BY YEHUDA BARKAI
OFTEN described as “the Tuscany of the Middle East,” the Elah Valley is a wide swath of land defined by hundreds of vineyards, orchards and forests located just about 20 minutes from Jerusalem.
Despite the Valley’s central location and being situated adjacent to one of Israel’s fastest growing urban areas, Beit Shemesh, the region, which is also home to religious sites revered by Jews and Christians alike, has succeeded in retaining its almost idyllic feel attracting tourists and nature lovers throughout the year.
It was this very sense of nature combined with history and culture that led an enterprising couple of yoga enthusiasts to choose the Valley as the setting for their new studio.
At first glance, Rachel and Avraham Kolberg are anything but what you would expect when you think of your favourite yogi.
Dressed in the traditional garb of Israeli charedim, Rachel with her hair fully covered and Avraham with a long beard and side-curls, the couple is happy to admit that in many ways they are an enigma.
Both raised in largely secular homes, Rachel had emigrated from Russia in her teens while Avraham was born in Israel to a Canadian mother and Moroccan father.
Like many young Israelis, the couple found religious observance after completing their army service.
While their path was largely inspired by the Breslov chassidic movement, unlike many who describe themselves as charedim, the Kolbergs proudly interact in all worlds of contemporary Israeli society and believe that their experiences and insights can offer a valuable contribution to people of all backgrounds.
Their passion for yoga was part of what brought the couple together.
Rachel had spent much of her youth training as a gymnast and upon arrival in Israel at 17, she sought out a pursuit that would allow her to retain her flexibility and exercise regimen.
Avraham was also a yoga enthusiast and the common passion was at the heart of their courtship.
In 2000, still secular, they decided to pursue new forms of the craft by travelling to India to study the Iyengar method.
Developed by BKS Iyengar, the method focuses on properly aligning the body to promote stability and agility, making it a sought-after form of physical therapy to address various orthopedic problems while also promoting overall health and relaxation.
Their travels in India also brought them into the company of a small group of Breslov chassidim.
Renowned for their boisterous singing and dancing and attachment to the mystical teachings of the revered rabbi of the movement, Rebbe Nachman, the Kolbergs recall being quickly attracted to the spirit they felt around the group.
“We were still a young secular couple, with a three-month-old son, but we felt that many of the questions that we had in our minds were being answered in that interaction,” Rachel recalled.
Within months they were observing Shabbat and on a path to observance that would lead them back to Israel.
Immersed in the Breslov community, they would eventually find their home in the still developing area of Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Their new lives provided a sort of clash between the deeply traditional and conservative norms of the ultra-Orthodox community — and the world of yoga, typically described as New Age and even by some less-informed observers as borderline idolatry.
Appreciating that this conflict of ideas might be too much for many in their community to bear, the Kolbergs initially chose the chassidism over yoga and focused on raising children in this world committed solely to spirituality and religious service.
But, over time, they both felt a yearning for their previous passion and sought out ways to reintegrate yoga into their lives — without compromising on their religious ideals — with Avraham teaching the men’s classes and Rachel teaching the women.
That desire drove the couple to open the Karna Kriya studio, first in a small section of their home in Ramat Beit Shemesh and then in 2017 in this dramatic setting overlooking the natural beauty of the Elah Valley.
The studio is in and of itself an architectural wonder that draws the interest of any visitor and allows one to quickly appreciate that they are in a place of creativity and thinking “out of the box”.
“The name of our studio, Karna Kriya, combines the Aramaic meaning of ‘the call of the horn’ with the Sanscrit meaning of ‘the action of the ear’.
“We truly believe that there is a place where Judaism and yoga can come together to both ‘call out’ and ‘listen’ to help the individual find his path to fulfillment, happiness and holiness,” Rachel said.
Even while acknowledging that their path to Breslov chassidism was inspired by the mysticism and self-introspection that defines that movement, their passion for yoga is based on practical ideas for the health of body and mind.
Since moving to their new studio in the Elah Valley, the couple’s path has continued to develop to allow them to share their passion with wider audiences and to benefit new communities.
The location attracts sports enthusiasts and tourists, who would benefit from yoga to strengthen their bodies and recover from strenuous exercise.
Businesses and organisations looking for team-building activities also reach out to the studio for customised sessions and yoga retreats.
“Our vision is to highlight the very practical and physical sides of yoga in a unique environment,” Avraham said.
“Certainly there is the mental aspect of reducing stress and promoting a different approach to lifestyle.
“But first and foremost it’s about giving people the tools to have stronger bodies to reduce the negative impacts of aging and the obvious stresses and traumas that we will encounter in everyday life.
“Yoga can be both a very personal experience, as well as a bonding experience for a group.”
The couple’s style of instruction is also not what the uninitiated associate with 21st century yoga.
The couple want people to know that Iyengar yoga isn’t some kumbaya moment, but rather an often intense workout for the body that can have long-term positive effects.
Rachel’s upbringing in the demanding gymnasiums of the Former Soviet Union clearly continue to inspire her approach to learning, but also impact on how she relates to her students, admitting that the best way to describe it is “tough love”.
“In order to grow in anything in life, it’s about the investment we put into it and how hard we are willing to work and yoga is no different,” Rachel said.
“But I know that people want to be challenged and that the more they put into anything the more they’ll get out of it.”
In recent years, the couple have focused much of their attention on teaching students and fellow yoga instructors methods to use the craft as a form of healing for specific medical conditions.
Even while acknowledging that medical science hasn’t produced any real cures for this condition, the connection between a healthy body and a healthy mind is known to be critical in helping those confronting neurological disease.
“Our approach isn’t to cure the disease because that’s not yet possible,” Rachel said.
“But we do know that when people choose to strengthen their muscles and their mind when they are still physically and cognitively capable, it can stem the progression of the disease, or perhaps even stop it completely.”
With that same approach in mind, the Kolbergs work with patients suffering from other neurological conditions like ALS, MS and Parkinson’s and they are encouraged by the results.
“These are diseases which are all about the linkage between the brain and the body and if we can in any way address that link by strengthening both mind and body, it can certainly be of benefit to the patient,” she said.
A similar approach is advocated for cancer sufferers. Once again, they stress that it’s not about curing disease, but introducing a holistic approach that allows patients to be in a better state of mind and body to address the emotional and physical stresses that come with being sick.
Looking out at the fields below as the early winter rains begin to transition the colours into a rich green, Rachel and Avraham know that their path has been anything short of traditional, but also say that their experiences give them a perspective that few other people have — particularly in their chosen expertise.
“We’ve been blessed to be in a lot of places in this world and learn a lot of things from so many different types of people,” Avraham said.
“Our hope now is to be able to bring those life lessons and experiences to help others and we truly believe that there is both a demand and a desire for what we are able to contribute.
“Now with God’s help, and in this remarkable setting, we look forward to continuing to take that vision and make it reality.”
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