Secret of Sweating While You Pray
I first stumbled
onto the concept of spiritual exercise because of a
nagging pain in my back. It was a pain that would not go
away despite hours of ice, heat, stretches, and
chiropractic adjustments. "I know what the problem
is," my chiropractor finally announced one day.
"Your spiritual practice stinks and you're in lousy
He was right on both counts. While I kept meaning to
meditate and exercise regularly, life as a working
mother constantly intervened. And so I began to get up
early and walk, and while I was at it, to save time, I
An amazing thing happened. By meditating as I
exercised, my body became charged with positive energy;
my head felt clearer and my soul lighter. Unlike the
phantom exercise programs of my past, this one was made
me feel so great it was easy to stay committed to it.
The back pain disappeared as my body grew stronger. My
days, in turn, became both productive and peaceful. I
thought I'd invented something miraculous.
But, in fact, combining spirituality with exercise is
as old as the hills. Since religion began, pilgrims have
walked, Sufis have whirled, and yogis have stretched,
all with prayer as their guides. And the trend
continues. For the last twenty years, Bible Belt
Christians have merged prayer with everything from rock
climbing to kid's baseball and step classes, as part of
an effort to build community. 'Fitness ministries' with
names like "Fit for Him," "Body &
Soul," and "Praisercise" have sprung up
across the country. Meanwhile, most yoga has become the
‘next big thing’ in the US, with most American
health clubs now offering several types of yoga
throughout the day. Yet, since most health clubs still
maintain rules prohibiting religious teaching, you're
more likely to find exercise classes, with an overt
spiritual basis, in churches, temples and community
centers around the country.
At the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, Judy
Greenfeld, a fitness trainer and cantorial singer,
joined forces with Tamar Frankiel, a religion professor
to create a unique class that begins with standard
aerobics, then moves on to traditional Jewish prayers
and ancient Hebrew chants. Greenfeld choreographed these
with simple, symbolic movements -- a moving meditation
she described as 'dancing from the inside out.'
According to one long-time participant of Greenfeld's
classes, "Sometimes I am moved to tears. Sometimes
I really feel the divine spark of God's energy going
into my hand in one of the movements. And then I place
it into my heart. I really feel that happen. That's
above and beyond what normally happens to me in a
traditional synagogue service. It brings it more alive
because my body, mind and spirit are feeling it all at
At a similar, non-denomenational class, "Sacred
Fitness," the focus is on stretching to induce
relaxation, then deep meditation and prayer. By
completely removing tension accumulated throughout the
day, participants are able to reach a deeper spiritual
level. For one participant, "It was almost like I
was on another plane. I didn't even fully realize where
I was... just deep in thought and in prayer. It was like
I wasn't even lying on my mat on the floor."
I contend there is something real and physical that
happens when you raise your heart rate and sweat.
Suddenly you become more open to your spiritual
connection; ideas flow, messages are delivered, a sense
of spiritual well-being floods your body. For this
reason, your workout can be an excellent place to
receive information about your projects and goals. How
often have you lain in peace at the end of a yoga
workout, thoroughly enjoying corpse pose, when a thought
pops into your head that solves the two week dilemma
you've been wrangling with at work? By bringing your
soul work into the workout with you, and staying open to
any messages you might receive, you very well can
advance that cause as well.
Of course, you don't have to go to an organized class
to find such inspiration. Guided by spiritual exercise
gurus like Gabrielle Roth, women are learning to 'sweat
their prayers' on their own. Roth's books, tapes and
workshops urge seekers to abandon themselves into
"the freedom of ecstasy," a looseness and
freshness that comes by letting go as you dance, wildly
Then there's my friend Julie, who found God on a hike
and has carried that energy with her on many subsequent
hikes. Julie was hitting some kind of personal nadir in
her life when she felt the urge to hike one of the
neighboring mountains near her home in the Adirondacks.
She reached a stopping point where she sat on a rock and
began crying, feeling she could move neither forwards
nor backwards in her life, but knowing she needed divine
guidance. "... an inner voice spoke to me as I sat
on the rock crying. 'WALK’ – it said - ‘the light
is within you.’ So, I got up and plugged on to the top
of the mountain. Along the way I made a cairn, each
stone representing a character vice I was seeking to
overcome -- selfishness, stubbornness, jealousy,
materialism, fear, anger, resentment, etc.. When I
finally reached the top, exhausted and emotionally and
physically drained, I stripped away all that hid who I
was ... A cool April breeze seemed to carry away my pain
of loneliness. I knew that I did not understand, but
that I was not alone."
From then on, Julie created a personal ritual of
bringing a stone home from each hike she went on, for a
spiritual cairn she keeps on her porch. As lessons are
revealed and growth takes place, her pile of rocks
grows. "To me each stone represents the significant
milestones in my progressive journey through life,"
she explains. And the cairn serves as a reminder of how
far she has come.
Many of us have found similar solace on the ancient
path of the Labyrinth. Dating back to the Middle Ages, a
labyrinth is a tightly coiled pathway with no dead ends,
but a specific, circuitous route of less than a mile,
which one walks in prayer to deepen their connection
with God. At the center, after the grounding, calming
experience of walking this slow, winding path, one often
finds answers, encouragement, or a simple sense of
release in this private, focused moment with God. The
pattern one walks never varies, from labyrinth to
labyrinth, and looks like this:
Labyrinths are not affiliated with any
particular religious denomination. They've found their
way into Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unity, Unitarian,
Episcopalian, and even American Baptist churches. They
can be laid in tile, painted on asphalt, mowed into a
hay field, constructed from wood, even painted on
portable burlap panels that are Velcroed together. The
walk takes an average of twenty minutes, and covers a
space about 35 feet in diameter.
