Two rolled-up rubber mats formed a purple cross, leaning against the dance studio wall. Above it hung a tapestry of Jesus the Good Shepherd and the words "Lost No More." Prayerful contemporary music radiated through the darkened room, ringed with lighted novena candles. Fourteen women and three men were flat on their exercise mats, ready to start an intensive one-hour session of Yahweh Yoga.
Fourteen women and three men were flat on their exercise mats, ready to start an intensive one-hour session of Yahweh Yoga, a Christ-centered workout designed to worship through prayer, breath and movement. Some wore T-shirts proclaiming, "Jesus is My Guru."
Instructor Elena Porter cooed softly over the music for everyone to put their hands by their sides, palms up "ready to receive God’s blessing." They were encouraged to let their shoulders melt into their mats and take deep breaths, release the tension in their jaws, direct energy out their toes.
"With each inhale," she said, "know the Holy Spirit did create the breath of life. Breathe in all he has to offer."
For an hour at Center Pointe Dance Academy in Ahwatukee Foothills, Porter took her class through a rigorous program of breathing, bending, stretching, balancing and strength-building. She read a passage from 1 Peter 2:23 about how Jesus never answered back when he was insulted, and when he suffered, he never sought to get even.
Porter regularly changed music on the CDs that accompanied her teaching to drive away stress.
Before it was over, everyone was encouraged to shut off the world with small, weighted "eye bags."
"Take a moment to thank God for all the blessings you have in life," she suggested. "How fortunate you are to be here, to have the physical ability to be here, to have the wisdom to know that God would like you to take care of your body as much as your mind and your spirit. Say a prayer for all the hurting people of the world . . ."
Then it was over. The mats were rolled up and sweat wiped away — and quietly restful smiles gave way to conversations among people clearly riding highs.
"I am 61 with two knee surgeries and a cancer surgery, and everything about this has just brought phenomenal peace, and it’s a loving group," said Elaine Cunningham, a Catholic who said the Scripture readings and spiritual music "make you think how thankful we are that our bodies can still move. I can’t move as well as some of the other people, but there’s the feeling that God is there for us no matter what shape we’re in."
Kim Elliott, 50, said he came mostly for stress release, relaxation and meditation. "I would rather do it in an environment that has Christian music and is prayerful than in a typical sort of Eastern type of yoga," he said. Elliott said he had not tried other yoga traditions, but that "Christcentered yoga is what I was looking for." He said it was the kind of thing "my doctor wanted me to do to stay flexible and to have relaxation. That is what we all need.
"I like it because it is the best combination of the physical, the spiritual and the mental all in one place," Elliott said. "You go to other places that just get physical, you can go to Bible study and just get spiritual, but here you can kind of do both."
Yoga is not a religion, said DeAnna Smothers, who cofounded Yahweh Yoga in April with her daughter, Courtney Kutta. "Yoga is a system of wellness that is so effective, it has doctors, stars, athletes and those who wish to reach and maintain their health, fitness and wellness practicing yoga," she said.
"We were really finding that Christians won’t go to yoga because they don’t know what they are going to find there," she said. Part of that stigma, she said, has to do with chanting and "Easter religion" tags of yoga. Some have called her studio and to say "we are evil because you can’t mix Christianity with this, but they just haven’t seen it."
"When you go to a typical yoga class, there is chanting in another language, so you don’t know what you are chanting," said Smothers, who teaches the class for beginners, seniors, athletes with injuries and others "desiring a peaceful, light workout."
She is part of a fourteacher team certified in both yoga and Christian Yoga through Our Lady of Lourdes Institute of Wholistic Studies in Collingswood, N.J., the only U.S. school certified in Christian Yoga. Yahweh Yoga is Arizona’s only certified studio.
About 200 people have taken classes during the six months the classes have been offered. Smothers said she hopes to increase community outreach, public talks and demonstrations.
"We get a lot of people who don’t go to church, and they come here, and they feel very set," Porter said. "The music is ministering," whether it is hiphop, praise, country or highenergy music.
"We bring in something that touches everybody, and we have fun," she said, noting that yoga poses can be difficult and challenging. "But we will say sometimes life is difficult, and all you can do is breathe. We say, "Breathe in his strength, breathe in his guidance, and they learn it here and they take it into life. It gives me goose bumps. I’m not kidding."
Another instructor, Rosie Gonzales, said the staff plans and prays together. "We see God. What does he want us to teach? . . . We come early and we pray. We want to be used by God in our work, in our teaching. We say, ‘OK, God, what is your will for our practice today?’ "
"It gives me a tremendous amount of peace, and it helps me a lot to think about Christ," said Nelia Bixby, who takes classes two mornings a week. "I think it is really important to take care of our bodies as well as our minds. This is a wonderful way to do that."
Debralyn and Leo Pruett and their daughter Arianna attended a class together. Some mornings, their son Quinton, an Arizona State University wrestler, takes part.
"He finds it very purposeful and spiritually enriching to his life and finally got us here," Debralyn said. "With all of his training in wrestling and emphasis on muscles, you start to get muscle-bound, but he comes here, and he’s able to stretch out and gain more flexibility."
"It is amazing what it does for you," said Ahwatukee Foothills real estate agent Tracy Lenz, noting that her focus is on breathing right. "God is the breath of life. . . . It really does incorporate the spiritual side with your breathing," she said.