Luba Saraswati Evans-Zion blends Jewish mysticism with Tantric meditation to help people connect to their bodies
By Merissa Nathan Gerson|December 4, 2014 12:00 AM|
Luba Saraswati Evans-Zion is a sexual healer. She has taught hundreds of workshops around the world, focusing on Tantra—an ancient Hindu meditative practice—and other ritual practices meant to enhance the connection to self and other. Focusing on a combination of breathing techniques, movement, and meditation, Evans-Zion’s workshops are intended to help those in attendance to calm their minds and get in touch with their bodies—and to have better sex.
What sets Evans-Zion apart from other Tantrikas, as adherents of Tantra are often known, is that she practices these techniques in a Jewish context, blending Tantric and Kabbalistic concepts.
People often come to Evans-Zion feeling disconnected from their sexual partners, or from themselves—with their waning sex lives as indicators of deeper problems. Others, however, come primarily to deepen their spiritual practices and improve their already good sex lives—to make what is good better. On Dec. 6, at a loft in Lower Manhattan, Evans-Zion will teach “The Tantric Art of Being,” a massage workshop employing practices meant to enhance connection between people and deepen the awareness of one’s own sensations. It will also include her version of “erotic hypnosis,” a series of practices that help people let go of shame around their sexuality. Evans-Zion says this hypnosis—which begins with breathing in sync with a partner and is followed by a series of paired exercises meant to alter the state of mind and heighten the senses—is grounded in Kabbalistic understandings of desire as the fundamental human drive.
Evans-Zion believes that her work can help reinvigorate Jewish practices that have a long and often forgotten Kabbalistic history, beginning with the body. “Within Kabbalistic tradition, we don’t look at the body and the mind [separately],” she told me in a recent interview. “Even in terms of prayer, we don’t separate them out. My practice leans on this, allows the whole person to participate in prayer. Not just their mind, but their body, too.”
Evans-Zion grew up in the Soviet Union, where she had little experience of formal Judaism. She was, however, taught what she calls “the wisdom tradition,” rooted in her grandparents’ Yiddish and the oral retelling of Torah stories. Her grandmother, a professor who risked her career by teaching Judaism to her family and community when such teaching was officially banned, taught Evans-Zion that Jews “are here to change the world, to make it a better place.”
Evans-Zion describes her grandmother as a fiercely strong woman who “was the center and a beacon of light for the community.” She provided the basis of Evans-Zion’s Jewish education, which evolved, when she was 12, to include a secret synagogue she found in St. Petersburg. “It was dangerous to go,” she recalled. “If I was found out, my parents would be fired.” So she hid her time in synagogue from the authorities and her parents.
“There were other Jews there that wanted to taste freedom,” she said. “That’s where I felt my first real connection to formal Judaism. There was so much soul in it, and it was so secretive, and that’s when I really wanted to know what Judaism was about.”
In 1989 she left the Soviet Union and moved to Boston, where her husband pursued a Ph.D. at Harvard. She was raising a 2-year-old, working at Dunkin Donuts, making films, and learning about meditation from a Raja yoga master. But she was disappointed in the Jewish community she encountered: While Judaism was completely underground in the Soviet Russia of her childhood, Evans-Zion expected to practice Judaism freely and to be religiously fulfilled in America. Instead, she said, the community she found was more concerned with rules and dogma, rather than heart and spirit.
“After Soviet Russia, most people go through something where they’ve been brainwashed that religion or Judaism is bad,” she said, “and they come to a different country, to a different synagogue, and they won’t get a real teaching that speaks to their heart. All they get is, ‘OK, you have to eat this, you have to eat that.’ ” She attended a variety of synagogues in Boston, mostly Conservative. “I was sorely disappointed because that spirit wasn’t there,” she said. “I didn’t feel that the rabbi’s soul was in it.”
“I went through the same process,” said Michael Zolotnitski, a fellow Soviet Jewish emigre who has attended a number of Evans-Zion’s workshops and often leads portions of them. “The aspects of Jewish life in the U.S. felt very regimented.”
Evans-Zion trained slowly for the years that followed. She started with basic yoga, while she spent the 1990s primarily devoted to motherhood and her career: She was a filmmaker first in Boston, and then, after divorcing her husband, she moved to New York where she pursued a master’s from the ITP program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, a program that combines digital creative media and business. There she founded and became the CEO of a successful interactive media company called WebMechanics, which did media for PBS, Hadassah, and others.
She continued to study yoga, both Raja and Kundalini, which is influenced by Tantra. These meditative practices help an individual grow more aware of the sensations of his or her body by paying more attention to the senses—moving beyond surface appearances to something deeper, something spiritual, within the body itself. In 2006, when her daughter, Masha, left for college, Evans-Zion was able to devote herself in full to learning from spiritual masters all over the world: India, France, Hawaii, and Spain. “I studied in about 10 different schools,” she said. “This was a mix of still and dynamic meditation, dancing, emotional release techniques, therapeutic exercises, psychodrama, chanting, massage, and more.”
While learning at a Kundalini yoga center in New York, she first thought to combine Tantra with Kabbalah. Her teacher Gurunam Joseph Michael Levry bridged concepts of body and healing between Hindu and Jewish culture. “I saw how he combines Kabbalah and Kundalini yoga, which have a lot in common,” she told me.
