Stretching skyward, 142 yoga students in balanced poses gazed up at Gothic-style arches and stained-glass windows.
Most people arrived early on a recent Sunday afternoon for Yoga in the Cathedral held once a month in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The popular sessions, which began in 2015, are open to anyone in the community.
“We’ve had as many as 210 people,” said Lisa Silvestri, a church member and yoga instructor who started the program. For some, the yoga is about community. Others find moments for reflection or prayer, she said.
“Sometimes with yoga, it’s the only quiet people have in a day, to be in dialogue with yourself, and it’s one way to be in dialogue with the divine,” she said.
The Sept. 22 session drew people of all ages who spread out colorful mats across the church’s aisles and in nearby nooks. Silvestri walked around guiding the poses using a calm tone sprinkled with humor. She meandered around the bodies of regulars, newcomers, families with kids and seniors.
People, most of them barefoot, lined up their mats side by side.
Carla Bradford attended for the first time with her daughter and a friend, Kelli Trowbridge, who brought her two daughters. “It brings so many people together,” Bradford said.
“I love the atmosphere – the church is beautiful,” added Trowbridge. “And the yoga is free.”
Silvestri said the idea for Yoga in the Cathedral sprang from a coffee meeting and the question of how she could plug into the church. Her first apartment was located across the street, and she felt welcomed one Sunday.
“I’m from Philadelphia and took a job as a professor at Gonzaga University,” Silvestri said. “I moved here with a cat, a suitcase, and that’s it. I had no car. I bummed a ride from someone I met in baggage claim.”
“I heard the bells and wandered in one Sunday, and then I filled out a guest card. Later, the priest invited me to have a cup of coffee. We went to Rockwood, and he asked, ‘How can we get you involved?’ ”
That person was Martin Elfert, who has since moved to Portland, she said. After learning she enjoyed teaching yoga, he asked her about two weeks later to return and see where she could use church space to offer that to the community. Her assumption was she’d be taken to a side conference room.
“He showed me the cathedral sanctuary, and I’m saying, ‘Really? Am I allowed to say namaste?’ ”
“A lot of faith practices are embodied. We kneel. We fast. We take communion. This was a way to borrow an embodied practice that has become mainstreamed and put it in a space that so much of faith is embodied.”
Silvestri said she and Elfert talked about how some people today might approach faith cognitively instead of feeling it, she added, but she thinks even Elfert was surprised at Yoga in the Catherdral’s popularity. Silvestri tries to use humor during yoga to make people feel more welcomed.
“That’s what these sanctuaries are supposed to be about, where people could come and touch base and feel restored.”
Some people have told her they haven’t been to church in 20 years before attending Yoga in the Cathedral. And for a few, she’s seen them again in subsequent church services, though that’s not an expectation.
When she’s driving, Silvestri said she feels inspired when she sees St. John’s tower above Spokane and hopes that others do, too.
“Sometimes when I get stuck in traffic on Division and feel that crushing tyranny, I look up and see St. John’s on the hill and think about how this feeling in the moment isn’t real,” she added. “I think about this community.”
“I hope other people as they’re feeling pressured, they can look up at St. John’s and feel that sense of community and know they belong and are part of something bigger. You don’t have to be alone.”
“This space is for the community. You can come here in your yoga pants, spandex and be barefoot. It’s a way to make it not intimidating.”
At Grand Boulevard and 12th Avenue, the main part of the church was built from 1925-1929, but the tower and other sections weren’t completed until after the Great Depression and World War II. The design follows an English Gothic cathedral style.
“The bishop who built this saw the long-standing vision of this cathedral on the hill as a sign of hope, a sign of prayer but also as a cathedral for the city,” said Heather VanDeventer, a reverend and dean who greeted yoga participants as they arrived.
Since 2015, regular yoga attendees know Silvestri got married and about the birth of daughter Jane, who is now 15 months. Her husband, Peter, attends the yoga sessions with Jane as she wanders on a far side of the sanctuary.
“Are you glad your friend dragged you here?” Silvestri asked the recent yoga group. Another time, she noticed trouble with a stretch. “You’re stressed out, holy moly. That’s what I get for taking July and August off.”
Guiding a difficult pose, she laughed another time with the crowd. “It’s humbling, isn’t it?” Then she urged them on while laughing, “We’re in a church, say a prayer and go for it.”
“We’re neighbors – you’re not alone,” she said another time. “Say ‘thank you, neighbor.’ ” She also encouraged them to have more curiosity in life or to release any hurts. “We have a lot of quick judgment today.”
Another yoga regular, Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, stood up near the end to sing a capella. Her voice filled the sanctuary with “Let It Be.”
Tatoo artist Peter Koskela has attended the yoga sessions for three years.
“It’s a beautiful place, he said. “I like the social aspect of it.”
Newcomers included Jak and Crystal Oritt, who came up to Silvestri to thank her after the hourlong session ended.
“I laughed, cried and sweated, and I’m coming back,” Crystal Oritt said.
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