As coronavirus coops up many at home, ways to find inner peace indoors

A meditation expert, a yoga instructor, a Jewish parenting writer and a mandala artist offers ideas for creating calm during the pandemic

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Israelis on their balconies in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis on their balconies in Tel Aviv on March 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Schools have been closed since March 13, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are under quarantine, and stiffer regulations regarding time spent outside began Wednesday evening, as Israel and other countries around the world attempt to survive the coronavirus.

“As much as people joke about just having to stay home, people are suffering from stress,” said Shalom Or, who runs a yoga studio in Jerusalem with his wife, Desi Or.

It’s tough to find a sense of balance when juggling homeschooling and work, a myriad of Zoom conference calls, endless meals, health concerns and fears for loved ones, among other stressors.

Yet it’s crucial to find ways of relieving the pressure of self-closure and quarantine, said James Jacobson-Maisels, a meditation expert and founder of Or HaLev: Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation.

James Jacobson-Maisels, a meditation expert and founder of Or HaLev (Courtesy)

“Meditation can be a very powerful and useful tool for finding feelings of safety and stability, of finding calm and touching our feelings,” said Jacobson-Maisels, a rabbi with a doctorate in Jewish mysticism who has been practicing meditation for 24 years.

Last week, Or HaLev, which runs Jewish meditation retreats around the world, rescheduled a planned retreat as an online program with participants from multiple continents. The organization is now putting up meditation practices on its website, including chanting (in Hebrew and English), and a section with online courses.

“It’s all kinds of different tools of how to deal with quarantine and fears and loneliness and how we work with all this in the world,” said Jacobson-Maisels.

This is the time to try meditation

It’s possible for someone who’s never practiced meditation to borrow some of its practices during this uncertain time, said Jacobson-Maisels.

There’s formal practice, which involves sitting down and meditating at a set time of day, for many people in the morning, he said. There is also informal practice, which can be put in place right now during the coronavirus pandemic, in order to find stability and calm.

A group practicing meditation with Or HaLev (Courtesy Or HaLev)

“One easy thing to do is to stop for a moment and just review your basic physical needs,” said Jacobson-Maisels. “Ask yourself whether right now, in your body, are you physically safe? For the next five minutes, what are the chances you will be physically harmed? Right now, you are safe. Right now, do you have clothes, do you have access to food and water? Take just a few moments to really notice that you’re okay and safe, and that that is true most of the time.”

“When we do that, we notice that our mind is so good at projecting fear and uncertainty and it’s easy to let our minds run away,” he said. “We get caught up in it, but if we stop ourselves, if we recognize that in this moment we are okay, it changes the feeling of the heart and body and mind.”

When seeking meditation guidance, whether from a podcast, website or YouTube video, it helps to have someone who is grounded in real meditation tradition, advised Jacobson-Maisels.

“I would be careful of aggrandizements and ridiculous claims,” he said. “That’s not the way things work. It can transform your life but it doesn’t happen in five minutes. It happens over practice and over time.”

Shavasana helps you breathe

Another option is yoga, which has elements of meditation and spirituality.

In fact, right now is the perfect time to try some yoga, said Shalom Or, whose OR Yoga studio is based in the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood of Jerusalem.

“I have a teacher who said he’s been practicing for 20 years, and maybe those 20 years were really practice, and now’s the game,” said Or, who is currently offering some of his studio’s usual yoga classes online through Zoom calls. “Now that we are in a place where we’re faced with discomfort and challenge, now is when the yoga starts.

“I tell my students that yoga starts when you want to leave the post, not when you get into the pose.”

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“Yoga has so many aspects that have nothing to do with movement,” said Or. “Not stealing is one of them, just like in Judaism’s Ten Commandments, and we do steal from each other, time and energy, or when we don’t listen, and now is a wonderful time to practice listening.”

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The coronavirus attacks the lungs, simulating a form of drowning as it goes into crevices and cracks where the oxygen resides, said Or. Yoga practice includes breathing exercises, Pranayama, which along with Asana, the poses themselves, is meant to expand different parts of the lungs.

