New exercise modalities blend core strengthening with Catholic prayer.
By ELISABETH DEFFNER
Editor’s Note: Listen to an interview with Colleen Scariano of SoulCore and Sara Moraille of Pietra Fitness on Register Radio.
When Lori Baldwin leads workout classes at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Carmel, Ind., she is not only providing her fellow parishioners with an opportunity to strengthen their physical core — she’s also working with them to strengthen their souls.
“Because prayer is the primary purpose, it’s not a high-endurance workout,” said Baldwin of SoulCore, an exercise modality combining the torso-focused, core-strengthening movements of Pilates with the prayers of the Rosary.
“It has strengthened my prayer life,” Baldwin said.
Blending a spiritual workout with a physical one is not exactly a new idea. Think of ora et labora in the Rule of St. Benedict — “pray and work.”
It’s but a short step from that precept to “pray and workout.”
More recently, many have offered ideas on how to do exactly that. Peggy Bowes’ The Rosary Workout (Bezalel Books, 2010), for instance, is an aerobic-exercise program in which workouts are built around praying the Rosary.
But what Colleen Scariano and Deanne Miller have developed in SoulCore is different: a combination of core-strengthening exercises so intertwined with the Rosary that participants could say they are praying with their bodies, not just their hearts and minds.
“The soul is not located in one specific part of the body, but is present throughout the entire body,” said Scariano. “Any time we’re working our body in movement, there’s an impact on the soul.”
In a SoulCore class, participants are arranged in a circle around a large rosary. The session begins with participants offering up prayers of petition or thanksgiving and the instructor asking the Holy Spirit for a blessing upon the class.
Each component of the Rosary is connected with a particular exercise; the instructor says the first half of each prayer aloud, and participants silently complete the prayer while doing the appropriate action: push-ups during the Our Father, core-strengthening exercises during the Hail Mary and resting while the next mystery is announced.
Participants certainly feel the physical workout, but Scariano and Miller have been surprised to discover how powerful the prayer intentions are, physically as well as spiritually. “Even in a workout, when we’re starting to struggle, those intentions come back,” explained Scariano. “Those intentions you’re praying for give you the ability to persevere. You’re not just doing it for yourself, but for those petitions.”
“When paired with prayer,” said Scariano, “the physical workout takes you to a new place of strengthening. [This] is much deeper than an exercise routine.”
Miller agrees, pointing out that the spiritual component of a workout can engage people in a way that a merely physical workout does not.
“There’s a sustaining power in sticking to an exercise routine — and prayer … reflecting on the gifts our bodies are,” she said. “When you’re exercising for that purpose, you tend to stay with it longer.”
SoulCore offers classes in its Indiana studio (a trained instructor also offers classes in Ohio locations) and has programs available for purchase on DVD or as an online download. Instructor training retreats are offered regularly, and Scariano and Miller hope that it will continue to expand across the country.
Meanwhile, another Catholic workout is taking hold as well.
Pietra Fitness integrates the spiritual treasures of the Catholic faith with stretching and strengthening exercises. The name “Pietra” means “rock” and emphasizes the importance of a strong foundation and also links the activity to the Catholic faith. The workouts promote core strength as a foundation for physical stability, while the soul is strengthened through prayer and meditation.
“Pietra Fitness is for everyone, regardless of age or physical limitations, and there are a variety of levels, ranging from a Level II power class to a class done solely in a chair, to help meet everyone’s needs and goals,” said Karen Barbieri, co-founder of Pietra Fitness.
Pietra Fitness draws upon the immense spiritual treasures of the Church in a number of ways. “All classes are done in front of a blessed San Damiano crucifix, reminding participants that just as Christ called St. Francis to rebuild his Church, Christians — as temples of the Holy Spirit — are called to seek restoration in Christ,” said co-founder Sara Moraille.
Classes include various types of prayer, such as glorifying God, seeking forgiveness and blessings and asking the intercession of the saints.
This, in addition to bodily prayer, is integrated into workouts designed to stretch and strengthen the whole body.
A unique aspect of Pietra Fitness is its emphasis on Christian meditation and resolution, as described by saints such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
In contrast to the popular non-Christian method of “emptying the mind,” Barbieri takes St. Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:8 to heart and designs classes with meditations on topics like love, joy, courage and forgiveness.
Moraille pointed out, “God speaks to us, through that tiny whisper. The last thing you want to do is shut that out.”
In Pietra classes, sacred music such as Gregorian chant can be heard at the end of class as participants pray silently, discerning how they are called to integrate the meditation topic into their lives. They give thanks to God before leaving class and going out into the world to share the love of Christ.
Barbieri and Moraille are excited about the fruits they’ve seen from Pietra Fitness.
Participants have reported lower blood pressure, less anxiety and an improvement in ailments such as ADD, migraines and back pain. Participants have also said that the classes have deepened their prayer lives.
These fruits and other materials from Pietra Fitness have been reviewed by the duo’s respective archbishops, who have given permission for Pietra Fitness to be called “Catholic” and offered in their dioceses.
Currently, Pietra Fitness is available on two DVDs. Online teacher training is under development and will be coming soon, as well as added classes on DVD.
A trained instructor offers classes in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, area, and classes will be resuming in the Cincinnati area, after the local teacher training comes to a close.
Additionally, Pietra Fitness offers workout classes and speaking presentations for retreats, conferences and special events.
Alternatives to Yoga
The Pietra Fitness website has in-depth information on why alternatives to yoga are important for Christians.
Spiritual aspects of yoga are based in Hinduism and are often influenced by New Age beliefs. Many people think of yoga as solely a physical practice — stretches and gentle moves that strengthen the muscles and relax the mind, but yoga is also a spiritual practice.
“Simply put,” the Pietra Fitness website points out, “to practice yoga is to practice an element of Hinduism and/or New Age beliefs.”
Yoga classes may incorporate chanting in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. A phrase from a chant commonly used in some forms of yoga is translated, “I bow to lord Shiva.” References are also made to the divinity of practitioners; for instance, the salutation commonly used in yoga classes — “Namaste” — means “The divine in me bows to the divine in you,” insinuating that people are the same as God or can attain immersion with the divine.
According to Dan Burke, founder of SpiritualDirection.com and the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, yoga’s reference to the divine differs from Christian teaching.
“Christian anthropology explains that while God dwells in us and seeks unity with us, there will always be a distinction between the Creator and his creation,” said Burke, who also serves as the Register’s executive director.
“The beauty of Christian alternatives to yoga is that they draw upon our God-given freedom to seek the good and true wherever it is found.”
Programs such as Pietra Fitness and SoulCore recognize and value healthful exercise with the understanding that natural human movement belongs to God, the Author of all creation.
Added Burke, “Though the world says combining exercise with a prayerful disposition impacts the whole person, perhaps Christian prayer that incorporates the whole person may, in fact, impact the world.”