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Finding Your Place on the Mat

Finding Your Place on the Mat

You don't have to jump up and down like you're on a pogo stick to get fit. There are kinder, gentler ways to exercise, and these methods hail from the East.

Many recent studies have shown that certain exercises originating in Eastern cultures can offer just as many physical and psychological health benefits as the more vigorous exercises that often dominate Western workouts. Even better, these Eastern exercises tend to be easier on the body. For example, the gentle art of tai chi exercise not only can help build muscle, but it has been shown to help reduce arthritis symptoms and improve your balance. 

Whether your goal is to reduce stress, make your muscles strong and flexible or boost your weight loss efforts with extra calorie burning, according to recent research you can find what you're looking for in Eastern-influenced exercise disciplines, such as yoga, tai chi or chi-gong (qigong).

What's Your Goal?
Not all Eastern exercises are alike, and it may take some shopping around to find the one that suits you best. The great thing about exercises such as yoga and tai chi, however, is that you can easily tailor the activities to fit your personal fitness needs and abilities.

Some classes even focus on moves that are best for a particular group, such as seniors or children.

And you won't have to twist yourself into a pretzel or chant a mantra if you don't want to. There are many variations of classes and instructors. Some focus on the spiritual, others are pure workout, and still others balance the two. Some classes closely mirror the original Eastern philosophies and postures, while others are modified to incorporate more Western attitudes and exercise goals. Take your time and sample different varieties until you find a class that you love.

Your first option is to try out some classes at your gym or community center. If you haven't exercised in a while, it's a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.

So which style of Eastern exercise will help you meet your workout goals?

Goal: Reduce Stress and Prevent Disease

Just about any kind of regular exercise can reduce stress levels. However, for extra help, choose Eastern exercises that incorporate meditation. Meditative exercises that significantly reduce stress can bring the added benefit of disease prevention.

Get it done with . . .

  • Kundalini yoga: Yoga is a discipline that connects the mind, body and spirit by requiring you to move through different physical postures while meditating and focusing on breath work. However, there are many different styles of yoga, and Kundalini is a meditative form of yoga. It focuses on breath work and meditation while mixing in classic yoga poses.
  • Chi-gong (Qigong): Chi-gong is an exercise that focuses on breath work, while incorporating meditation and very gentle, slow physical movements. The focus is on breathing naturally, moving easily and imagining energy traveling through your body.

Health Benefits
Meditation can calm your nerves while significantly improving your health, and it is an important aspect of many Eastern-based exercises. Just 10 to 20 minutes a day of meditation can lower your respiratory rate and help reduce stress. Reducing stress not only is important to your emotional well-being, but it's also an important part of disease management and prevention. Stress ages your immune system, but managing chronically high levels can protect your immune system and may help you fend off illness as well as diseases such as metabolic syndrome, hypertension and depression. According to a study, people who practiced the meditative art of chi-gong daily for one month experienced significant improvements in their immune system function.

Goal: Increase Strength and Flexibility

Just about all styles of yoga build strength and flexibility. However, you can focus on forms of Eastern exercise that incorporate stretching, holding poses and gently exerting yourself for extra power.

Get it done with . . .

  • Iyengar yoga: Yoga is a discipline that connects the mind, body and spirit by requiring you to move through different physical postures while meditating and focusing on breath work. There are many styles of yoga. With Iyengar yoga, you hold your postures for a longer period of time compared to other yoga styles, which increases the strength demands required to complete an Iyengar series. Start with a beginner class.
  • T'ai Chi: T'ai chi is a meditative exercise that requires you to pay close attention to your breathing while completing a series of choreographed, slow, fluid and continuous dance-like movements. It is a gentle physical exercise that is easy on the joints.
  • Chi-gong (Qigong): Chi-gong is an exercise that focuses on breath work, while incorporating meditation and very gentle, slow physical movements. The focus is on breathing naturally, moving easily and imagining energy traveling through your body.

Health Benefits
Multiple studies have revealed the ability of yoga to increase flexibility and strength. Being strong and flexible has a host of beneficial effects on your overall health, including helping to maintain your energy levels, improving your ability to accomplish daily tasks and reducing your risk of injury. Strength and flexibility are vital for balance and minimizing falls. T'ai chi also is used to improve balance and strength, and is particularly effective for older people with strength and flexibility issues. However, t'ai chi may benefit the health of both young and middle-aged participants. And the moderately intense aerobic element of this exercise has been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure.

Chi-gong offers similar health benefits to t'ai chi. T'ai chi may offer a slightly better training effect than chi-gong because it's slightly more intense. However, if you prefer the gentler chi-gong, it also has been credited with improving strength and flexibility and reducing blood pressure.

Goal: Lose Weight or Maintain a Healthy Weight

Choose Eastern exercises that incorporate a cardio component or that require a higher level of exertion and incorporate meditation.

Get it done with . . .

  • Ashtanga yoga: Yoga is a discipline that connects the mind, body and spirit by requiring you to move through different physical postures while meditating and focusing on breath work. There are many styles of yoga. Some yoga styles are gentle and slow. However, Ashtanga yoga is a style that moves practitioners quickly through a series of fluid, continuous poses, boosting the effort level required to complete the series. Start with a beginner class.
  • T'ai chi: T'ai chi is a meditative exercise that requires you to pay close attention to your breathing while completing a series of choreographed, slow, fluid and continuous dance-like movements. It is a gentle physical exercise that is easy on the joints.

Health Benefits
Vigorous yoga styles such as Ashtanga will burn more calories than slower, gentler yoga styles while continuing to enhance your strength and flexibility. Burning excess calories can help you maintain a healthy weight, and a healthful weight can reduce your risk of many serious diseases, including heart disease and cancer. Losing weight also gives your psychological well-being a big boost.

If you are trying to lose weight, balancing out any calorie-burning activities you engage in with meditative exercises could bring quicker results. High blood levels of cortisol—a stress hormone—have been shown to increase body fat in the abdominal area. The stress-reducing quality of a combination aerobic/meditative exercise such as t'ai chi not only may help you burn calories but also help you relax.

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