Strong in body and faith

Times Staff Writer

THIS could be any yoga or Pilates-based stretch and toning class: The participants are on mats wearing layered T-shirts and exercise pants, the lights are low and gentle guitar music plays.

That is, until instructor Kathryn Linehan guides the class at Pepperdine University into a cat pose, on their hands and knees with backs rounded, and says, "Imagine God's arms are around your waist, pulling you up," before reciting the first line of the 23rd Psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not be in want."

This is FORM, Faith-Ordered Rotational Movement, a fitness program Linehan created that integrates this most famous of psalms, reputedly written by King David, into a basic flexibility and strength training regimen.

"He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake," recites Linehan, lunging forward with one knee on the ground.

"He makes me lie down in green pastures," she declares in the midst of a modified child's pose, kneeling, arms outstretched, body relaxed.

"Sink into this and feel an awareness," says Linehan to her students. "In quiet stillness you can really hear God's voice."

Unaccustomed to putting scripture to movement, the 14 young women and men wobble a bit, some discovering their core muscles for the first time as they burn through Pilates one-leg stretches.

Linehan, a 46-year-old documentary filmmaker, Pilates instructor and former banker, says the idea for FORM grew out of a combination of her Christianity, her background in dance, a desire for something more than she was getting in her regular exercise routine and a way to deal with stress and a grueling workload.

"I had been feeling a need for this in my life," she says in a soft voice as she sits in a Los Angeles cafe, sipping herbal tea and tucking an errant strand of blond hair behind one ear.

Several years ago she found solace and strength from a small Bible study group, but she also felt she wanted something more. "The relationship of the small group was so nourishing, and I wanted that combined with movement and exercise and breathing. I needed the wholeness," she says. "The Bible study wasn't enough, and the exercise wasn't enough on its own."

And so, in early 2001, she began combining movement with Bible passages that related to forgiveness and loving your neighbor -- eventually settling upon the 23rd Psalm, inspired by USC philosophy professor and author Dallas Willard. (Linehan says Willard, whom she greatly admires, revealed at a retreat that he uses that psalm during meditation.)

On its own, Linehan found the passage difficult to memorize. "It just wouldn't work," she says.

"But I found there was a thing I could do with my legs, and I realized that if I did this movement, I can remember the psalm. It's almost like the movements made me remember the words."

Linehan decided to share her new concept in a class after moving to Seattle later that year. But she didn't find her audience overnight.

First there was the rugby team. "They liked the movement," she says. But they weren't so open to scripture reading. (Some, she noticed, seemed a bit ... hung over.)

Then there were the older, churchgoing golfers. "I said, 'Let's do breath and movement!' and they said, 'What is she talking about?' "

The college sorority was also less than responsive. "These girls are more concerned about their dates, and I'm in there going, 'The Lord is my shepherd.' "

Ultimately, says Linehan, "I realized this is a ministry."

She eventually found her niche about three years ago, at her Seattle Presbyterian church. Her students, she says, "felt that they could be seen and heard and be whole, as opposed to going to a gym or a yoga class where their faith wasn't recognized."

Linehan's class isn't the only one in which religion is incorporated into fitness. The faithful can also exercise with Tae Bo superstar Billy Blanks and his DVD "Billy Blanks' Tae Bo Believer's Workout: The Strength Within."

And in Anaheim one can work out at the Heart Mind Soul and Strength Fitness Center, a health club that appeals to many Christians by promoting modest dress and a "family environment," minus any hard-core rap music.

Linehan doesn't condemn those who take regular yoga classes or who go for a spin on the treadmill while watching soap operas. That level of tolerance sets FORM apart from some Christian-themed exercise regimens such as PraiseMoves, which condemns the notion of Christians practicing yoga because it "leads seekers away from God rather than to Him," according to the PraiseMoves website.

"Before becoming a Christian, I remember numerous instances of 'traveling outside my body' during yoga relaxation periods," writes founder Laurette Willis. "I wonder who -- or what -- checked in when I checked out?"

On a windy night on the Pepperdine campus, the students have gathered in the indoor tennis center for their FORM class. Introduced last year as an extracurricular activity, it's now a full-fledged part of the curriculum, thanks to Priscilla MacRae, a Pepperdine sports medicine professor and longtime friend of Linehan.

The physical benefits, MacRae says, are in promoting the stretching and muscle toning that most of us hate to do: "Here, Kathryn is leading you through it, and to me it allows the joy that I have in Jesus and in God to flow through me more easily. It's a way of leaving my burden in that green pasture."

It also allows gives the students time to relax and find their moorings, MacRae says.

"My life is so busy," sighs 18-year-old Ashley Cheda, a freshman majoring in sports medicine who's also on the track team. "I've got classes, I'm studying or going to do a workout or trying to get in the friend time, and right now I'm headed off to the campus ministry," she says. "I was like, 'I need to force myself to take a break,' and this is the perfect way to do it, to get my mind focused and clear and on God and on the scripture."

Adds Andy Scheeler, a 21-year-old biology major, "It gives you more endurance and more purpose. As the scripture comes with the movements, I see myself getting more and more comfortable with it, and being able to focus more and more."

Linehan plans to spread the gospel of FORM. She's had 10 people go through teacher training, and last year produced a video. She'd like to do a program in Spanish, and one for seniors.

"This isn't about the typical 'Let's lose 10 pounds,' " she says. "This is about Christ's realization and worshiping God. And if it's ever different from that, I hope I'll stop teaching it."

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