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'Kosher' Yoga Finds Hundreds of Devotees in Hasidic Crown Heights

By Sonja Sharp | April 11, 2013 7:38am

CROWN HEIGHTS — For the scores of Brooklyn yogis who practice on President Street, pigeon pose is perfectly kosher.

Namaste, not so much.

"The majority of my clientele are Jewish religious women who don’t feel so comfortable going to a regular yoga studio, where it’s a mixed class or a religious element like an idol or chanting," said Sarede Switzer, the founder of Crown Heights Fitness and a guru in the growing movement among Orthodox Jews looking to balance the city's hottest health trends with holy tradition.

"I do sun salutations," which originate from the worship of a Hindu deity, "but I won’t call them that," she added. "I’ll say we’re doing warm-up number one, or flow number one."

While yoga itself is a religion for Lululemon-clad ladies in Manhattan, it's long been off limits for Lubavitchers like Switzer, as well as other religious Jews and Muslims who won't don revealing clothing or do a downward facing dog among members of the opposite sex, much less sit in a studio adorned with foreign deities.

That's not an issue at Crown Heights Fitness, where there are no men, no mantras and no oms allowed.

"When I first started, I thought people would think of it as this irreligious thing — like maybe we’re not even allowed to do yoga, like maybe it’s considered idol worship," Switzer explained. "I started out teaching in very small classes, and then the interest grew."

In the years since she started, the business has grown from a few scattered clients in private homes to a studio offering power, restorative and prenatal yoga, as well as karate and "Jewmba." Inundated by requests from eager young husbands, Switzer even hired a male teacher to instruct a men's class one day a week this spring.

"I really thought that there would be no demand for it — no way — that’s just not something that’s going to fly," Switzer said. "But the first men's class was actually bigger than most of the [women's] yoga classes."

The sanitized style is so popular, in fact, that Switzer and business partner Kinneret Feuer have started offering yoga teacher training in New York, Toronto and Israel, aimed at spreading their success around the world. 

"I know a guy who teaches Kabbalah yoga or Torah yoga, and I’m not into that — that’s not what I do at all," Switzer said.

"But as Lubavitch Jews, we have a lot of that stuff in our own texts as well. Our sect of Judaism is very focused on the mystical aspect of things, so there’s a lot of parallels, and a lot of the things you’ll find in a regular yoga class really match up with what we believe."