She finally began to relay what she had been collecting since her childhood in the Soviet Union: methods for finding interconnection through meditation, methods for bringing people into joyful physical, spiritual, and emotional states. She is now a certified yoga teacher, a Reiki master, and a certified massage therapist. She also trained with Tantra experts in India under the tradition of Osho, the teachings of a particular Indian guru, mystic, and spiritual teacher named Rajneed. All of these practices enhance her understanding of Tantra, the deepening of the connection to sex and sexuality and as a result, one’s individual connection to the minutiae of the world around them on a daily basis. “It turned out that everything that I was learning, with some kind of interesting alchemy, came back to Jewish principles, came back to Kabbalah, came back to what already was in my blood,” she said.
Her daughter Masha, now a DJ in Los Angeles, calls her mother “a modern Tantrika rabbinical figure from a matriarchal lineage.”
Evans-Zion isn’t the first Jewish woman to become a sexual healer or leader of sex-positive, woman-positive teachings. Think Annie Sprinkle, the Jewish former sex worker and adult film star turned sexologist and sex educator, or sex advice gurus like Dr. Ruth Westheimer or Isadora Alman. There is Charu Morgan (nee Morgenstern), a Tantrika in Los Angeles, and there are countless Jewish sex therapists, sex educators, and couples counselors around the world. Judaism had for centuries addressed nuanced details of sex and the body, everything from when, where, and how to have sex, to how often. And once upon a time, Jewish mystical practice included the body, not just spoken ritual prayer. This, says Evans-Zion, was often lost in most modern iterations of American Jewish practices. But today, women like her are bringing back an ancient Kabbalistic and rabbinical Jewish tradition of addressing every detailed element of sex, sexuality, and the body.
“Kabbalah doesn’t associate sexuality with shame,” said Evans-Zion. “Kabbalah thinks that when our physical body is awakened, the divine can also be awakened inside. Kabbalah does not make a separation between physical and divine. Kabbalah does not say that sexual desire is shameful. It says it is good, a part of life.”
By imbuing Tantra with Kabbalistic leanings, Evans-Zion is bringing her grandmother’s buried Soviet Jewish practices to the surface. “I read Zohar all the time,” she said, “When I need to connect with deeper wisdom I open up Zohar and connect. If I take a sentence from Zohar and apply it to Tantra, I can apply this to what I am teaching on a whole new level.”
Ola Szelag, who has attended several of Evans-Zion’s workshops, told me, “Every time I work with her I get a little closer to becoming the person that I want to be.”
Her workshops—which are open to men and women, Jews and non-Jews—are held everywhere from synagogues to Burning Man to festivals in Europe. In addition, she has founded the Galiana Meditation Retreat in East Chatham, N.Y., as well as the Divine Feminine Arts Program, the Anima Mundi Ritual Theater, and Lengua Divina (Divine Language), all practice spaces for her teachings. When she gives workshops around the world, she says, they are designed “to allow people to calm down their mind. They allow people to feel less trapped in the story of their life.”
Evans-Zion’s Dec. 6 workshop in New York will look at principles of the divine feminine. She will teach and physically map Kabbalistic concepts like binah and chochmah—concepts of balancing elements of male and female, left and right sides of the body—and compare them to similar gendered Tantric concepts of Shiva, a self-controlled male divine force, and Shakti, a creative abundant female divine force. According to Zolotnitski, she is “looking at the wisdom that is hidden between the lines.”
Szelag added: “The references to Judaism are subtle but nonetheless strong and powerful.” For example, the metaphor of the tree of life is used over and over again and actually mapped onto the body. The arms become symbolic of the branches, the legs the trunk, and the system of the Kabbalistic sefirot—different spiritual qualities like wisdom, knowledge, and compassion—can also be ascribed to parts of the body.
On a basic physical level, the workshops are simple. They usually take place at a yoga studio or a retreat center, in a private home, or in this case a loft—anywhere with an open yet contained space. People sit on yoga mats and begin with simply breathing and moving, stopping the ticker tape of thoughts in the mind in order to calmly notice the body. “The goal of the practice is to understand other people better in every way,” said Evans-Zion. The byproduct is good sex.
“When one practices Tantra, they become very sensitive,” she said. “They can feel more. Everything tastes better, becomes more delicious, like the way a child eats ice cream, with pure joy and no shame. Just like that, a grownup really opens up and enjoys sex, feels pleasure very strongly, is innocent about it and doesn’t have any shame about it.”
Ultimately, Evans-Zion is begging the participants at her workshop to use their bodies to engage in a joyful devotional version of what has become for too many a silenced corner of Jewish history and practice. That is the corner that includes homage to a matriarchal lineage, the corner that honors sex and sexuality as vital elements of religious practice, and that corner is where charisma and ecstatic fully embodied mystical practice meet; in the words of her daughter, Masha, “she teaches us to appreciate the gift of life in the name of God and the universe.” In simple terms, she teaches people not to be afraid of the sensations of the body and the emotions that come along with them. With this sensitivity, she said, they can feel more and give with more sensitivity—in the bedroom, and in the world.
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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer and sex educator living in the Bay area.