“When you take all that oxygen in, twisting your body, the oxygen is traveling, opening and healing and enabling that area to possibly stay healthier and be more defendable,” he said.

Yoga helps get the heart rate going, targeting some of the aspects of worry and helps people turn inward. It also helps reduce stress.

“When you turn inward, your focus shifts and you find the reasons for the things that are bothering you,” said Or. “In moments of crisis, there’s a feeling of holding on to what’s aggravating you. For some people, it’s toilet paper, for others, it’s holding on to something and trying to let go. And that letting go is incredible and the physical practice really helps.”

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OR Yoga is offering Zoom yoga lessons in English, Hebrew and Spanish at NIS 150 for 30 days of unlimited yoga online. It also offers private lessons.

The advantage of a class over a YouTube lesson is having an instructor pay attention to what each student is doing, particularly for those who have never tried yoga before, said Or.

“Your body is your best teacher,” he said. “If your body feels good, that’s generally a good answer. Everybody knows the difference between good pain and bad pain. Bad pain is sharp, short lightning sensation, and good pain is ‘ah, yes, the good sore feeling.’ Do what works for you.”

Welcoming the good in all this screen time

There is a constant, steady trickle from digital connections during these long days at home of social distancing, said Maya Ophir Magnat, a digital performance artist, educator and speaker who talks about the challenges of using online connections to create all kinds of intimacy.

Maya Ophir Magnat, an educator in technology and intimacy (Courtesy)

“We all recognized it, even before the coronavirus,” said Ophir Magnat. “We’re online, we talk in a group chat, it’s a discussion that’s alive but we’re alone in the house. Or we’re in bed with our partner, but each person is on their phone. We may feel so connected but we’re so alone and it’s confusing.”

Ophir Magnat has found that during corona quarantines, there’s actually more time to spend together. She watches TV shows online with her friends, and plays games with them.

There’s more time to speak on the phone, to share recipes and the like, and more opportunities to look at each other while speaking, whether through Facetime, Skype or a Zoom call, she said.

But while all of that is helpful, people need to figure out what kinds of technology create intimacy for them, said Ophir Magnat.

She has some suggestions, including writing long, newsy emails rather than short WhatsApp messages, and writing posts about what friends or family will do together when the crisis is over. She pointed to a couple she knows who are in a long-distance relationship, and most nights, put on Skype and sleep together.

“Your version of digital intimacy depends on who you are,” she said. “I think most people still need human touch in order to survive. But what will happen is that people will understand that they can connect in other ways. The content doesn’t change, just the platform changes. We’ll always want hugs.”

Finding calm with the kids around

The coronavirus hit just as Rabbi Amy Grossblatt Pessah launched her first book, “Parenting on a Prayer: Ancient Jewish Secrets for Raising Modern Children” (Ben Yehuda Press).

‘Parenting on a Prayer,’ Amy Grossblatt Pessah’s advice and ideas on raising kids (Courtesy Amy Grossblatt Pessah)

The book germinated for nearly 20 years, as Grossblatt Pessah raised her three kids and kept journals that recorded their milestones and funny stories and her reflections on the experience of parenting them, thinking she’d give them the journals when they had children of their own.

The book couldn’t have come at a better time.

“If you’re freaking out, your kids will freak out,” said Grossblatt Pessah. “If you’re calm, they’ll be calm.”

Years ago, she found herself looking down in the prayer book one Sabbath in synagogue, and the words jumped out at her as parenting advice. She started playing a game, finding words that resonated, such as the Shma, telling her to listen and love, or Ashrei, advising her to be happy — was she bringing joy into her parenting?

Grossblatt Pessah began weaving together kernels of wisdom she found in the prayer book together with her journals, creating a ten-year tapestry of her parenting journey. She wanted to share that wisdom with other parents, both the successes and the “fall-on-the-face failures.”

