GREENVILLE, SC — While embracing the centuries-old practice of yoga for its physical benefits, many Americans have tried to reconcile or ignore its mystical undertones of Hinduism. Gradually, the spiritual element has evolved.

And now, some Upstate classes have a decidedly Christian focus.

Following a successful pilot program, the YMCA of Greenville will schedule Christian yoga at all five of its branches before the end of the year, says wellness director Marc McCulley.

“It’s a really interesting approach to that spirit-mind-body connection,” he said.

As yoga has grown in popularity, it has become a subject of debate among Christians, some of whom say its Hindu ties clash with Christian beliefs.

McCulley said he isn’t worried about that.

“I think that if it’s all done appropriately in the right kind of context and led by the right person, we can put some of those myths to rest,” he said.

Sean Schumacher is teaching the Christian yoga classes called DoxaSoma yoga at three YMCA branches, and she is training instructors for the remaining two.

McCulley said Schumacher came to him with the idea, and he studied it and decided last year to try DoxaSoma yoga at the Caine Halter Family YMCA on Cleveland Street.

“The reaction that we got from a lot of our members was just nothing but positive,” he said. “They said, this is great, can we get more of it?”

Classes have begun at the Eastside Family YMCA and the new Verdae branch, and the YMCA of Greenville recently signed a contract with Schumacher and her business partner, Angela Doll Carlson, for exclusive rights to DoxaSoma yoga in Greenville County, McCulley said.

The right fit

It’s a huge step for Schumacher and Carlson, who had tried for a decade to expand DoxaSoma yoga from church recreation rooms to multi-purpose fitness centers. It’s also a significant development for the Christian yoga movement, said one of its pioneers, Susan Bordenkircher, who has produced books and instructional videos and runs a Christian yoga practice at her studio in Alabama.

Bordenkircher has helped people wanting to start Christian yoga classes, but “it’s not just something you can tell them in five easy steps,” she said.

“So I think having an actual program, an actual discipline to it that is apparently presented through what these girls are doing, it sounds fantastic,” she said. “I think it is going to help the movement a lot.”

Carlson, a writer and fitness instructor, began working on DoxaSoma yoga 14 years ago. She was taking yoga classes, loving what it did for her balance, flexibility and strength, but she was not comfortable with its spiritual theme.

“I started feeling more and more upset that I didn’t have a version of this that would speak to the religious and spiritual part of my life,” said Carlson, who lives in Chicago.

She took DoxaSoma from Greek words meaning “praise the body,” and began renaming yoga positions, merging them with Bible verses and printing them on cards for instructors to read in class.

Schumacher was a flight attendant based in Chicago at the time, and happened to attend a women’s support group Carlson had formed. They had much in common, fitness instructors, committed Christians, women who marked their histories by the births and milestones of their children.

Right away they started working together on DoxaSoma yoga. They trained some instructors who held classes in churches, and Schumacher took on the responsibility of trying to make it more widely available.

Christian focus

She moved to Greenville in 2005 when she was pregnant with son Jake, and her daughter, Sofia, was 2 years old. As soon as she was able, Schumacher began approaching local gyms.

“I was really getting into teaching power yoga at that point, and I was very conflicted because I really wanted to teach what Angie had created, but I just couldn’t get it anywhere,” Schumacher said.

The rejections all sounded pretty much the same, she said.

“I sat down with the owners and said, ‘Look, this is a fantastic program,’ and they were like, ‘No one is going to want to do this. It doesn’t belong in a gym, it doesn’t belong here, this is not going to work.’ Because it was Christian.”

She discovered that yoga was controversial among some Christians, whether taught with a Christian focus or in a traditional way.

“There are people who are Christians who won’t even walk into a yoga class because their pastors told them not to do yoga,” Schumacher said.

Some believe that yoga participants are honoring Hindu gods, whether intentionally or not, and that turning it into Christian yoga doesn’t change that.

“A faithful Christian can no more say they are practicing yoga for Jesus than they can say they are committing adultery for Jesus,” is how Pastor Mark Driscoll, founder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Wash., put it in an article on his website.

Baxter Wynn, interim senior minister at First Baptist Church, Greenville, said it is pointless to worry about Christians who practice yoga.

“There is nothing about that that concerns me in the slightest,” he said. “It sounds helpful and healthy to me just as an individual and as a person of faith and as a Christian.”

As determined as Schumacher was to bring yoga with a Christian focus into mainstream fitness centers, it began to look like an impossible mission. “It was really, really hard not to just dump it,” she said.

But she kept trying, she said, “because it’s the only thing God ever told me to do.”

In 2007, Schumacher went to work as a fitness instructor for the YMCA, teaching a variety of classes, helping people turn their lives around. Yoga has been the difference for many, she said, and it has become an indispensable part of her own fitness routine.

“One of the things I have realized as I have gotten older is that you cannot go without yoga,” said Schumacher, who is 42. “You cannot continue to move in your life and work out on a regular basis without yoga.”

“Or some flexibility training,” said Carlson, 45, who was in Greenville recently to help train instructors.

“Yes. Because of the amount of damage that you are doing to your joints if you don’t lengthen out your muscles after shortening them up,” Schumacher said. “I can’t continue to teach 15 to 20 times a week without those yoga classes.”

She pitched DoxaSoma yoga to the YMCA more than once, and thought she wasn’t getting anywhere. But McCulley put it on the back burner and eventually started asking around, trying to gauge demand.

Positive response

Eventually McCulley agreed to the pilot program, he said, because of Schumacher’s stellar work as a fitness instructor, and her understanding of what the YMCA is about.

“She’s the prototypical type of instructor we’re looking for,” he said. “She develops relationships with her people who come to class, and she is very pro-YMCA and mission-driven.”

Schumacher will continue teaching the DoxaSoma yoga classes in the three YMCA branches. Newly trained instructors will work at the GHS Family YMCA in Simpsonville, and the George I. Theisen YMCA in Travelers Rest, McCulley said.

The first DoxaSoma yoga class at Caine Halter replaced Schumacher’s popular Saturday morning power yoga. She told the class ahead of time that the exercise would be the same, but the theme would be Christian.

“The core group stayed, and I’ve had a ton of new people come,” she said. “I’ve had people come in and they say, ‘I’ve been going to this other place and now I’m coming here because they don’t offer this.’ They love the focus of it, and they just feel like it’s a good fit for them.”

Rose Marie Bray, who has been working out at the Cleveland Street YMCA going back before it was rebuilt into Caine Halter, said she had some reservations about the change. But right away she was more comfortable with a spiritual element in line with her beliefs.

“What I like about Sean’s yoga is that it does have a Christian theme to it,” she said. “When I went in there the first time, I was surprised. It was such a great workout, and yet such a good feeling, a positive vibe, and your mind didn’t wander off. It kept you focused, and I really enjoyed that.”

Schumacher said that as an instructor, it also has exceeded her expectations, strengthening her connection to her group.

“They will be laying down, and tears will be streaming down their face,” she said. “Or they will be in meditation, and I actually see them smiling or laughing or crying, and it’s almost like you’ve gone so far beyond that physical part, and the Lord, you can see him working in their heart, and there’s nothing more powerful than that.”