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Health Movements - Joining mind and body with healthy movement generates harmony
June 12, 2005 05:49 PM
Health Movements by Sylvia Whitefeather Energy Times, December 6, 2003
Mind/body exercises like yoga (especially the super-popular Bikram variety), tai chi and Pilates aren't just trendy, they're custom made to soothe the rough edges of modern life. So often does today's fast-paced world emphasize the mental and competitive aspects of existence that its inhabitants frequently neglect the necessity of gentle movement for the body. But these exercises are an antidote to the tendency to view the mind and body as separate entities.
Modern science is validating what traditional teachers have always known: The mind dwells in every cell. Joining mind and body with healthy movement generates harmony, lowers your chance of chronic illness and promotes emotional stability.
No one knows when yoga first appeared. Historians and archaeologists figure the practice was initiated in India somewhere between 3,000 and 1,500 BCE. But the father of the modern forms of yoga is considered to be a man named Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra around 200 CE.
The literal translation of the word yoga is "union." As Jennifer Schwamm Willis notes in her book The Joy of Yoga (Marlowe), this practice represents "the union of body, mind and spirit." The purpose of learning the fundamental movements of yoga is to connect with your body, release knots of tension and improve strength and flexibility. In that way, the physical balance during a yoga session translates into inner balance during times of crisis or distress. Schwamm points out that ancient yoga practitioners believed "the aim of yoga is to quiet the fluctuations of the mind, to create stillness in order to hear one's inner voice..."
Yoga is used by many for stress relief. But it has other important uses: In a study presented by Oregon Health & Science University at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in April 2003, yoga was shown to benefit folks with multiple sclerosis. The researchers found that participants who regularly attended yoga class for six months suffered less fatigue and improved their quality of life.
A yoga class generally begins with warm-up postures, moves on to a core group of basic postures, and ends with poses meant to cool you down. An important aspect of yoga is breath work and control. Movement in and out of poses involves carefully orchestrated breath work. Inhalation and exhalation in timed sync with movement lies at the heart of yoga's benefits. Yoga beginners often feel stiff and inflexible. But with gentle, patient, regular practice, greater flexibility, strength and balance can be had. Experts say that a yoga session does not demand struggle; it asks for Surrender. If one pose causes discomfort, try another.
One particular form of yoga, Bikram, is hot in terms of both popularity and room temperature: Not only is it one of the biggest trends in the fitness world, this demanding, aerobic take on yoga is conducted in heated rooms designed to maximize muscle relaxation and minimize injury risk. The heat also helps facilitate cleansing and detoxification. It was created by Bikram Choudhury, a four-time Indian yoga champ who founded the Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills, California.
As in other types of yoga, Bikram uses asanas, or poses, handed down through generations of yoga teachers. In this case, though, 26 asanas are done in a prescribed order over a 90-minute period. Everyone, from novice to expert, works out together, the idea being that each individual is working to stretch his or her own limits by becoming stronger, more flexible and less prone to illness.
Bikram yoga stresses the tourniquet effect, in which blood floods through vessels after they've momentarily been squeezed shut. This pressurizing effect is supposed to flush out debris, quickening circulation and releasing stress. The tourniquet effect also helps cleanse the lymphatic system. Proponents say Bikram improves balance, concentration and posture; increases energy; and eases sleep.
Like any other exercise program, Bikram yoga requires diligence: one center says a minimum of 10 classes over 30 days is needed for maximum benefits. And while hydration is important during all fitness routines, consuming adequate water is crucial when you're exercising in a hot room.
Tai chi (also known as taiji or tai chi ch'uan) consists of a series of fluid movements that build endurance, increase flexibility and balance, and foster alertness of mind and spirit. Tai chi developed around the 13th century as a form of martial arts in China based on the power of flow and grace, rooting and yielding, flexibility and endurance. To the onlooker, a person practicing the movements of tai chi has the quality of someone swimming in air.
This gentle form of movement can be practiced by people of almost all ages and physical conditions. Tai chi does not require special equipment, props or a floor mat. As a non-impact form of exercise, tai chi delivers minimal stress to the joints. Tai chi emphasizes proper body alignment and uses the large muscles in the legs to relieve stress from the hips, back and shoulders. It strengthens joints, increases range of motion and improves circulation of all body fluids. Like many other forms of mind/body exercise, tai chi relieves stress.
Tricia Yu, author of Tai Chi: Mind and Body (DK), has been practicing tai chi for over 30 years. She believes that tai chi not only has benefits as a health exercise, but that it "can have a beneficial effect on your mental and emotional states, as well as help you to feel connected with your surroundings." Yu adds, "Like yoga, tai chi originated in a culture that views the mind and body not as separate but rather as different expressions or states of qi-vital energy or life force."
Current research has validated the health benefits of tai chi. One study found that the knee strength of elderly people practicing tai chi improves significantly (J Gerontol A Biol Med Sci 2003 August; 58:M763-6). Participants in this study, whose average age was 72 years, benefited significantly after five months of tai chi. For the elderly, this extra strength and control translates into fewer falls and injuries.
Tai chi may help immunity. In a study published in the September 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers reported that elderly folks who participated in a tai chi class for a period of 15 weeks "saw an improvement in factors that suppress shingles [a painful viral condition] increase by 50%." They also showed an increased ability to move throughout the day and a significant improvement in their general health.
Joseph Pilates (1880-1968) was a sickly child afflicted with asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. Determined to recover his health, Pilates studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise, incorporating moves from gymnastics, yoga and wrestling, along with controlled breathing. With his wife, Clara, Joseph Pilates developed the form of exercise known today as simply Pilates. In the 1920s, Joseph left his native Germany and came to New York City and began teaching his exercise style in dance studios.
Today, Pilates has gained acceptance both as an exercise style for fitness and as a system for physical rehabilitation. Because of its benefits, Pilates is practiced in hospitals, wellness centers, gyms and specialized Pilates studios. It is used by athletes, dancers and anyone looking to increase endurance and improve flexibility, balance and muscle tone.
The basic principle of Pilates focuses on increasing what is called core strength. Core muscle groups include the abdominal, pelvic floor and back muscles. If these muscle groups are strong, then the body is balanced and strong. The Pilates method also encourages flexibility by building long, strong muscles without bulk.
The Stott method is one of the most popular forms of Pilates. This technique combines traditional Pilates exercises with movements updated to conform with modern knowledge about the biomechanics of the human body. By stabilizing muscles in the pelvis and shoulders, and keeping the spine and pelvis in safe, neutral positions, knowledgeable Pilates instructors minimize the chance of injury during these exercises.
Pilates exercises have been shown to help reduce back pain. Researchers report that "Pilates method can be useful for patients with chronic low back pain and deconditioning" (J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2002 May; 25/4:E3).
According to Ken Endelman, the founder of Balanced Body, maker of Pilates equipment, "Pilates is a full-body exercise. It focuses on flexibility and control, not adding bulk; bulk defeats flexibility. This flexibility is particularly important as we age. Staying flexible is key, and Pilates is good at those types of things."
A Pilates routine can be structured to fit your specific physical needs or goals. Instructors use specially designed equipment along with mat work to improve fitness. The human body was designed to move. Again and again, research shows that exercise maintains health, vitality, longevity, weight and quality of life. If you match your exercise with your physical needs and goals, and your personality, you are more likely to stay with that program whether it is aerobics, walking, Pilates or yoga. For real benefits, physical fitness has to be a lifetime endeavor.