Working out can be a religious experience for many Americans, with billions spent each year at fitness centers and gyms. But some types of exercise deliberately fuse the religious and the physical, particularly those that come out of Asia, like yoga, Tai chi, and a variety of martial art forms. The average American who takes part in these spiritual exercises often doesn't understand the spiritual roots of such exercises, focusing instead on their physical benefits. Two Tampa Bay institutions, St. Petersburg Yoga and the Taoist Tai Chi Society, are working to unite the physical and spiritual sides of their chosen forms of exercise, while also remaining accessible to the Average Joe and Jane who just want a good workout.
St. Petersburg Yoga
Yoga is perhaps the most popular type of spiritually-rooted exercise in the United States. It started out in India with Hinduism, where its exact origins are unknown, but yoga was mentioned in the earliest Hindu texts like the Rigveda. Hindus see yoga as encompassing physical, mental and spiritual exercises intended to help a soul make its way to enlightenment. Yoga has gradually made its way around the world and now an estimated 20 million Americans or 8.7% of US adults practice yoga. Americans love yoga, even with sporadic controversies from some Christians who distrust the Eastern roots of the practice and scattered complaints from Indians who see Western yoga as overly secularized in its emphasis on the physical.
St. Petersburg Yoga is a prominent yoga center, with its main headquarters sharing a building with the Rollin’ Oats Market and Cafe (2842 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.) Its founder, Chris Acosta, started the business when he was in his 20s and his seen his business grow over the past 25 years as yoga exploded in the United States. Acosta wonders how beneficial this growth of yoga has been, however, as it has led to a surge in injuries for a discipline that is not supposed to cause pain. And he asks if yoga is still yoga if it is 99% physical.
Acosta sees his role as a yogi or teacher to be as a “bridge from where people are to where they need to be.” In spiritual terms, this involves unlocking the atman, the eternal soul at the heart of Hinduism. Many students in the over 70 classes a week are simply interested in the physical side of yoga, but some become more interested in the meditative and philosophical side over time. Most who come already have an existing faith; that's fine with Acosta, who isn't seeking converts but long-term transformation at a physical, spiritual and mental level.
Finding ways to bring about this transformation in students is not always easy. He gives two examples. The first, a person who is addicted to exercise to a near-unhealthy extent. That person may want the most strenuous classes, but encouraging a class on meditation would be more helpful. The second, an overweight person on the verge of obesity may be more interested in meditation but needs a more physical class. While Acosta has lost students from trying to steer them in the right direction, he remains committed to the values behind his business.
Taoist Tai Chi Society
Tai Chi is significantly less well-known than yoga, echoing the lower prominence of its source, the mellow Chinese philosophy/religion Taoism. But Tai Chi certainly has its fans in the United States, with classes found in local rec centers. Perhaps the most visible place for Tai Chi in the United States would be through the Taoist Tai Chi Society. The Society was founded by Moy Lin Shin, a native of China who fled to Canada, and from the 1970s until his death in 1998 built an organization centered around Tai Chi classes and a philosophy centered around Taoism and traditional Chinese religion. The Society now has 500 locations around the world, including four in the Tampa Bay area. In fact, the group is currently working to renovate the long-closed Fenway Hotel in Dunedin into a major national center.
I met a leader, Pegoty Packman, at the temporary Dunedin location (453 Edgewater Dr.). She explained the work and beliefs of the Society. As is common in Chinese philosophy and religion, the Society draws on a number of different religions and principles. Of course, Taoism is central with its emphasis on harmony and the cultivation of the cosmic energy known as chi. But the Society members also chant Buddhist sutras and includes a statue of the popular goddess of compassion, Guanyin. The Society also focuses on the Eight Heavenly Virtues that Moy Lin Shin found vital from Confucian philosophy, which were: a Sense of Shame, Honor, Sacrifice, Propriety, Trustworthiness, Dedication, Sibling Harmony and Filial Piety.
But what has enabled the Society to prosper around the world has been its Tai Chi classes, which Packman notes revolve around action. Tai Chi is about action of a relaxed nature, however, as its 108 moves aim to cultivate stillness. Attendees in the Dunedin classes range from people in their 30s through 90s. The older students tend to enjoy the physical benefits of the Tai Chi exercises, which are famously accessible to people at a broad range of fitness levels and ages. Younger members are more interested in the philosophy and meditative ideals.
As with St. Petersburg Yoga, the great majority of students at the Society belong to other faiths and the Society sees itself as an inclusive institution. Its mission is to use Taoist principles to help people to be better and improve their health and mental attitude. As Packman observes of the practices of Tai Chi, “however you work it, it works in you.”