[Episcopal News Service] Something happened when the Rev. Gena Davis balanced on one leg for tree pose and reached her arms skyward while squatting for chair pose in yoga class. Something transformational.
“It starts as a physical practice, and it can move into a spiritual practice. And that’s when the real question comes: What is this, and how can I make sense of this as a priest?” said Davis, who was vicar of Grace Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, at the time. She did her yoga teacher training then, too.
“In church, some people feel they’re worshipping in their head. This is a way to bring the body into worship. We totally recognize the mind-body-spirit connection. They’re integrated. It’s really a movement toward wholeness.”
Many Episcopalians are recognizing that Christians and other spiritual seekers often need a more holistic approach to practicing their faith, fellowship and worship.
Fitness is one way. Faith and fitness can go hand in hand in many types of exercise, be it mediation while running, taking a boot camp class or practicing yoga.
Davis’ personal yoga practice inspired her to co-create YogaMass, which incorporates the Eucharist. Partnering with the Rev. John K. Graham, president and CEO of the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center and interim priest at Grace Church, she received approval from Texas Bishop Andy Doyle to create a liturgy for the YogaMass. The yoga worship services began in January 2016.
Davis leads the yoga flow; she and Graham take turns sharing the gospel; they both celebrate Eucharist; and sometimes they have someone else lead the meditation portion. While the ritual and practice started at Grace Church, they now move to different locations throughout Houston, and have plans for spots in California. Davis wants to share this experience with as many people in as many places as possible.
She wrote a book, “YogaMass: Embodying Christ Consciousness,” published by Balboa Press in April, detailing how yoga’s ancient principles are complementary with Christian values. The book’s first line, “This is my body,” is what Davis says every time she celebrates the Eucharist.
“As Episcopalians, we know those are the words Jesus spoke on his last night. Those are Eucharistic words. Those are our words as faithful Christians, and to bring it home and say it yourself, that brings up all sorts of possibility for exploration,” Davis said. “I think that’s too powerful to pass up. We can’t ignore the body. It’s our way of experiencing life.”
Practicing yoga has opened up Christianity for Davis. It’s a perspective that’s deepened her faith. The practice can broaden the boundaries as well. People in their 20s have told her they’re not comfortable in traditional church settings, but they still want to worship. YogaMass is their answer.
“There’s this huge fitness craze out there. I see people get on their mats and feel so good, but what they’re longing for is that connection with other people, and the Divine, and that’s God. Sometimes they can’t name that,” Davis said.
Fitness as outreach
Drawing people from the community who might not otherwise go to church is a big motivator for churches to host fitness classes.
“Big churches in the Baby Boomer generation saw their fitness centers as a type of YMCA, a tremendous outreach,” said the Rev. Hillary Raining, who teaches yoga at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. “Taking care of your body is a Christian value. Paul tells us our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; and I don’t think you’d leave your church temple in disarray.”
Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, has a Parish Life Center open to parishioners and the community. The center offers sports, group-fitness classes, personal training, an indoor track, basketball court, weight machines, recovery groups, small-group meetings, neighborhood gatherings and dinners. Today’s group fitness classes include tai chi, yoga, Pilates, post-pregnancy classes, mother-and-child stroller fitness and a diverse fitness adventure-oriented class.
It’s basically a free gym behind the church connected by a covered driveway, operated with Christian values that anyone can use, as long as they follow the rules of conduct, said Marietta Haaga, director of recreation. Of course, donations are accepted.
Parishioners raised the money to build the center in 1999, as a recreation outreach ministry. Some instructors start off their classes with prayer. “Keeping people on track, physically, mentally and spiritually is what we’re about,” said Haaga, who is also a personal trainer. “Really, our philosophy and ministry is to make sure people stay healthy in mind, soul and body.”
Providing a place for people to exercise in a good, clean, safe and Christian environment accomplishes that goal. Sometimes people tell Haaga they went to a church service because they heard about it at the Parish Life Center. The center also offers speakers, health fairs and blood drives.
Fitness as worship
You don’t have to tell Paige Lollis that faith and fitness can be intertwined. She was the catalyst of such a combination at her church, St. Philips Episcopal Church in Frisco, Texas. It began when Lollis took Pilates with Christi Price, a certified instructor and fellow woman of faith. They transformed their private Pilates session into a worship workout, incorporating faith-based music and scripture.
Lollis liked it so much, she talked to Kelley Prahl, then the church’s director of adult discipleship. They started offering six-class sessions of yoga every season. Bible verses are read and Christian music is played in each class. This past season, they added Holy Yoga taught by Maureen Beville, an instructor certified in the gospel-centered yoga with its own training certification.
“When you come to church, you meet God on your pew, whereas with this, you meet God on your mat,” Lollis said. “Instead of the instructor telling you to lift your hands to the ceiling, it’s raising your hands to the Lord. We’re very intentional. We want to center our minds on the Word of God and integrate it into our muscle memory.”
Class fees range from $10 to $15, and a portion of proceeds go to a charitable organization, most recently, the Redeemed Women ministry.
Stevi McCoy, the church’s director of community life, loves taking the Pilates class. “This is another way to worship; we’re trying to offer the biggest selection of ways to worship and fellowship and grow as disciples,” McCoy said.
“I feel like any other kind of exercise classes focuses on you; in these classes, you focus on God. That’s the biggest difference. You have thanksgiving for your life.”
Fitness as meditation
In Gladwyne, Raining teaches an ancient type of yoga called ashtanga at her Pennsylvania church. The free classes are twice a week and available to all members of the community. She starts class with a meditation that blends Christian and yoga principles, gives a mini sermon, instructs students in their yoga poses and closes with a meditation.
“What I found in yoga is a beautiful blend of inward change that has an outward catalyst,” Raining said.
Other kinds of exercise can be meditative too. The priest loves to run and hike. She usually listens to music, but she can decide to spend 10 minutes of that time as a meditation by setting the playlist to hymns. As a Lenten discipline, she once fasted from listening to music while running and listened to the silence instead.
“Yoga has the advantage because it’s built into the aura of the practice. But any fitness practice done with intention can bring you closer to God,” Raining said.
With fellow yoga instructor and spiritual leader Amy Dolan, Raining is also writing a book, “Faith with a Twist: A 30 Day Yoga Journey,” which she hopes to offer at the 79th General Convention in July in Austin, Texas. She’s also in the process of building a woman’s spiritual and wellness website, called The Hive.
You don’t have to be scared that you’re following Buddhism or Hinduism when practicing yoga, these Christian yoga teachers say. The parallels are a natural fit. For example, yoga’s drishti technique uses a specific gazing direction for the eyes to control attention, according to Yoga Journal.
It’s a Sanskrit term for your focal gazing point, which helps you concentrate, stay balanced and go deeper into the posture.
“If your eyes are on something moving, you will fall down,” Raining said. “I think that’s a really Christian thing to think too: Whatever you’re keeping your gaze on that’s true and holy, not the temptations and distractions, when your gaze is focused on Christ, that’s where you’re heading. I can practice it on my mat, and I can practice it in my life.”
— Amy Sowder is a special correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.