From left, Rabbi Aaron Marsh of Oceanside Jewish Center, the Rev....

From left, Rabbi Aaron Marsh of Oceanside Jewish Center, the Rev. Marie A. Tatro of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, and Kottawe Nanda of the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center. Credit: Carrie Rolnick; Yeong-Ung Yang; John Roca

With the COVID-19 surge impacting opportunities for gym workouts and the cold limiting outdoor activities like jogging and bicycling, it can be easy to let daily exercise routines slide until spring. This week’s clergy discuss why maintaining an exercise regimen throughout the waning winter months is beneficial to spiritual as well as physical being.

The Venerable Kottawe Nanda

Abbot and president, Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center, Riverhead

The maintenance of one’s physical health is beneficial to Buddhist practice. The Buddha said that one’s greatest profit, or gain, is good health, both physical and mental.

The greatest paradox is that a balanced mind contributes to physical health much more than physical exercise does. However, our faith does not restrict individuals from doing physical exercises. Among many meditation practices, Buddhist faith advocates for walking meditation, which involves walking between long periods of sitting meditation. The Buddha stated that "one who practices walking meditation can endure traveling by foot; he can endure exertion; he becomes free from disease; whatever he has eaten and drunk, chewed and savored, becomes well-digested; the concentration he wins while doing walking meditation lasts for a long time."

There are disciplinary and training rules in the Buddhist tradition that are focused on the maintenance of one’s environmental and physical hygiene. Some novice monks even practice martial arts. However, one should not do physical exercises merely to appear more attractive. The physical body is the foundation where spirituality grows, therefore it is advantageous that the body be protected, preserved and maintained in good health and comfort.

Rabbi Aaron Marsh

Oceanside Jewish Center

Judaism teaches that our bodies are God’s, placed in our care during our lifetimes. We therefore are responsible for keeping ourselves in good shape. As the first century philosopher Philo wrote: "The body is the house of the soul. Thus, should we not take care of our house so it doesn’t fall into ruin?"

The great rabbi-physician Maimonides devoted an entire chapter of his Mishneh Torah to preserving bodily health through proper exercise, eating, sleep and bathing. He wrote that one must accustom oneself to whatever is healthful and helps strengthen the body, and that one must perform a sweat-producing activity every morning.

Judaism emphasizes spiritual pursuits, study and performing religious obligations such as prayer and kind acts. Too often, physical fitness gets deprioritized, but it is clear that our tradition also requires devoting time and effort to health, starting with Deuteronomy 4:15: "You must guard yourselves very much," which is understood as a directive to take care of ourselves, body and soul. This is particularly relevant in our coronavirus era, when we must not only protect ourselves from the virus, but ensure that, despite any disruption to our ordinary exercise routines and eating patterns, we eat properly and exercise sufficiently.

The Reverend Marie A. Tatro

Vicar for Community Justice Ministry, Episcopal Diocese of Long Island

Frederick Douglass said, "I prayed that God would emancipate me, but it was not till I prayed with my legs that I was emancipated." This has been echoed by other great spiritual leaders, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet the body’s connection to prayer is not limited to freedom marches. In my own tradition, labyrinth-walking during the recitation of prayers has endured for centuries, and of course yoga practice in Hinduism is much older than that. Today we call it physical fitness, and virtually every faith tradition now encourages it.

I was a team sport athlete into my 50s. Throughout my young adulthood — a time in which I didn’t feel welcome in church — my teams and sports leagues were like my church. Christianity is a deeply incarnate faith, so connecting my body’s movement and my faith feels natural to me. For the entire three years of seminary, I cycled the 13-mile round trip from my home in Brooklyn to the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Gazing at the dawn sky from the Manhattan Bridge, while my blood was pumping and muscles tingling, centered me into as prayerful a space as any grand cathedral.

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