‘Living Letters’: Tai Chi Meets the Aleph-Bet

By Alana Newhouse

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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If I stood with my heels together, distributed my weight evenly and curved my arms slightly at my sides with my palms facing backward, I would be starting to shape myself in the tai chi equivalent form of an aleph, the first letter of my Hebrew name.

I would also be practicing Otiyot Khayyot, or Living Letters, the latest effort to blend the martial arts of the Far East with the spiritual letters of the Near East. There has been yoga performed in the shape of Hebrew letters, as well as practices that combine yogic postures with kabbalistic mantras. Otiyot Khayyot builds on the popularity of another Eastern exercise, tai chi — the Chinese practice of soft, flowing movements that stress precision and force — which is often referred to as “meditation in motion.”

“Each soul has its letters, and their life energy comes through them,” said Otiyot Khayyot founder Yehudit Goldfarb, who added that she often teaches people how to pose in the letters of their Hebrew name because she believes the essence of a person lies in his or her name. “When we move in the shape of our name, we are in the process of actualizing ourselves.”

Goldfarb, who splits her time between two loci of mysticism — California’s Bay Area and Safed, Israel — was first inspired one morning in the spring of 1979 at 4:30 a.m. She was at a retreat in California sponsored by the Aquarian Minyan, the Jewish Renewal egalitarian group started in 1974 by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and co-founded by Goldfarb.

“As the sky slowly began to lighten, the outline of the trees became more and more distinct,” she writes in “Discovering the Otiyot,” a manifesto posted on her Web site. “I began to see shapes that drew my heart out toward them with the beauty of their silhouettes. I found myself saying over and over again, ‘Hebrew letters, Hebrew letters.’”

Something about the way the trees made shapes in the sky reminded Goldfarb of the movements and shapes of tai chi, which she had been teaching for years. She based her theory on the teachings of the late Rabbi Abraham Yitzchak Kook, who emphasized a connection between the soul and the Hebrew letters, and the concept in Jewish mystical tradition of these letters as the building blocks of the world. The idea of being able to use tai chi to embody literally these building blocks fascinated and excited Goldfarb.

Still, it wasn’t until eight years later, during a weekend in Philadelphia, that she began to envision the bodily movements that could create the letters. By the time that night was over, she had poses for all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Goldfarb believes we are each imbued with spiritual energy and that the tai chi-inspired movements allow this energy to flow through the body and create was she calls an “inner massage for the organs.”

“Most importantly, at least for me,” she said, “is tuning in regularly with the internal energies of the universe and with God.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, teachers of Otiyot Khayyot have found followings mainly in California and New York, though Goldfarb has taught classes in Seattle and Boston and one of the teachers that she trained, Reuben Modek, gives classes in the Philadelphia area. To find the Otiyot Khayyot class nearest to you, please send an e-mail to goldfarb@dnai.com.

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