Body and soul: Faith-based fitness bulks up

The Christian diet craze of the late 1980s marked a trend toward the belief that “fit for the kingdom” included body as well as soul. Now the movement has expanded, as other religions have embraced faith-based fitness programs. Yet the issue raises questions about what messages faith-based diets, exercise programs and fitness centers send.

Is getting fit about improving your health or improving your looks? What message does this convey to those who have less-than-perfect bodies? Is slimming down or bulking up a proper goal for ancient spiritual practices aimed at improving the soul?

There are more mundane questions as well: Should a church’s fitness center be tax-exempt while a nearby secular gym is not? In 2009, Missouri began to tax yoga centers on the grounds that its spiritual roots in Hinduism are not grounds to qualify it as a tax shelter.

With obesity rates increasing and Americans growing more sedentary — and creating health-care problems and costs — the need to adopt more healthful lifestyles is obvious. Caring for the body is certainly in keeping with the teachings of most traditional religions.

This source guide provides background and resources for stories about faith-based fitness.

Background

The faith-based fitness movement is distinct from the interconnections between sports and religion. The current trend would more closely reflect the “Muscular Christianity” movement of the 19th century that began in Britain and flourished in the United States after the Civil War, as this Christianity Today feature recounts. Today’s fitness trend is different, however, not only because it has moved beyond the churches, but also because Christians and other religious groups are often embracing the Eastern traditions of yoga and the martial arts in their quest for personal fitness and fulfillment. For some believers, those associations can be problematic.

Resources

  • “In U.S., More Would Like to Lose Weight Than Are Trying To”

    Many more Americans say they are heavier than their ideal weight (62 percent) or say they would like to lose weight (55 percent) than are seriously trying to shed pounds at this time (27 percent), according to a 2009 Gallup Poll.

  • “Eat right and exercise, Conservative rabbis told”

    The Rabbinical Assembly, the national association of Conservative rabbis, on Jan. 1, 2010, launched an initiative encouraging its members to “adopt healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle habits,” as this JTA article reports. The initiative is called The Shalem Campaign. “Shalem” is the Hebrew word meaning “whole,” and the philosophy of the Shalem Campaign is holistic and also reflects core Jewish principles, organizers say.

  • “Is Yoga Kosher?”

    Read a January 5, 2010 essay from The Tablet, an online magazine of Jewish culture, titled “Is Yoga Kosher?” It is about the struggle of a Modern Orthodox Jew to reconcile her yogic practice with her Judaism.

  • “Holy union”

    Read an article about the tensions between secular sports clubs and fitness centers that must pay taxes and their church counterparts (and sometimes competitors) that are tax-exempt.

  • “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation”

    Read an October 1989 letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the subject of Christian meditation written by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. In it, Ratzinger addresses yoga.

Faith and fitness organizations/ programs

  • ChurchFitness.com

    ChurchFitness.com helps churches establish and build fitness ministries. It provides equipment and training programs.

  • Church Health Center

    Church Health Center was founded by a United Methodist doctor seeking to fulfill the Christian obligation to care for the poor by providing health care. Among its programs is On the Move in Congregations, a six-week program of Scripture, meditations and health tips designed for individual congregations to use to improve their health and fitness. The communications director is Marvin Stockwell.

  • First Place 4 Health

    First Place 4 Health is a Christian weight-loss program that began as a ministry at Houston’s First Baptist Church and now has groups in 12,000 congregations nationwide. The website has a search engine that allows a state-by-state search of existing groups and meetings. Vicki Heath is national director.

  • Karate for Christ

    Karate for Christ is an international organization of karate schools and teachers who approach this martial art with a Christian perspective. Among its goals is evangelization of Asia and Asian communities. David Dunn is director.

  • PraiseMoves

    PraiseMoves is a “Christian alternative to yoga” founded by Laurette Willis. It consists of books, DVDs, tapes and television programs for adults and children. Willis is based in Tahlequah, Okla.

    Contact: 800-211-8446.
  • Torah Yoga Association

    The Torah Yoga Association is an online organization of students and teachers who approach yoga via the method of Diane Bloomfield.

  • Weigh Down Ministries

    Weigh Down Ministries is a Christian-based fitness program founded by Gwen Shamblin, who is also a co-founder of Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tenn. The Weigh Down Diet was at the forefront of the Christian diet craze of 20 years ago and remains very popular, despite Shamblin’s personal problems with her congregation.

  • Jewish Yoga Network

    The Jewish Yoga Network is an association of Jewish yoga teachers and centers in the United States and overseas. The website a search engine that allows a regional search of teachers and classes. Marcus J. Freed is the media contact

  • Church of Christ, Scientist

    The Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston does outreach in seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Contact Adam Scherr.

  • YMCA

    YMCA (The Y) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to put “Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind and body for all.”

    Contact: 800-872-9622.

National sources

Faith and fitness authors/ teachers

  • Brad Bloom

    Brad Bloom is the publisher of Faith and Fitness magazine, an online lifestyle magazine about Christianity and fitness that is based in Yorkville, Va. He wrote a 2008 article for the magazine on why the church should be involved in physical fitness. In 2010, the magazine will focus on the role the church can play in fitness and on the role of church fitness centers in the community and the congregation.

