It is 7am and Chan Sow Foong, 47, is preparing to go to a public football court at Taman Seremban Jaya to lead a group of 50 ladies in what is known as “Praise Exercise”.
Praise Exercise (also called “Praise Dance”) is the latest form of exercise that is taking Seremban by storm, and the wonderful news is that those who are teaching and hosting these sessions are Christians.
In Seremban, there are six churches, including Seremban EFC (where Chan worships), that offer this form of gentle workout that is rapidly supplanting the once-popular
“In fact, Line Dance is almost not seen anymore here, and the practitioners of Line Dancing are now into Praise Exercise,” said Grace Ong, pastor of Seremban EFC (SEFC).
Praise Exercise (PE) was founded in 2004 by a Taiwanese music teacher, Ng Mei Yun, who developed a sequence of gentle movements, interspersed with faster movements, performed to the accompaniment of Scripture-based Mandarin songs. A full range of movements ranging from stretching, pushing, twisting, and light jogging on the spot, can be performed by virtually anyone.
Today, PE is enjoyed in more than 200 locations in Taiwan, and certainly in many parts of Malaysia. It is believed that the Seremban Agape church was the one that brought the PE movement to Seremban when some of its members travelled to Johor to learn it.
“A few of our church members used to be quite diligent in attending the sessions at Agape, twice a week, for at least a year. At one point, I thought why not start this in SEFC, considering that the church members are already quite familiar with the moves,” said Ong, who added that PE is now offered almost daily by churches at the Seremban Lake Gardens.
“And so, I challenged them to start it in our church, telling them not to just think of exercising twice a week, but to do more than that.”
In March 2011, those few sisters took that step of faith by starting a PE group in Taman Seremban Jaya, which is roughly 2km from the church sanctuary. There was no advertising of any kind, as the ladies just limbered up, fired up the portable sound system (a mini compo in those days), and started to exercise.
The music and the movements on court attracted passers-by, and the number of participants just swelled. At one point, the number exceeded 60.
The interesting thing about SEFC’s PE is that it attracts a multiracial crowd, though the Chinese are still the majority. “There is not much of a problem even though the songs are in Mandarin as participants just need to follow the teachers’ movements,” said Ong.
Chan arrives at the vacant football court smack at 7.15am, and sets up the sound system together with fellow instructors. She puts on the portable mike, and adjusts the sound and connection, and gets ready to greet the participants. SEFC provides PE free-of-charge to the participants. Close to 7.25am, womenfolk from the surrounding homes and housing estates start arriving, some on foot, others by car. This scene repeats itself ever Tuesday and Thursday, except when it rains. The routine lasts for an hour, usually enough to cover the 12 songs on the PE DVD, which is now freely sold in most Christian bookstores.
The SEFC members are highly conscious that PE is more than just an exercise – it is a way of reaching out to the people with the Good News.
The SEFC PE group also commemorates occasions such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and other Chinese festivities by organising pot bless sessions. Occasionally, they organise outings and all these activities serve as bridge builders.
“Sometimes, over the course of interaction, the people open up to us with their problems. For those who are reasonably close to us, we ask whether we can pray for them,”
said Chan. There is no “in your face” preaching at PE. “Exercise remains exercise, and the pot bless sessions are for fellowship and food. We concentrate on building friendships, and this is how the seeds of the gospel are sown. With PE, you don’t need to call them. They will come to you on their own volition. From then on, you can invite them for other activities,” said Ong.
For Esther Wong Nyuk Tay, 51, PE has been life changing. “I had always wanted to visit SEFC, but every time I drive past, I see that the door is closed. (The door is closed for security purpose during service time, according to Ong.) I was a bit hesitant, and there were also fears whether it’s a cult. But my mother, who is a believer who attends another church, talked me into attending SEFC’s PE, which is just right in front of my home,” she said.
Through PE, she got to know the SEFC ladies and started attending the church, and accepted Christ soon after. “So, this is how I found the church,” said the soft-spoken owner of a herbal product shop.
PE has been so attractive that some non-believers even think it’s a good income-generating channel. There was an instance when one participant decided to break away and start her own group with the intention of collecting fees. PE, after all, is non-proprietary, and the founder has decided to share it by making available for sale all the instructional DVDs so that participants can perform them at their own convenience, especially at home.
“The participant who wanted to start her own group failed to take off as no one regarded her as a qualified instructor. That person is now back with us,” said Ong.
The organisers do not hide the fact that they are Christians. Other than the overtly Christian songs, the PE session starts and ends with public prayer led by one of the instructors. Even some taichi practitioners from a nearby housing estate used to join the session, but they left when their taichi schedule changed and clashed with the PE sessions.
Besides being a seed-sowing event, PE does bring about tangible health benefits. At the end of the one-hour non-stop session, everyone is perspiring under the gentle morning sun.
“I used to have aches here and there before this as I hardly ever exercised, but since joining PE, there are no more aches or soreness. My heart is light, and the day kicks off with a joyful start,” said Chan – a homemaker as well as administrator for her husband’s business – who first took up PE four years ago.
Fellow church member, Charoensuk Lee, 49, remarked that she feels healthy and cheerful whenever she gets to perform PE regularly. “Whenever I don’t get to do it for extended periods, like as when I go back to Thailand, I start to feel stiff and uneasy.”
There are some days when even the instructors are overcome with fatigue. After all, there are lots of chores at home for those who are fulltime homemakers and added responsibilities for those with school going children.
“On some days, when we are all tired, we would utter a silent prayer in our heart that the Lord will provide rest. And perhaps the Lord understands the desire of our hearts, so on those days, He would then send rain on those mornings,” Chan mused.
Barring those rare occasions, these faithful PE instructors turn up like clockwork every week to bless the community, both physically and spiritually. Asked what would enhance the ministry, all replied without hesitation that the menfolk should pluck up the courage to join them!