As a rabbi, writer, and yoga instructor, Benjamin Shalva has his finger on the pulse of spiritual cross-training.
After receiving his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and his yoga teacher certification from the Yogic Physical Culture Academy in Los Cabos, Mexico, he began serving on the faculty at the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington and leads musical prayer services for the 6th & I Historic Synagogue and Bet Mishpachah in Washington, DC.
His writings have been published in the Washington Post, Elephant Journal, and Spirituality & Health magazine.
So it is it our pleasure to talk with him about his book, “Spiritual Cross-Training: Searching Through Silence, Stretch, and Song.” Shalva explains that the tome came from his quest for enlightenment.
“I journeyed through the wilds of Tibet and took a pilgrimage to a white-walled monastery in Rhode Island,” he shares. “I wrestled with demons, danced with temptresses, and sang with hundreds of voices under the stars. Now, using the lessons and techniques gained through years of religious exploration and inward reflection, I offer simple and powerful ways to connect with your spiritual self, whether it be in a place of worship or the yoga studio, or even while sitting in traffic, working late at the office, or kneeling in your garden.”
Scroll down for our Q&A.
Be Inkandescent: You are a rabbi, and conduct workshops and seminars around the world. What set you on your spiritual path?
Benjamin Shalva: I have always been a person prone to anxiety and depression. It has made for a life with very intense ups and downs. In my late teens, I began to ask: if one day, the world looks beautiful, and the next day the world looks grey, what is the truth? Is there something out there that is true, or is reality only a reflection of my shifting emotions? I wanted to find a rock to hold on to in the storm. I wanted to believe in something true and unchanging.
Be Inkandescent: What exactly is “spiritual cross-training?”
Benjamin Shalva: Spiritual cross-training is not a specific program with predefined steps. It’s a philosophy, an outlook on spiritual practice. Spiritual cross-training teaches that, just as our body is served by athletic cross-training, by training different groups of muscles through a variety of exercises, so is our soul served by spiritual cross-training, by training different spiritual muscles through a variety of spiritual practices. Spiritual cross-training teaches that we will benefit from, for example, meditating one week and then practicing yoga the next. Or praying one day and then playing music the next. We mix things up and that’s how we grow.
Be Inkandescent: Let’s talk about what you teach in the book. In Part 1, you focus on Silence — the valley of words, the path of silence, and the summit of sound. Can you explain what each of those teaches us?
- Silence: The Valley of Words Silence is a very powerful practice that we can incorporate into our spiritual cross-training routines. We live in a valley of words. Written words, spoken words, words on billboards and words on screens—they surround us. One of the things I learned when I began practicing Zen Buddhist meditation in my teens and then later as a college student studying Tibetan Buddhism in India, Nepal, and Tibet, was that I not only lived in a valley of words, but that I was addicted to words. Whenever I felt uncomfortable, or scared, or bored, I talked. I talked to try to make everything okay. But that meant that I often spoke without really having anything to say. I babbled. I lost a sense of my own honest, clear voice. And I lost the ability to really listen for other voices besides my own.
- The Path of Silence The path to get us out of the valley of words, to cure us of our addiction to words, is silence. Silence can be practiced in all sorts of ways—sitting meditation, walking meditation, gardening, nature walks. Whatever the method, the key here is to place ourselves in a quiet setting and to be quiet ourselves. Then, we just let things bubble up. A lot of times, when our mouths go quiet, our minds keep speaking. On the path of silence, we just let the mind do its thing. We watch our thoughts, notice them, and then, rather than react to them by speaking, or writing, or moving, or leaving, we just let the thoughts lose their energy and dissipate. We do the same with whatever emotions or bodily sensations arise. We just notice it all and then let it disappear when its ready. And, then, in the spaces between thoughts, emotions, and sensations, that’s when we start to hear a deeper voice, the voice of the soul.
- The Summit of Sound: The path of silence will eventually lead us to a high-altitude territory where, having detoxed from our addiction to words, having listened to the voice of our soul, we also begin to hear the voice of the world. The Bible talks about Elijah hearing a still, small voice. The universe around us is buzzing with energy, with life, with dark matter we can’t see and movement we can’t detect. When we’re silent, when we’re open, we can hear this. I have heard this. And the universe doesn’t just speak. It speaks to us. It calls to our souls, if we learn to listen.
Be Inkandescent: I love Part 2: Stretch. Again, give us insight into these ideas.
- The Valley of the Stiff Neck I have a stiff neck, especially the left side of my neck. I can feel some of the stiffness right now. I used to view my neck as a nuisance. I wanted to feel better, but I didn’t know how. Over time, however, I started realizing that my neck stiffened when I was anxious. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even realize that I was feeling anxious, but then I’d feel stiffness in my neck and realize that I was worried about something. I think a lot of us have bodily issues, like migraines, or aches and pains, that come and go in direct relation to our stress levels. Why is this a spiritual issue? Because high levels of perpetual stress and anxiety close us down not just emotionally and physically, but spiritually, as well. Our bodies are truth-tellers. Our bodies will let us know if we’re spiritually closing down, but we have to learn how to listen.