Then her eldest son, Yossi, was diagnosed in 2018 of a brain tumor and died last year. He was always a challenge to raise, and Grossblatt Pessah was constantly looking for ways to be a better parent to him.

“It’s profound how our life experiences continue to inform our present experience,” she said.

Amy Grossblatt Pessah, whose book, ‘Parenting on a Prayer,’ offers parenting advice for the challenging period of the coronavirus (Courtesy Amy Grossblatt Pessah)

The book was already in progress, and Grossblatt Pessah continued working on it, while struggling daily with her mourning, alongside her husband, a doctor who runs a hospital emergency room.

For now, said Grossblatt Pessah, she’s offering tips that can help anyone raising kids, no matter their situation.

The parenting advice springs from Jewish liturgy and language, but the teachings are universal, she said.

“There are general principles when people have a tight, shared space,” she said.

Consider kaddish, the prayer used by mourners, which is kind of bookmark in the service. Grossblatt Pessah used that to think about how to create boundaries for everyone in a house.

“Do we have a space where everyone can meet to play a game?” asked Grossblatt Pessah. “Do we want to create alone time where everyone goes to their separate space to do their own thing? It’s not healthy or advisable to have family time 100% of the time; you need to find boundaries in time and space.”

Gratitude is another element to consider, said Grossblatt Pessah.

“Yes, we are in a challenging situation and for many people there is enough food, we have shelter, we have blankets and pillows, a refrigerator and running water, and it’s a good idea to appreciate what we take for granted,” she said.

Create a blessing wall, said Grossblatt Pessah. Take a pad of Post-its or a notepad, and have each member of the family write the date and a few things for which they’re grateful.

“That becomes a focus for the family,” she said. “Maybe put it on the fridge or on the way into the kitchen, so people start to shift to the internal reality of this experience.”

Finally, she looks to the prayer of Asher yatzar, which offers appreciation for the physical bodies in which we reside, and considers it as a prompt for thinking about the foods we eat.

“The choices we make will impact our experience of what is going on,” she said.

Center yourself with a mandala

Drawing a mandala, the Sanskrit circle creation, can offer calm and meditation.

“You don’t have to know how to draw, or have talent in art, you just give yourself some time to do it,” said Annmari Diamant, an educator with 25 years experience who teaches classes and workshops in mandala art around the country. “To be in the mandala steadies and centers us, and offers peace and calm.”

The Sanskrit word means creation in circles, and the art form starts from a center point and expands. The circle, said Diamant, represents the first shape in nature, the circle of planet Earth, the trunk of a tree, the shape of flowers.

“We’re happy and comfortable in circles,” said Diamant. “We sit in circles, we give and receive hugs, which are circles, and a circle has limits too.”

The only rule in drawing mandalas is starting from the center. And while it’s easy to find mandalas to download and print, it’s just as easy to make one’s own, said Diamant.

“Take a page, make a spot in the middle and a circle around it, and just go with it,” she said.

Annmari Diamant teaches mandala art in classes and workshops (Courtesy

If that sounds too freestyle, Diamant had other ideas. Pick up some round images from around the house, the lid of a jar, plates, anything circular.

Then take a piece of paper — square is best — make a dot in the middle and trace the circular images around the dot, moving from smaller to larger objects. Make three to five rings and then fill them in as you wish, with dots, lines, or any kind of design.

Make a mandala with whatever you can find, twigs and petals, starting with a dot in the center (Courtesy Annmari Diamant)

“Anything is okay, there are no rules,” she said, adding that it’s best to draw a mandala in a quiet environment. “Just feel the stream of consciousness, feel the calm and enter it.”

Another way to make a mandala is to take anything in the house, such as beans or spices, cards, buttons, dice, or any other kind of object, as long it stems from the center.

“It’s a kind of therapy,” said Diamant. “It makes us more patient. And when you’re done, place it at a distance and focus on it. The focus brings a balance to the soul. It just does something good for us.”

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