Better Than Church? Exercise as a Spiritual Experience

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana, MDiv ’03

Last week I caught Tom Ashbrook’s show On Point (via podcast). He was talking about the so-called “boutique fitness” trend—exercise classes that promise not only a hard workout but also strong community, and in some cases spiritual enlightenment. The panelists discussed Soul Cycle, CrossFit and other fitness fads.

Unfortunately, the cost of these classes got conflated with the larger issue of spiritual impact. Many of these programs are very expensive and exclusive. People can spend thousands of dollars a year on these classes, and many listeners (and commenters) criticized this trend as yet another symptom of the narcissism run rampant in our culture. I agree, it seems icky to spend THAT much money on a fitness-related pursuit. Especially since there’s nothing inherently costly about many of these programs. A barre class, for example, requires a trained instructor, a room, and a couple of barres. A listener called in from Nashville who takes similar courses at her local rec center for three bucks a class.

That said, I live in an expensive area of the country, with lots of friends who belong to gyms and yoga studios, and I’m sure the price tag would make people balk who live in cities with a lower cost of living. I go to the relatively low-rent Fairfax County RECenters, which don’t require a monthly fee, but I’m sure people could look sideways at the money I spend on races and running gear. The economic thing is relative. But I don’t agree with the sentiment that “It’s their money so who cares?” What we spend money on as a culture says something about our values, and it’s all worth examining.

But setting aside the economics of these classes, the discussion of spiritual impact and community was a good one. I ran for many years before I joined a running group, and it’s brought so much to my life, I sometimes kick myself for waiting as long as I did. (Kicking oneself isn’t good cross-training, by the way.)

A few people brought up the physical, mental and spiritual boost you get from working out—the runners’ high, if you will. It got me thinking about my current religious tradition (Presbyterian). At least here in the U.S., we’re by and large a reserved bunch in worship. We sing hymns and pray silently and read creeds in unison. I’d say our worship strives to be joyfully reverent, but ours is not an ecstatic, charismatic tradition. Yet perhaps there’s something in the human psyche that craves catharsis. Are people feeling drawn to extreme sports and communal workout experiences because we want a safe, socially-sanctioned way to experience these big feelings together? I don’t know.

Many of the panelists mentioned how devoted people are to things like CrossFit and SoulCycle, even calling their devotion “religious.” But there are (still) things religion provides that these other things do not. A story, for one—a larger narrative in which to place yourself. An ethical sense of the world. A sense of service. A connection to something larger than yourself. Now, my running friends and I get into some deep stuff while we’re pounding out the miles. We share inspirational stories. There’s a sense of connection to the spirit of the sport. But there’s not a larger common mythology guiding our lives.

On the other hand, I know I’ve been slower to find a church home for our family because I get many spiritual needs met through my running community (which I connect with online and in person). Not all spiritual needs, but many:

Accountability: What gets me out of bed in the 4:00 hour on a cold morning is knowing other people will be waiting for me. But it’s not just running accountability–we check up on one another, ask about our families, chide one another when we’re not taking care of ourselves, etc.

Vulnerability: There’s nothing quite like putting your body through its paces while other people are around. I know folks who’ve gotten sick on group runs, or had a bathroom emergency and needed help from a fellow runner. A good race, or a bad one, brings up big unbidden feelings. Do our religious communities give us opportunities to be vulnerable with one another in similar ways? How?

Mentorship: I’m a devoted middle-of-the-packer when it comes to running, and I have a lot to learn from people who’ve been at this longer (and who are more accomplished). I also think I have something to offer people who are new at this. How well do religious communities do the official and unofficial mentorship thing?

Service: This is something most religious communities do well, but you can find plenty of opportunities to give back apart from the church. The running group I’m in does canned food drives, coat drives and the like. Religious communities also often (but not always) engage the larger issues of justice that community groups may not.

Finally, the show featured a Harvard Divinity School student named Angie Thurston who co-wrote a paper called How We Gather. The paper argues that people are finding spiritual fulfillment in alternate forms of community, from Harry Potter fan groups to running groups. The church would do well to pay attention to this. I’m looking forward to delving into this paper.

Does exercise provide a spiritual outlet for you? How about community? What’s your experience?

About MaryAnn McKibben Dana: I’m a writer, spouse, mother of three, muffin maker and occasional marathoner. I am a Presbyterian pastor whose spiritual inner child is secretly Quaker. (I guess the secret’s out.) I believe in the expansive love of God that knows no bounds. I live in the leafy suburbs of Washington DC but love the energy and noisy chaos of the city. I served as a pastor for 12 years, including Idylwood Presbyterian Church and Burke Presbyterian Church. I have completed a variety of writing projects, including a book, Sabbath in the Suburbs, released in 2012 by Chalice Press. I have also served as co-chair of NEXT Church, a national movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that’s calling forth vital ministry for our changing cultural context.

And the CLL and CTS would like to congratulate MaryAnn on her recent award! MaryAnn McKibben Dana has been named the recipient of the 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award by the Presbyterian Writers Guild. you can read about it in Outlook here.

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2 thoughts on “Better Than Church? Exercise as a Spiritual Experience”

  1. Deanna says:

    I am currently reading the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J Ratey. You should check it out. I am a spiritual director and heart beat raising exercise is about to become the number one spiritual discipline I encourage my directees to practice.

  2. Liana says:

    I was excited to come across your article because I have been pondering about this topic for some time. I have always been active and decided to take up crossfit almost two years ago. Although it does not provide the relaxing and often spiritual benefit of being surrounded by nature (other than the ocassional outdoor events) I have found that the intense and challenging workouts have become some of the most spiritual moments I encounter throughout my hectic week. It has become a habit to speak with God while I am getting through strenuous routines. It is at these moments when I need to source significant inner strength from my mind and spirit despite the exhaustion, and I have learned that this is impossible to do if I focus on external elements. Thus, I continuously thank God for my health and recognize his presence. I am vulnerable and humble during these moments and, thus, completely open to feeling what comes with being completely mindful. Yes, crossfit provides a sense of community (which is wonderful and supportive) but in the heat of the moment I only compete with myself to drive improvement and connect with God to get through the strenuous task at hand.

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