A local yoga program showcases both poses and prayer.
It’s Wednesday morning. Inside the fellowship hall at Wildwood United Methodist Church, Dr. Renee Ciofu instructs participants of her yoga therapy church ministry to begin their warm-up by marching in place.
The pitter-patter of feet echoes throughout the room as they step up and down on colorful yoga mats sprawled across the floor.
“Punch forward then punch high,” she coaches them. “This helps loosen the muscles of the neck and armpit.”
With the soothing music of Mozart softly playing in the background, they spend the next 1½ hours stretching their arms to the heavens, bending their ankles and feet, and twisting their bodies into a variety of yoga poses—some of which have them folding into human triangles and pretzels.
Occasionally, Renee stops to read Scripture. One passage is from Proverbs 14:21:
“Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the needy.”
While churches feed the soul on Sunday mornings, some like Wildwood United Methodist Church are nourishing the body during the week as members trade in their Bibles for yoga mats.
And despite opposition that yoga is unholy because of its Hinduism roots, church leaders feel that infusing the ancient practice with Christianity is no stretch. Nor is it a slippery slope toward paganism.
“Christianity in its most primitive form has always been engaged with customs of the day,” says Michael Beck, the church’s 37-year-old pastor. “The practices of prayer, meditation, and stretching the body are as much a part of the Judeo-Christian religion than any other. God works in the lives of people who do yoga, people who don’t do yoga, and everybody in between. We’re taking the practice of yoga and infusing it with Christian teaching. It’s something all humans can benefit from.”
Renee, a retired chiropractor, has led the class since its inception in June.
“We don’t get ‘preachy’ or ‘churchy’ in this class, but most yoga classes have a short inspirational message interjected at some point during the class,” she says. “Each week I will read a message either directly from the Holy Scriptures or from a writer who eloquently brings a Scripture lesson to light that relates to our daily living.”
Her yoga therapy class differs from traditional yoga because participants hold poses longer and focus on breathing to locate and release stuck energy. Renee, who is certified in Amrit yoga therapy, says the goal is to “let go of blockages caused by physical, mental, or emotional traumas that no longer serve us.”
The class has proven therapeutic for Mike Barber, a 67-year-old resident of The Villages whose nagging neck pain was not relieved by conventional medicine.
“I was dealing with headaches, as well as stiffness and lack of mobility in my neck,” he says. “After spending three weeks in this class, I started feeling much better. I’m a Christian, so I appreciate having a safe and comfortable environment to practice yoga.”
Participants do not have to be young, fit, and flexible to enjoy and reap benefits from yoga. Just ask Kathleen Geanes, an 88-year-old Wildwood resident who never misses a class.
“I was a clinical scientist and medical technologist, so I know how important it is to stay in shape,” she says. “One of my favorite poses is when I lay on my back with my feet and butt touching the wall. I could go to sleep on that one. I enjoy this class because the feeling of peace that overcomes you. You don’t worry about bills being late or anything else.”
That peace of mind is especially beneficial for Pastor Beck, whose profession defies a job description because he is expected to be pastor, marriage counselor, financier, and a host of other occupations.
“I try to attend this class every week because it’s like a cleansing effect that happens. This is one of the ways I keep my sanity, break away from the world, and enjoy a sense of peace,” he says.
The yoga therapy church is one of several outreach ministries he created to form faith communities that reach new people in new places. Other ministries include a dog park church, a tattoo parlor church, and a burritos-and-Bibles study group held inside a Mexican restaurant. Reaching out to non-churchgoers, he says, is a big reason why worship service attendance has increased from 30 people just several years ago to more than 200 today.
“In our generation, the largest-growing demographic are none-and-dones, which means non-churchgoers. Millennials have a nonexistent presence in church. Churches have to adapt and challenge the paradigm of the traditional church so we can connect with people in new ways. We continue looking outside ourselves, asking who are neighbors are, and engaging in the passions and hobbies of people in the community.”
Yoga therapy church is held at 11am each Wednesday at Wildwood United Methodist Church, 300 Mason St. For more information, call the church at 352.748.1275.