The beauty of walking the labyrinth, like much of
spiritual exercise, is that it provides just enough
activity for a person's thinking processes to relax and
go on auto pilot. When your mind is empty and your
spiritual self is allowed to surface and take over,
what's left is communion with God. Unlike seated
meditation, you are on a path with a destination in
sight. And if you can just quiet down enough as you
walk, which the circuitous route supports, you can have
I know from my own walks on the labyrinth that there
can be distractions. Children might wander or run this
way and that, and you find yourself entertaining your
own fear of 'doing it wrong' and somehow stepping off
the path. And yet, when you reach the center, it's as if
you've prepared the stage for God to come in and you are
now quite ready to receive. I have had moments of
tearful ecstasy at the center of the labyrinth and
received critical blessings on my work -- just as I have
known moments of peaceful calm and an 'everything's just
fine' tranquility. At the very least, the labyrinth
provides an entry point for God that you might not
otherwise be able to access. So it becomes another
valuable tool for supporting the life you want to live.
For more information on where to find labyrinths, go
Cathedral’s Labyrinth Locator, which lists
labyrinths all over the country.
spiritual exercise classes report remarkable trickle
down effects. They talk about naturally being kinder to
people, and more able to observe life's vicissitudes,
instead of just reacting to them. They find themselves
becoming vegetarians, or doing community service for the
first time in their lives, simply out of the grace that
comes with such intense doses of God-based physical
exertion. One woman who took the Sacred Fitness class,
said the deep connection she felt there "enables
you to forgive yourself so you can move forward."
Others talk about "finally feeling whole."
Whether you practice spiritual exercise with a video
at home, a yoga class at the nearest Y, or through a
program of your own devising, the most important thing
is to stick with it. Some of us like variety, so
different types of spiritual exercise work well.
Personally, I like to combine a weekly power yoga with
meditative walks, skis, hikes, and bike rides. In fact,
any kind of repetitive exercise will do, as long as God
is invoked along the way and you allow that spiritual
energy into your routine.
For those of you who've traditionally avoided
exercise, shift it to a new context. Instead of seeing
it as body-required drudgery, try seeing it as a
necessary tool for your creative and spiritual
well-being, instead. Spiritual exercise not only gives
you the necessary juice to function at max, it puts you
in closer contact with your spiritual source. And by
doing so, your workout becomes more fulfilling … and
Here’s how you do it:
Want to try some spiritual exercise? Choose any
quiet, repetitive exercise such as swimming, rowing,
biking, walking, running, skiing, skating, hiking, or
circuit work on exercise machines. Choose a sport you
know well and don’t have to think about too much.
(This isn’t as well suited to competitive sports such
as tennis, paddle ball, basketball, baseball, or squash.
If you're doing aerobics, look for those taught in a
spiritual context, so the music, etc., helps instead of
Before you begin exercising, take a few moments to
sit or walk quietly, and say a short prayer of thanks.
Then begin your workout. As you do, use favorite mantras
or affirmations to connect as you work out. Maybe repeat
a treasured prayer, or simply repeat "I am the
light," or "I move with God" or a similar
phrase that seems to link you up spiritually.
The rhythm of the exercise will naturally help your
mind open to what you're creating, making the
affirmation more effective. Also stay open to what God
has to say as your consciousness deepens, and you become
more open to Spirit.
Answers may present themselves, along with
inspirations and ideas. If so, consider bringing along a
tiny digital recording device, such as a instant
messager that fits on a key ring to record ideas you
want to save. If you're exercising on machines, consider
playing some spiritually soothing music on headphones to
work out to, instead of cranking the TV news.
Finally, be sure to end your workout with a short
prayer or nod of thanks.
Some Recommended Spiritual Workout Videos:
Tantric Toning; The Stress-Free Workout
This is an innovative
hour-long workout that combines full body toning,
strengthening, and balance work from yoga, tai chi, chi
kung plus a tad of aerobics. Plus, there is a color
light meditation at the end. This workout really feels
An excellent 45-minute
yoga tape that doesn't hold to any particular 'school'
of yoga; simply the essentials of yoga in a routine
anyone can do. Led with clarity and grace by a New York
City fitness pioneer.
Fox's Yoga; Yoga Stretches and Relaxes
Yoga Zone's Introduction to Power
Yoga for Beginners
Two twenty minute yoga
routines that combine the strength building and
challenge of Power Yoga, with the stretch and relax
poses we all need. A good place to start.
for Round Bodies, 1 & 2,
Linda DeMarco & Genie Paulee Hadden
Yoga led in the gentle,
soothing Kripalu style by two large women who can coach
those of all sizes to develop a solid practice. Includes
the use of helpful props. "For people not built
like Gumby," as one reviewer put it.
Copyright © 2002
Suzanne Falter-Barns, www. howmuchjoy.com. All Rights Reserved.
Suzanne Falter-Barns is the author of How
Much Joy Can You Stand? A Creative Guide to Facing Your
Fears and Making Your Dreams Come True (Ballantine
Wellspring). Her website, www.howmuchjoy.com
provides practical tools for moving ahead with your
dreams, including free articles, a free ezine, e-courses