  • Diane Bloomfield

    Diane Bloomfield is the author of Torah Yoga, a Jewish-themed yoga book and program that she teaches in the U.S. and Israel. She also founded the Torah Yoga Association. She gave a Beliefnet.com interview on the intersection of Judaism and yoga.

  • Susan Bordenkircher

    Susan Bordenkircher is the author of Yoga for Christians, which is based on a class she developed called “Outstretched in Worship,” a Christian approach to yoga. She is based in Fairhope, Ala.

  • John Byl

    John Byl is co-author of Christian Paths to Health and Wellness (2007). He is a professor of physical education at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. He can discuss the biblical foundation behind the Christian fitness movement.

  • J. Ron Eaker

    J. Ron Eaker is a doctor and the author of Fat Proof Your Family: God’s Way to Forming Healthy Habits for Life (2007). He blogs at Fat Proof Your Family and can discuss women and fitness from a Christian perspective. He lives in Augusta, Ga.

  • Peter Walters

    Peter Walters is co-author of Christian Paths to Health and Wellness (2007). He is an associate professor in the applied health science department at Wheaton College in Illinois.

  • La Vita Weaver

    La Vita Weaver is the founder of Fit for God Ministries and the author of Fit for God: The 8-Week Plan That Kicks the Devil OUT and Invites Health and Healing IN. She says her belief in God helped her reduce from 200 pounds. She is based in Capital Heights, Md.

Clergy

  • Myriam Klotz

    Myriam Klotz is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the director of yoga and embodied practices at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

  • Debra Orenstein

    Debra Orenstein is a rabbi and leader of Makom Ohr Shalom congregation in Los Angeles. She wrote a Torah portion commentary about teshuvah, the return to God, and weight loss.

    Contact: 818-725-7600.
  • Steve Reynolds

    Steve Reynolds is pastor of Capital Baptist Church in Annandale, Va., and author of Bod for God: The Four Keys to Weight Loss (2009). He urged his congregation to join him in a Christian-themed weight loss program. Reynolds eventually lost 100 pounds.

  • Thomas Ryan

    Thomas Ryan is director of the North American Paulist center in Washington, D.C.  He is the author of Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. He is also the editor of Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality.

Academics

  • R. Marie Griffith

    R. Marie Griffith is director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis and associate professor of religion at Princeton University in New Jersey. She has written on women in charismatic and Pentecostal movements.

    She is the author of Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity and has studied Christian weight-loss programs and the women who participate in them, especially in the evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic communities.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • John Bennett

    John Bennett is a certified teacher of Karate for Christ at the David and Goliath Christian Martial Arts Academy in Corning, N.Y.

  • Cathy Chadwick

    Cathy Chadwick is the founder of TouchStone Yoga, a Christian yoga center, and she teaches yoga classes in several Massachusetts churches and communities, including one at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

  • Melisa Darby

    Melisa Darby is a Christian yoga teacher in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a Catholic and says her relationship with Jesus has been deepened by yoga. She blogs at Light on Christian Yoga. 

  • Thea Wilson

    Thea Wilson conducts the Fit for the Kingdom ministry at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Upper Marlboro, Md. The program links Bible studies to overcoming food addictions.

    Contact: 301-773-3600.

In the South

In the Midwest

  • Donna Furmanek

    Donna Furmanek is a yoga teacher at the Academy of Creative Movement Yoga Studio in Orland Park, Ill. She is a Christian and wrote an article about the intersection of yoga and Christian spirituality as well as about the fear some Christians have of traditional yoga.

  • Addis Moore

    Addis Moore is pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Kalamazoo, Mich. He founded the Living Well Fitness Center after he noticed many in his congregation struggling with weight and diabetes.

    Contact: 269-388-3111.

In the West

  • Brooke Boon

    Brooke Boon is the founder of Holy Yoga, a Christian-based yoga training and teaching program based in Moorehead, Minn.

  • Cissy Brady-Rogers

    Cissy Brady-Rogers is a marriage and family counselor in Arcadia, Calif., and was a contributor to The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession With Food and Weight. She can discuss fitness, yoga, Christians practicing yoga, Christian-based weight loss, eating disorders, plastic surgery and sexuality. She can be contacted through her website.

  • Christian Academy of Martial Arts

    The Christian Academy of Martial Arts is in Morgan Hill, Calif. It approaches martial arts with a Christian perspective.

  • Matt Smith

    Matt Smith is pastor of Barabbas Road Church in La Jolla, Calif. He instituted a fitness ministry to attract new church members when other ministries failed.

  • Chris Stewart

    Chris Stewart is the California representative for Karate for Christ. He is based in Downey, Calif.

  • Yahweh Yoga

    Yahweh Yoga is a Christian-based yoga training academy that trains yoga teachers and offers Christ-oriented yoga classes. It is based in Chandler, Ariz.

    Contact: 480-753-4659.

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