NEW YORK • At first glance, the streaming fitness class looks like any other: blue yoga mats against a neutral background, with ambient music and candles to set the mood. Two athleisure-clad instructors, flanked by hand weights, introduce themselves.
The giveaway is the flash of a wooden crucifix.
"Surrender all and prepare yourself to go on this journey with us through the stations of the cross with Jesus," one of the instructors says, her hands in prayer position.
Many such classes are available through SoulCore, a fitness platform where stretches correspond to the Apostles' Creed, push-ups are completed to the Lord's Prayer and challenging positions warrant a Hail Mary. Since 2013, the company's mission, carried out by some 150 instructors in 30 American states, has been to further animate Catholic teachings, including Christ's suffering.
"Coming up into a plank position, picture Jesus being condemned," Deanne Miller, 54 and a founder of SoulCore, instructs her class participants. "Think of times in your own life that you've felt condemned."
The faith-meets-fitness industry includes consultants who help churches add movement programmes, and organisations like Faithfully Fit, which train and certify religious instructors, as well as a variety of streaming services and subscriptions.
There are also Ramadan boot camps, Christian detox diets, Yom Kippur yoga classes and religious CrossFit gyms.
Over the past two months, as the coronavirus has upended group fitness and group prayer, these businesses have seen a wave of new interest from long-time followers and the newly fervent. SoulCore, for example, has seen a 50 per cent increase in memberships over the past six weeks.
Since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in mid-March, religion and spirituality have taken on new significance for some adherents.
A recent Pew Research Centre survey found that nearly one-quarter of American adults say their faith has become "stronger" in the midst of the pandemic, though many religious institutions have closed their doors, and celebrations and events have been displaced.
As many registrations for a Ramadan-focused fitness and nutrition programme as compared to last year.
The timing of the pandemic has been especially disruptive for Christians, Jews and Muslims, who observe major holidays in the spring. Millions forwent their Passover and Easter plans and, instead, congregated over videoconferencing apps for Seders and Mass.
Amina Khan, for her part, has released a daily Ramadan-focused fitness and nutrition programme through Amanah Fitness, the Muslim wellness platform that she founded in 2015. The company reported three times as many registrations last month as in April 2019.
Throughout the pandemic, Amanah Fitness has also offered free workout classes, which feature modestly dressed instructors and brief prayers at the start of each workout. There is no talk of "bikini bodies". "Many Muslim women don't even own a bikini," said Khan, 27.
The appeal to identity is important to the platform's users. "Even just featuring workouts with women wearing the headscarf is essential to show that, yes, if you look like this, you can still be fit," she said. She added that several mosques and imams requested her workouts to ensure their communities stay active while confined to their homes.
WHERE SOUL MEETS BODY
While interest in wellness has skyrocketed in recent years, bolstered by the rise of boutique fitness and alluring lifestyle brands built on social media, affiliation with the United States' most-followed religion, Christianity, has been in steady decline for nearly a decade, and the share of people who identify as atheist, agnostic or indifferent to religion is on the rise, according to surveys by Pew.
"The church is not doing a great job engaging and making our faith relevant to a younger generation," said Cambria Tortorelli, 58, the director of parish life at Holy Family Church in Pasadena, California, which hosts the meditation group Body in Prayer. "Our society is changing. We need to be able to respond to the expectations and needs of this generation."
FINDING HAPPY BALANCE
Whether that generation is millennials, the oldest of whom are now around 40, or Gen Z, who may be teenagers or early 20-somethings, drawing connections between faith and holistic well-being could help religious institutions appeal to them.
The Vatican has taken its own holistic approach to health in recent weeks. Last month, Pope Francis appointed Argentinian priest Augusto Zampini Davies to lead a coronavirus task force, whose efforts to reduce inequality and improve overall health around the world will incorporate "both faith and science", a Vatican spokesman said.
For several religious leaders and their affiliates, such initiatives were in place long before the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Stephanie Walker, 44, founded ChurchFit, an exercise and nutrition programme, nearly a decade ago in response to a public health crisis: a population struggling with preventable chronic diseases and poor lifestyle habits.
Now, Mount Zion Baptist Church, the Nashville, Tennessee, megachurch led by her husband, conducts free daily workouts, nutrition classes and lectures by medical professionals, all virtually. It is about meeting people where they are, she said, and removing any obstacles or potential excuses.
As motivation, Dr Walker reminds participants that Jesus himself was fit enough to carry his cross much of the way up the hill where he was ultimately crucified.
"Had he not been healthy, there's no way he could have done it," she said.