Improving Your Body and Mind: Jewish Olympians Weigh In

Famed swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg and figure skater Sasha Cohen talk fitness and inspiration in interviews with JointMedia News Service.

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Click photo to download. Caption: Jewish figure skater Sasha Cohen. Credit: Rich Moffitt.

Four-time Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg opened a swim academy at the Westside Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles to teach kids about safety—not to turn them into career athletes.

“We start teaching children at three months old, and can start younger, but our mission is to make sure kids are water safe,” Krayzelburg said in an interview with JointMedia News Service. “A majority of our clients are trying to satisfy that goal. It’s not about making them into competitive swimmers.”

Yet, after talking to Krayzelburg, most parents would be inspired to have him as their children’s professional role model. Krayzelburg was determined to be a world-class athlete no matter the hurdle. Whether it was commuting 45 minutes by bus and foot to get to swim practice or learning a new language, he accomplished his goal, and said competitive swimming taught him how to persevere and to deal with not always winning.

“I learned from my mistakes and, most importantly with swimming as it’s an individual sport, what you put in is what you get out,” Krayzelburg said. “There are no shortcuts.”

The way that Krayzelburg derived inspiration from fitness is just one example of how taking care of one’s body is closely related to taking care of one’s mind.

Judaism even has a commandment that focuses on being fit, according to Rabbi Micah Kaplan of Congregation Or Chadash of the Northeast Valley in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“Judaism embraces the commandment of Shomer HaGuf, taking care of the body. Being athletic enables us to take care of ourselves and then have the emotional and physical ability to take care of others and bring Judaism to the world,” Kaplan said in an interview with JointMedia News Service.

Shabbat Yoga

Kaplan, who has taken classes both in guided meditation and yoga, thought a Shabbat Yoga class would provide another avenue for the community for spirituality and as a way to help congregants and even non-members observe this commandment.

The benefits of yoga are both physical and mental, Kaplan points out. It helps with flexibility and strength and can help improve posture.

“The idea of Shabbat Yoga is to provide a different venue for prayer and relaxation in addition to the more traditional structure of Sabbath prayer,” Kaplan said. “Shabbat is about taking care of the self, the body and abstaining from work. It has been very successful and it has provided additional opportunities for prayer and reflection. My goal is to create as many outlets for people to connect to Shabbat and the synagogue.”

Olympic Hero Gives Back

Yoga is flexible and can be done anywhere, from the synagogue to the swimming pool. The Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy just introduced a new aquatic fitness program called H2yOga. Participants practice a combination of yoga movements while suspended in the facility’s warm salt-water therapy pools.

Swimming is one of the best sports for great health, as it offers something no other aerobic exercise does: the ability to work your body without harsh impact to your skeletal system.

In 2005, Krayzelburg plunged $100,000 of his earnings from motivational speaking and product endorsements to repair and reopen the pools at the Westside Jewish Community Center—where he trained as a teenager in Los Angeles—after the pools had been closed for three years.

The facility became the site of Krayzelburg’s first school. Now there are six nationwideand one of the premiere places to learn to swim.

According to the Center for Disease Control’s website, swimming can help people with chronic illnesses, improve mental health and is beneficial for pregnant women and their unborn babies. It can also lead to improved health for people with diabetes and heart disease. The pool is an ideal place to work stiff muscles and sore joints and increase muscular strength.

Figure Skating and the ‘Mind-Body Connection’

From the pool to the ice rink, many think of figure skating as a winter sport, but it actually is appropriate throughout the year. It is also one of the highest calorie-burners and an excellent form of exercise.

Olympic silver medalist and three-time world champion Sasha Cohen started skating at a young age, and figure skating taught her more than just how to be an athlete.

“There is a mind-body connection; figure skating teaches you how to have an intense focus and awareness at the same time,” Cohen said in an interview with JointMedia News Service. “You learn to pick up what is going on around you and even who is watching you. It makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings and what is going on inside of you.”

Figure skating is a multidimensional sport that is expressive and artistic. Skaters can achieve a cardiovascular workout similar to jogging, but without the stress on knees or joints. It’s also a fun and healthy way to lose weight and tone muscles.

Cohen, who still skates on a professional level, also stressed the importance of mixing it up and changing activities, for example, from skating to biking. However, the most important thing is simply to exercise regularly, she said.

“People underestimate how great you feel after working out,” Cohen said. “Especially after a stressful day, there is nothing as freeing as getting on a treadmill and running, or doing any sort of exercise that will raise your endorphins. It’s so important to take time out to take care of your body and mindset.”

Masada Siegel can be reached at

Posted on November 21, 2011 and filed under Features.