm.