As you walk into the lobby of DeKalb's First Congregational Church, the first thing you'll hear is faint music from the door leading into the chapel. You open the door gently and enter a blue carpeted room. A handful of women sit in a half-circle with their legs crossed and eyes closed on colorful yoga mats. In the middle is an older, bearded man wearing a blue shirt. He's sitting in front of a lit candle positioned on top of an overturned offering plate.
This is a weekly yoga class led by Jeff Leaich of Belvidere. He teaches yoga every day of the week, and has been teaching for 40 years.
"Everyone has their own background, and their own space, and they're coming from their own thoughts and I'm guiding them to let them do their own journey," Leaich said.
His introduction into yoga began as physical wellness. Leaich's preferred yoga is called Hatha yoga, a practice that focuses on physical health. Leaich is one of countless instructors in the Midwest who are bringing yoga not only to studios, but to churches. Leaich says religious centers and yoga can blend.
"I've seen a big change over the years of it being more accepted and you see it everywhere now," he said. "And people are realizing the benefits of it. And as far as the spiritual aspect of it, I don't see any inconsistencies."
A study conducted by the Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal said that more than 30 million Americans practiced yoga in 2016, up 16.3 million people more than in 2012.
Leaich also teaches classes in Jewish synagogues like Temple Beth-El in Rockford and churches like Christ Lutheran Church in Belvidere. He said 90 percent of his participants are women, averaging around 60 years old. Leaich recognizes that some people think yoga, which has roots in Hinduism, has little place in traditional religious centers that differ in faith.
"I think there has been, and probably still is, some stigma attached to it -- it is Eastern, it is from India and so there's no doubt about that, but it's not a religion, it's separate from that," he said. "It can be a spiritual practice or it can be just someone working with a stiff neck or whatever."
The Rev. Joe Gastiger of the First Congregational United Church of Christ agrees.
"We try to open the church to all sorts of things that promote health and well-being, and I think yoga is certainly part of that," said Gastiger.
Gastiger said First Congregational has had yoga classes for years, and he doesn’t think yoga has to mean more than exercise, if people choose that.
"I don’t think one has to be Hindu in order for one to appreciate yoga any more than somebody has to be a Buddhist to learn karate or something like that," he said.
Gastiger said churches are "hospitals for broken people" and that physical healing is part of that.
"I know there are some churches that say this is heretical or you shouldn't do that, or it's un-Christian or anti-Christian, or something like that," he said. "I’ve never gotten any sense to any people here that there's been any opposition to it at all."
Some churches just offer the rental space for yoga.
“I think it’s straying from the spiritual aspect, but there still are people who are looking for that more traditional [style]. I mean, I’m having them cross my door even for counseling,” said registered yoga teacher and clinical counselor Jennifer Falbo-Negron.
Falbo-Negron runs a business called Phoenix Rising Solutions, a company based around the Elgin region. Falbo-Negron holds counseling sessions that include somatic experiencing (SE), a holistic therapy method that intends to connect mindfulness and physical movement to overcome trauma.
“I feel like it’s a good marriage between the yoga and the counselling and all this SE work that I’m doing,” she said.
Falbo-Negron said she also runs two yoga classes out of the Streamwood and Bartlett Park Districts, focusing on a hatha-style yoga. Falbo-Negron said she is Catholic, and that in the past, she has attempted to rent out space at a church to hold yoga classes. She said she didn’t find many open to the idea. She said although yoga is not a religion, merging faith and yoga is not impossible.
“I don’t see the harm in it,” she said.
For her work, she said she wants to encourage bodily awareness and mindfulness.
“I don’t want to ascribe [mindfulness] to anything, I get people that are atheist or agnostic or whatever. Some of them believe in higher power, some of them believe in nothing. But you’re connecting to yourself. But for me, personally, I think it’s that you’re connecting to something outside of yourself, be it god or a higher power. But I never try to push that on anybody,” she said.
In DeKalb, churches like Hillcrest Covenant and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of DeKalb hold weekly sessions. Christ Community Church's Blackberry Creek branch in Aurora offers "co-ed Christian Yoga."
In Byron, yoga student Meredith Townsend attends a class at the United Church of Byron. She's a regular church attendee.
"We had the space but the gal and I that kind of organized it down in Byron both went to that church and we knew that our church was very forward-looking and very involved in the community and we just saw this as something that the community probably would appreciate, and they certainly have," said Townsend.
Byron's United Church is one of the oldest in the area. Their yoga class started four years ago. The church has now grown to three classes per week, with three different instructors. Townsend said they all focus on Iyingir yoga, a more complex version of Hatha.
"Oh, I just think it's becoming more common, and I think people are reading about healthy living and this is part of healthy living," Townsend said. "I actually myself have fibromyalgia and the yoga definitely helps me with that."
Rev. Gastiger says more than just filling a parking lot, it's also a way to see more religious centers be safe spaces to connect community members: "Churches I think have to do more to help people become more connected to where they live."