Marty Anderson walked into a Saturday morning exercise class hoping to strengthen his back and his relationship with God.
Needless to say, this was not your typical health club or fitness routine. It was a church gym, and the class he was taking was called Holy Yoga, a unique mixture of bending and Bible verses.
"Both [the physical and spiritual] exercises are very important to me," said Anderson, an Edina resident who has battled chronic back pain ever since he tossed hay bales on the family farm as a teen 30 years ago. "I like that they are combined."
So do a lot of other people. Although still held at arm's length by some conservative Christians because of its roots in Eastern spirituality, yoga is exploding on the American religious scene as a worship/meditation method.
And nowhere is it taking more of a foothold -- or, if you prefer, lotus position -- than in the Twin Cities area.
So many local people are signing up to become trainers that the Arizona-based ministry Holy Yoga is making special arrangements for them. Prospective instructors from the rest of the country have to go to Phoenix to take the necessary classes, but if you're from Minnesota, the organization will send its teachers here. A recent weeklong instructors' class drew 50 students, and the ministry is planning to offer the course again.
"Our thinking was: Instead of having them come to us, let's go serve them," said Jonnie Goodmanson, one of Holy Yoga's lead instructors who recently relocated to the Twin Cities.
Erin Marth, a recent graduate of the instructors' class, is so taken with the program that she showed up for the Saturday morning class as a participant. "It's a chance to work your whole body and fill yourself up with God," she said.
Goodmanson, who was leading the class, called the session "the ultimate anti- anxiety medication."
She opened with a Bible verse, put on a soothing selection of Christian music and then ran the students through a series of yoga postures. She moved around the room, occasionally reading from the Bible she held in one hand as she used the other to offer gentle correction to the exercisers' form.
"Open your heart to his word," she encouraged, and then in a segue you'd hear only at such a class, told one of the exercisers, "Relax your glutes."
'I love God, and I do yoga'
Holy Yoga was founded in 2003 by Brooke Boon, owner of a yoga studio in Phoenix. She concluded that although yoga comes from Hindu traditions, its three major components -- exercise, breathing and meditation -- can be applied to any religion.
Not everyone agrees. One of the most verbal opponents is the Rev. Mark Driscoll, pastor of a Baptist mega-church in Seattle who has become something of a YouTube celebrity thanks to video clips of his impassioned sermons. One shows Driscoll lambasting yoga as "demonic."
Boon isn't pretending that there's no controversy. In fact, the Holy Yoga website (www.holyyoga.net) includes a link to Driscoll's clip. But she is convinced that critics don't understand it.
"There are a lot of misconceptions that because yoga is rooted in Hindu practices it's some sort of cult," she said. "But there is nothing that excludes using yoga from a Christian perspective. It's not about the yoga; it's about God."
The Rev. Chris Endstad, senior pastor at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale, contacted Holy Yoga and asked if they wanted to schedule a class in his church's gym.
"I think it's sad that some conservative evangelicals are attacking this without understanding it," he said. "It's very spiritual."
Although Boon calls her program a "ministry," she insists that "it's not a religion. I'm not preaching or promoting a theology. It boils down to: I love God, and I do yoga."
Like most ministries, this one is nonprofit. "We have no salaries," she said. "And we don't charge for classes."
Everyone on the staff is expected to lead classes. A $5 donation is suggested to attend, and whatever income they glean comes from those donations.
As for why Holy Yoga is booming here, Boon thinks it has to do with our willingness to try new things and a high level of interest in embracing a wellness approach to health.
"People are looking for wholeness these days," she said. "This is for your body, mind and spirit."
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392