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

By Alana Newhouse

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.