Just breathe

Local pastor incorporates yoga into Wednesday service

Churches of all denominations — in not only Blair and neighboring counties, but across Pennsylvania and throughout the nation — have been struggling for years with a decline in church attendance and discussing ways to connect with today’s younger generation.

For Christ Community United Methodist Church, that discussion led the congregation to embrace Yoga Church, a blend of yoga, meditation, scripture reading, prayer and Holy Communion.

This unique service is held at 7 p.m. each Wednesday in the church sanctuary, where participants of all ages, body shapes and sizes are invited to hear the Word of God in a calm, relaxed setting that expands their minds and strengthens their bodies.

The service “provides a way for people who feel uncomfortable in regular church” to take part in a worship service, said Pastor Rebecca Holland.

Holland said she grew up sitting in a church pew in a “cute little United Methodist church in Bloomsburg.” But while sitting in a pew was what she was accustomed to, “other people may not be comfortable” in that setting, she said.

The question of how to connect with the younger generation is a topic of conversation at a lot of churches, she said, noting that during grad school she worked with a program in Maryland called “Theology on Tap.” And, yes, the tap did indeed mean it was held in a bar or similar setting.

These types of meetings draw in people who are interested in religion, but are uncomfortable in a church, she said.

In an effort to attract the younger set, Christ Community “looked for something that wasn’t done anywhere else,” and while yoga may not be offered at other local churches as part of a service, it is a concept used in various United Methodist churches in the state and elsewhere, she said.

“Churches are changing a lot,” she said, noting they have to find innovative ways to spread the word of God to people unable to attend regular church services.

The leadership team at Christ Community conducted a poll, asking the congregation what they would be interested in or would be willing to invite someone to, Holland said.

There were various choices, but yoga won the popular vote.

The classes began in January, Holland said, noting attendance varies from nine to 12 participants. There are grandparents with grandchildren, young mothers and even men, as yoga is a very inclusive form of exercise. The hope is that the area used for the class, in the space between the pews and the altar, will eventually be filled with participants reaching for the inner peace provided by God even as they reach for the sky.

During a recent class and while soft music played in the background, Holland encouraged participants to remember that “breath connects us to God.”

As the group moved from pose to pose, she urged the class to push the stretches to the discomfort point, not pain but just a little uncomfortable, she said.

By breathing through the discomfort of the pose, “it reminds us that we can overcome any discomfort if we trust in God,” she said. After holding the pose for a short time, the group relaxed and moved on to another position, again remembering to breathe through the flow.

At the end of the first series, Holland announced: “You just prayed with your entire body.”

“God calls us to worship him in all things,” she added, noting yoga can be used in just such a manner.

“These poses are empowering. We can do all things through God,” she reminded the group.

Holland should know.

Born with bilateral congenital cataracts and being diagnosed with glaucoma at age 4 has left Holland legally blind. She has some usable vision and is able to read by making the font larger on her phone or computer. In addition, she can watch TV and movies, but if there is a lot of action, it’s hard for her eyes to follow and decipher the images. “Cartoons are the best,” she said, due to their high color saturation and bold lines.

When she set off for college, her plan was to study music education focusing on voice and flute, her instrument of choice.

“I wanted to be a music teacher … I like to sing,” she said. “But I also loved writing and books.”

That interest led her to change to an English degree, with the plan of teaching English as a second language.

After graduating from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, she had her future mapped out.

“I thought I was going to Japan to teach English as a second language,” she said, but that was 2011, the year of the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear fallout and her plans to travel to Japan were gone.

“Mom said I could substitute teach or go to grad school, but I couldn’t sit at home,” Holland said with a laugh.

Her path to the pulpit came about from a “Holy calling,” she said, recalling that as she tried to teach “recalcitrant ninth-graders about Romeo and Juliet” she noticed they weren’t getting it. After handing out papers for them to write their thoughts, she found out that many of them were hungry or lived in abusive homes. Children who have those issues don’t care about Romeo and Juliet, she realized.

