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Basic Principles of Mind-Body Exercise
Part Two

Most mind-body exercise forms have three similar characteristics to achieve a healthy balance between mind, body and spirit. These characteristics are mindfulness, correct physical form, and breathing, according to Michele Hebert, media spokesperson for mind-body integration for the American Council on Exercise.

Each component affects the other. When you are under stress, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow and your muscles tense up. Conversely, if you purposely slow breathing and movement, you relieve a stressful mind.

Mara Carrico, author of Yoga Journal’s Yoga Basics, gives a simple guideline to remember while doing mind-body exercises. Relax (for the body), focus (for the mind) and breathe (for the spirit). “Body, mind, spirit – relax, focus and breathe.”

Beyond these three common characteristics, each mind-body format has different techniques, emphasis, and health benefits. Here is a brief overview of the four most common programs available in the country.

Yoga
Hatha yoga is the physical side of a 6,000-year-old philosophy. The exercises were originally invented so yoga practitioners could hold their bodies in static positions for long periods while they were meditating.

Yoga exercises or asanas are usually held for 30 to 60 seconds while you concentrate on specific breathing patterns. Exercises are done sitting, lying down or standing.

It is not true that yoga is only “stretching” because it requires both strength and flexibility to stay in the pose. It is also not true that yoga is completely safe. You can be injured if you do a pose that is too advanced for you. Yoga poses should be modified to fit physical limitations like a tight lower back or weak leg muscles.

There are many different types of yoga, ranging from relaxed and gentle (Viniyoga and Kripalu) to moderately intense (Sivananda and Iyengar) to extremely vigorous and aerobic (Ashtanga).

Yoga is good for developing flexibility, strength in static positions, stress management, awareness of the breath, and focus.

Qi Gong
Qi Gong or Chi Kung is an umbrella term that encompasses all Chinese exercises for spirituality, health and martial arts. The Chinese government has determined there are 5,000 Qi Gong styles. Wushu, Kung Fu and Tai Chi are formats that evolved from Qi Gong.

Movements can range from very simple and uncomplicated to detailed and demanding. Simple Qi Gong exercises are a good way for sedentary people to begin exercise. People with chronic medical conditions can also benefit from the practice of Qi Gong because it focuses on breathing to increase energy pathways.

Basically, Qi Gong involves paying attention to the body and staying aware of the breath while doing a series of seated, standing or supine movements.

Tai Chi
Tai chi chuan, the most popular form of tai chi, is a series of 108 slow-paced choreographed movements that resemble a dance. Though not easy to learn, they are effective for developing balance, coordination, gracefulness, and focus. Tai chi has also been shown to improve blood pressure and relieve stress. There are modified versions that use simpler movements to avoid intimidating beginners.

Pilates
Pilates exercises were invented by German Joseph Pilates to strengthen his sickly body and later, to rehabilitate injured soldiers during World War I. Pilates introduced the technique to the dance world when he immigrated to the U.S. George Balanchine and Martha Graham were some of his disciples.

Pilates is a combination of yoga, Zen, ancient Greek and Roman exercises with the grace and fluidity of tai chi. The flowing movements strengthen and stretch the whole body but place particular emphasis on the abdominal and lower back or “core” muscles.

The exercises are done on a mat using the body’s weight as resistance or on specially designed equipment called the “Reformer” and the “Cadillac” that resemble a sled or hospital bed with springs, bars, and cables. There are also many types of “small equipment” like bands, balls, circles, and rollers to add variation to matwork Pilates.

Improved posture and strong “abs” are some of the benefits you can expect from Pilates. Although not as esoteric as yoga and tai chi, Pilates’ emphasis on coordinating the breath with movement can also relieve stress and promote a state of relaxation.

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