May 20, 2020
At first glance, the streaming fitness class looks like any other: blue yoga mats against a neutral background, with ambient music and candles to set the mood. Two athleisure-clad instructors, flanked by hand weights, introduce themselves.
The giveaway is the flash of a wooden crucifix.
“Surrender all and prepare yourself to go on this journey with us through the stations of the cross with Jesus,” one of the instructors says, her hands in prayer position.
Many such classes are available through SoulCore, a fitness platform where stretches correspond to the Apostles’ Creed, push-ups are completed to the Lord’s Prayer and challenging positions warrant a Hail Mary. Since 2013, the company’s mission, carried out by some 150 instructors in 30 states, has been to further animate Catholic teachings, including Christ’s suffering.
“Coming up into a plank position, picture Jesus being condemned,” Deanne Miller, 54 and a founder of SoulCore, instructs her class participants. “Think of times in your own life that you’ve felt condemned.”
SoulCore is one of various programs, virtual and otherwise, that intend to bridge the gap between the spiritual and the physical. There are Ramadan boot camps, Christian detox diets, Yom Kippur yoga classes and religious CrossFit gyms.
The faith-meets-fitness industry includes consultants who help churches add movement programs, and organizations like Faithfully Fit, which train and certify religious instructors, as well as a variety of streaming services and subscriptions.
Over the last two months, as the coronavirus has upended group fitness and group prayer, these businesses have seen a wave of new interest from longtime followers and the newly fervent. SoulCore, for example, has seen a 50 percent increase in memberships over the last six weeks.
Now, as the country’s religious institutions (not to mention gyms) await guidance on reopening, some worshipers are still working out, seeking answers and finding calm together, through their screens.
Since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in mid-March, religion and spirituality have taken on new significance for some adherents. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that nearly one-quarter of American adults say their faith has become “stronger” in the midst of the pandemic, though many religious institutions have closed their doors, and celebrations and events have been displaced.
The timing of the pandemic has been especially disruptive for Christians, Jews and Muslims, who observe major holidays in the spring. Millions forwent their Passover and Easter plans and, instead, congregated over videoconferencing apps for Seders and Mass.
Now, observers of Ramadan are seeing their traditions affected by the virus. Large dinners typically held to break the fast each night have shrunken to modest meals with immediate family, and the boisterous public gatherings that follow those feasts have been put on hold.
Amina Khan, for her part, has released a daily Ramadan-focused fitness and nutrition program through Amanah Fitness, the Muslim wellness platform that she founded in 2015. The company reported three times as many registrations last month as in April 2019.
Throughout the pandemic, Amanah Fitness has also offered free workout classes, which feature modestly dressed instructors and brief prayers at the start of each workout. There’s no talk of “bikini bodies.” “Many Muslim women don’t even own a bikini,” said Ms. Khan, 27.
The appeal to identity is important to the platform’s users. “Even just featuring workouts with women wearing the head scarf is essential to show that, yes, if you look like this, you can still be fit,” Ms. Khan said. She said that several mosques and imams requested her workouts to ensure their communities stay active while confined to their homes.
Where Soul Meets Body
While interest in wellness has skyrocketed in recent years, bolstered by the rise of boutique fitness and alluring lifestyle brands built on social media, affiliation with the country’s most-followed religion, Christianity, has been in steady decline for nearly a decade, and the share of people who identify as atheist, agnostic or indifferent to religion is on the rise, according to surveys by Pew.
“The church is not doing a great job engaging and making our faith relevant to a younger generation,” said Cambria Tortorelli, 58, the director of parish life at Holy Family Church in Pasadena, Calif., which hosts the meditation group Body in Prayer. “Our society is changing. We need to be able to respond to the expectations and needs of this generation.”
Whether that generation is millennials, the oldest of whom are now around 40, or Gen Z, who may be teenagers or early 20-somethings, drawing connections between faith and holistic well-being could help religious institutions appeal to them. Both groups are more likely to speak openly about mental health and treatment than their predecessors, and to seek opportunities that support overall happiness, such as flexible jobs that allow them time to exercise or meditate.
Researchers at Linköping University and Halmstad University, both in Sweden, found that the marketing of modern health and fitness services follows several sociological criteria of religion, including an emphasis on rituals, “redemption” and group gatherings. And while SoulCycle and other boutique fitness studios have modeled themselves after houses of worship — an instructor serves as the spiritual leader of a sweat-fueled “community” — now religion is borrowing right back.
“There has never been a time when the Jewish people were not influenced by the ideas of other cultures and civilizations,” said Rabbi Lavey Derby, 68, noting that many traditional aspects of religion fail to resonate with the average worshiper. As the director of Jewish life at Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, Calif., he runs weekly virtual meditation sessions and yoga workshops infused with Jewish spiritual teachings.
The Vatican has taken its own holistic approach to health in recent weeks. In April, Pope Francis appointed the Argentine priest Augusto Zampini Davies to lead a forward-looking coronavirus task force, whose efforts to reduce inequality and improve overall health around the world will incorporate “both faith and science,” a Vatican spokesperson said. The task force has tapped various research institutions to help with its mission, including the Global Wellness Institute, which will address topics such as physical movement, healthy community design, organizational culture, nutrition and mental health.
For several religious leaders and their affiliates, such initiatives were in place long before the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Stephanie Walker, 44, founded ChurchFit, an exercise and nutrition program, nearly a decade ago in response to a public health crisis: a population struggling with preventable chronic diseases and poor lifestyle habits. Now, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the Nashville megachurch led by her husband, conducts free daily workouts, nutrition classes and lectures by medical professionals, all virtually. It’s about meeting people where they are, Dr. Walker said, and removing any obstacles or potential excuses.
As motivation, she reminds participants that Jesus himself was fit enough to carry his cross up the hill where he was ultimately crucified. “Had he not been healthy, there’s no way he could have done it,” Dr. Walker said.