And while Holland never thought about becoming a pastor before, “God keeps pursuing you,” she said, noting she found herself at Wesley Theological Seminary, out of her comfort zone and looking for the story of the talking donkey in the Bible.

In explanation, Holland said many people who attend seminary often have a degree in a related field and know the Bible inside and out.

But, because she focused on English, and was interested in “pizza and cute boys” when she went to college, she had some catching up to do.

Holland said she remembers sitting in class one day when the discussion was on the talking donkey passage.

“Wait, there’s a talking donkey?” she recalled thinking. “Where’s the talking donkey?” she wondered as she hastily flipped through Bible pages looking for the story.

“Since I had a hard time” in seminary, Holland said she feels she has an advantage when she teaches confirmation or Sunday school, since she knows how difficult it can be to understand the Bible and find various passages. She wants people to be reassured that it doesn’t matter if you know all about the Bible and know all of the stories, or even if you know what a parable is.

That’s one reason she likes yoga church, too, she said.

“I am one of the least graceful people you’ll ever meet,” she said, noting that if she can do it, anyone can. “I think that helps” draw people in, she added.

Her study of yoga in college coupled with her theology background has made Holland a firm believer in the benefits of mixing the two.

Yoga is “yoking,” she said. “We’re trying to yoke our bodies and minds … our spirits and breath to connect to God.”

After all, she said, our being came from the breath of God.

Adding the scripture reading, prayer and the Holy Communion “makes this not a yoga class,” Holland said.

Holland said she finds the younger participants really like the flows or poses, while some of the older attendees enjoy the benefits of the meditation and prayer.

“It’s really relaxing,” said Bridget Finochio, 11, of Bellwood. “If someone can’t do something, there’s different levels” of the pose, she said.

That’s true, Holland added, noting all poses can be adapted so that everyone of all abilities can take part. And, if a flow becomes too difficult, participants are reminded to relax into the child’s position or another pose that relaxes the muscles.

Marsha Johnson and her husband, Gary, of Bellwood never took part in yoga before this year, but have found that “age doesn’t matter. We enjoy it.”

While the Johnsons walk about 10,000 steps or more a day, yoga gives them another way to stay flexible, active and healthy.

“What I like about this service is that it gives me an opportunity to come to meditate and contemplate,” said Kim Pope of Hollidaysburg. “It’s reflective and quiet.”

“Pastor Rebecca makes everyone feel comfortable,” she added, noting that yoga church appeals to people because it’s “cool and different.”

“I like the fact that we’re worshipping through exercise,” said Christine Bender of Hollidaysburg. “That’s new for me. I really don’t like exercise in any form.”

“It’s definitely lifting up your spirits,” she added.

In years past, churches were the hub of the community, Holland said.

Adding yoga church to the schedule of services is a way to again make the church a meeting place in the neighborhood, she said.

Christ Community holds a traditional 9 a.m. Sunday service, followed by adult Sunday school. The 11 a.m. service is non-traditional in that the music is usually on CD or otherwise taped, and people are invited to bring coffee and snacks if they want. The dress is very casual, jeans and a T-shirt are fine, Holland said. Children’s Sunday school is also held at this time, twice a month, either in the back of the church or downstairs.

In addition, people don’t have to sit still, she said, going back to the principle that some people aren’t comfortable sitting still for an hour. Those in attendance at the casual service are welcome to get up, walk around to the back or get more coffee from the brewing station.

Asked if she gets distracted by the movement, Holland said: “I’m legally blind, they don’t distract me.”

Holland, with the support of her husband, Jeff, is working on full ordination to the United Methodist Church on top of her already busy schedule of becoming a certified yoga instructor, leading the congregation, visiting the sick and the shut-ins and helping out with the church’s Stay & Play preschool, among other projects.

It’s a position she couldn’t imagine when her plans fell through for teaching in Japan, she said.

“God makes all things work together,” she said. “My original plan really did not work out.”