Meet Ken Liberman – Professor, Surfer, Yogi, Scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. What is a guy like that going to do at this year’s Jewlicious Festival (beside maybe a bit of crowd surfing)?
To find out, Jewlicious got in touch with Ken to ask about his interests and new book called “Yoga for Surfers,” and how that all ties into Reggae performances and Jews.
Thanks Ken for taking the time to answer some questions for us while surfing in Baja! (We’re not jealous at all). We want to know what brings you to the festival this year?
As a university professor, I enjoy bringing what insights I can to young people. Having grown up in Los Angeles (I graduated BHHS in 1966), I really identify with the young Jewish students that I have met who hang around my former student Yonah. In fact, I can say that I have always wanted to teach more Jewish students than I had the opportunity to teach at the University of Oregon. I love the dialectics that unfolds when I encounter curious students who are intellectually prepared.
Growing up as a Jewish adolescent in L.A. in the early ’60s, I had the mistaken idea that surfing was only for Protestants. I don’t know what gave me that idea, but it was totally wrong, but I did not discover that until I went to graduate school at UCSD in 1970.
Surfing is less of a spiritual resource than being in the wilderness, but it also has its strengths. I have taken on a lifelong task of introducing Jews to experiencing the wilderness. I have taken out more than a thousand people on long backpacking trips, many to the desert wilderness of San Diego and northern Baja, and I hope to offer some trips in future years to the Hillel at CSU Long Beach. The experience of the European ghetto still lingers in southern California Jewish life in the form of a degree of alienation to the natural world. As an urban Los Angeles Jew, I can tell you for sure that the full spiritual resources of the wild earth can be a resource even for a Jew.
It is interesting how you have integrated yoga to make your passion of surfing a more fulfilling experience. What is it that yoga can add to all our lives? And will you guide us a bit at this year’s Jewlicious Festival?
Of course, I would be happy to lead a session of yoga asana practice at Jewlicious, but more important is to convey how very broad yoga is. It has a vital ethical component, and it consists of a daily pursuit of a contentment that we bear within ourselves, that is already there, and which does not require that to run out to the malls to find.
There is the importance of understanding the immune system, the role that hormones play in our physical and mental health, the importance of stress-reduction, correct diet, and especially correct breathing. And then there are the more mundane benefits of better health, attractiveness, longevity, and the possibility of surfing like a fiend even in your seventies.
It is said that medicine is for sick people, and yoga is for healthy people. You choose to stay healthy in order not to become sick, and naturally this is mental as well as physical. The think about “asana” and “hatha yoga” is that people who are unable to calm the mind in the midst of modern stresses and 250 channels can use their body to calm the mind – and along with it the heart and the endocrine system.
I was really struck by the line in your book “We surf because we want our nerves to sing!” Can you tell us briefly how you discovered surfing and what it is about it that makes your body sing?
The line you cite, “We surf because we want our nerves to sing!” captures the source of the joy of surfing. It is mostly about nerves. Consider … why do kids spend so many hours trying to skate their skateboards on iron handrails? Because they are linking up their body’s nervous system with their brain and will. When the body falls into synch, as it were, it becomes the dance we humans were made for. The activity (surfing, skateboarding, basketball, polo-stick bouncing) is less important that the feeling of nervous integration. Well, that is what yoga is aimed at – it is much more about nerves than ligaments.
Aside from surfing, you also have a lot of knowledge on Buddhism and speak on Buddhist yoga traditions. Why do Jews tend to be so attracted to Buddhist practice and what does it offer? And are these components that cannot be found in Judaism?
There is surely no shortage of Jews in either Buddhism or yoga.
What does Buddhism offer to Judaism? I think every ethical teaching I came to appreciate in Buddhism I found only afterwards was in Judaism all along, only I was never able to get past the words to the operative meaning.
Learning spiritual practices in a fresh perspective causes you to look more carefully, but once you gain the lessons you will find them in spades in the Talmud, the Hagaddahs, and other Jewish sources. That is why I think my Buddhism has not at all undermined the quality of my Jewish practice.
Thank you, Ken. We definitely look forward to meeting you at this year’s Festival. Between you and the musicians and presenters, I’m sure nobody will leave with calm nerves.