- The Path of Stretching: I learned to listen to my body through stretching. A path of stretching, such as yoga, or tai chi, or some other contemplative, breath-based, physical practice, introduces us to our inner terrain. There’s a universe beneath our skin that’s speaking to us, giving us minute-by-minute reports on our wellbeing, but we need to learn how to listen. I practice yoga—I stretch my body from the inside out and, with each new stretch, I listen to what my body is telling me. So, now, it’s not just my neck that speaks to me, but my hips, my belly, my toes. I think of my body like a friend. It lets me know when I need to slow down and take a breath. My body lets me know if I’m headed in a wrong direction. It’s an ally on the spiritual path.
- The Summit of Light One of the reasons I recommend stretching as part of our spiritual cross-training regimen, is that when we stretch, we heal the body, and when we heal the body, we heal the head, heart, and soul, too. I reached a point in my yoga practice when I realized I was healing old scar tissue from a childhood trauma. As I was loosening up the physical scar tissue, I was also creating space for the old emotional and mental wounds to heal. Old wounds bind us. But our souls shine brightest when we are free. Stretching frees us from the inside out.
Be Inkandescent: Finally, in Part 3: Song, you write, “Silence penetrates the mind. Stretching burrows through bone. Layer upon layer, we peel the onion, stinging with tears.” The depth of that, indeed, can take us to serious places. And so you suggest we incorporate song into our spiritual cross-training. Tell us more about need to lighten up, and how it has played out for you in your life and development.
- The Valley of Shame The path of song lightens us up and allows us to let go. When we sing out, really sing out in the presence of others, when we open our mouths and just go wild, we let go of shame. A lot of us feel ashamed of the child that lives within. We spend so much time appearing cool and collected, savvy and sophisticated. But to sing out is to let go of all of that and just return to that wide-eyed wonder of childhood. When I sing, I feel silly. I sweat and smile and my mouth is open really wide. I become my six-year-old self again. This can be a challenging and very frightening experience for some of us adults. We don’t want to go back there, to that time when we walked into the world without our defenses. We feel ashamed of our core, which is ultimately childlike, innocent, open, and unsophisticated. But on the path of song, we face this child within. And if we’re willing to embrace this child, we’re filled with joy.
- The Path of Song The path of song can be any expressive, joyful, communal practice that challenges us to let go. Singing in a choir, dancing in an African dance class, drumming in a drum circle—it’s all song. The key is to pick a practice that encourages the body and breath to take over, that helps our mind calm down and allows our inhibitions to melt away. Honestly, you could dance in a mosh pit and call it the path of song. Just find something ecstatic and communal — and celebrate!
- The Summit of Love The path of song helps us to love ourselves and to love our fellow human beings. Many of us have made a deal with ourselves. We will only love ourselves if we succeed at X, Y, and Z. Or we will only love ourselves if we weigh this much, or look like this, or sound smart—our love for ourselves can be very conditional. When we sing, we get in touch with who we were before we made that bargain. We hear our pure voice and, over time, we love this pure voice. Then something incredible happens. As we start to love ourselves, our inner child, we start to treat others with love. The path of song helps us all lighten up, about ourselves and one another.
Be Inkandescent: In the book, you frequently touch on the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah. Can you tell our readers a little about that tradition? How has it guided you in your work?
Benjamin Shalva: Kabbalah refers to many different streams of Jewish mysticism. Some of it is ancient. Some of it is modern. One of Jewish mysticism’s chief concerns is the need to grow close to God. Kabbalists don’t want to simply obey God, or worship God. They want to know God — to divine the Divine. To do this, they investigated every letter of every word of our Jewish holy texts and they also created devotional and meditative practices that helped them explore non-physical, spiritual reality. I love studying Kabbalah and have incorporated a number of its teachings and meditative practices into my own practice. For instance, when I practice yoga, I use Kabbalistic ideas and meditations to help guide my practice. When I meditate, I often use Kabbalistic mantras as a focal point for my meditation. These practices blend beautifully.
Be Inkandescent: What have you learned from your experience of writing this book? And what is next on your spiritual cross-training adventure?
Benjamin Shalva: Writing Spiritual Cross-Training allowed me to take my zigzag, messy, sometimes incomprehensible story and make sense of it. I wrote down my story and started to understand why I journeyed where I did. Writing the book also helped me to turn my story into a blessing. It’s one thing to have an adventure. It’s another thing to share that adventure with others and to help them learn and grow from the tale I tell. I found, in writing this book, that I love this process of writing—of living, of turning life into words, of sharing those words with others, and of turning experiences into blessings. So what’s next for me? More meditation, yoga, and singing for sure, but also more writing!
Be Inkandescent: Thank you so much for your time, Benjamin! We wish you only the best.
For more information, visit wanderingrabbi.com.