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Being frum and fit no longer a gymnastic exercise

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Health and fitness are important to most people, but for observant Jewish women, exercise can be a little more complicated.

Many don’t feel comfortable working out in gyms, which are often dominated by men. There’s also little guidance when it comes to the exercise itself – with many options of weights, machinery, and equipment. The experience can become overwhelming to the point of demotivation.

That’s why female-centric workout spaces are important to religious women.

It’s where Ronit Garber, a personal trainer who owns her own gym, comes in. “I want to create a space in which women can be in a healthy, accepting environment to work on becoming their best selves through strength and fitness,” Garber says.

Garber is a personal trainer whose career, which began at Virgin Active Balfour, has skyrocketed in the past year, with more than 150 members and counting, triple what she had last year.

“I got into strength training after I went to a female-owned gym. The owner was a powerlifter, and she embodied femininity. I was already interested in anatomy. This inspired me.”

Garber’s gym focuses on strength and fitness training, and has recently expanded to offer boxing as well. “I chose strength training because I believe it’s empowering, especially for women, to be able to get out of their heads – not every girl is the athletic or ballerina type.

“Strength training speaks to a lot of people. It’s different and fun, and something that helps you focus on the physical while also chasing mental goals and building resolve outside of the gym.”

Garber believes that when women see her following her dreams, especially in a way that still conforms to halacha, it gives them permission to be everything they want to be.

Though Garber has created a space that’s new and exciting for the religious community, religious women have for years been enticed by more gentle workouts such as yoga and Pilates.

Thus began the fitness journey of Helene Kangisser, who has a yoga studio. She walked into a yoga class at the gym in 2005, and never looked back. At her instructor’s recommendation in 2008, she became a qualified Hatha Vinyasa yoga teacher, and has attended many workshops in other yoga disciplines, such as Iyengar, restorative, and Ashtanga yoga.

“I have danced since I was a child, and tried many other forms of exercise, but I was drawn to yoga because of its depth. I love yoga’s ability to spread consciousness throughout your body and make you aware of the present.”

Kangisser, who is also a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher, wanted to create a space that merged yoga and Judaism, her two passions.

“I’m proud of the safe space I’ve created for women to exercise. Yoga has become much more popular in recent years. Its appeal comes from the mindfulness it teaches, as well as its strength and flexibility training. It’s also an excellent way to release stress and anxiety, which is so prevalent in our times.”

Kangisser has taught classes to nursery school children and is now also qualified to teach pregnant women. Her studio has hosted many workshops, including for schools and other Jewish organisations.

“There’s less of a stigma than there used to be about Jewish women doing exercise,” she says. “Being healthy has become important.”

Audrey Gischen, who runs a Pilates studio, credits Kangisser for beginning her exercise career. “Helene started getting involved in yoga and Pilates, and she got this guy to come teach us both in 2006. I fell in love with Pilates, and after doing it for two years at the gym, I decided to become an instructor.”

Gischen says Pilates appealed to her because of her back and neck issues. “It was a more gentle type of exercise that didn’t involve hectic cardio, that made me feel stronger, but didn’t hurt.”

Gischen has been teaching Pilates for 14 years. “Fitness is a triangle – strength, stretch, and cardio – and you need all three. People are always looking for miracles, but exercise has to be consistent to get holistic health benefits over a long period of time,” she says.

“Of course, you have the Jennifer Anistons and Kate Hudsons who go on E! News and rave about Pilates, and suddenly people want to try it, but I’ve had constant clients for years.”

Gischen says a lot of religious women come to her studio because of its privacy. “There are no men, and rebbetzins happily take their tichels off [in the studio]. Our religion is centred on food, and I have seen a lot more religious women wanting to be healthier and stronger, especially during pregnancy, over the past 10 years.”

She says among this cohort, people seek out Pilates for a “full body workout where you feel stretched and stronger, but not sweaty and gross”.

Evidently, exercise is more than just physical strength – it’s a journey of self-care, motivation, and mental health.

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