Tired of your regular fitness routine? Finding that your motivation to work up a sweat is lacking? Maybe it's time to take an old approach. Look to Eastern philosophies for the answer to your fitness dilemma, in the forms of qigong, yoga, and tai chi.
All types of exercise are generally good for you. Aerobics, strength training, and sports can all contribute to a holistic lifestyle. Exercises such as qigong, yoga, and tai chi bring your body and mind together. They focus on movement, sensation, and breathing, so practicing these techniques integrates all the different parts of the self.
Something for everyone
What sets Eastern exercise methods apart is that they not only strengthen your body, but they also help quiet your thoughts, focus your mind, and rejuvenate your spirit. All three of these methods offer health benefits no matter what your age or fitness level. Whether you're a beginner or professional athlete, you will appreciate the stress relief and mental focus that these exercises bring to your workouts, and even to your daily life. In addition, you don't need any special equipment—just comfortable clothes—so that once you learn the basics, these techniques are easy to practice at home.
To help you choose whether you want to try qigong, yoga, or tai chi (or all three), here's a brief overview of each. Don't forget to check with your health care provider before starting any exercise program.
Qigong (pronounced chee-kung) is part of traditional Chinese medicine and was developed thousands of years ago. According to this tradition, chi is the life force or energy that circulates through your body. Qigong describes the hundreds of mind-concentration techniques and slow-movement exercises that you can use to help your chi flow freely. You can perform qigong while walking, sitting, standing, or sitting in a wheelchair, so it's particularly helpful if you are recovering from an illness or injury. Exercises like qigong are very gentle. Although they do involve repetitive movement, they don't strain your joints and connective tissue. This makes these exercises a good choice no matter what your age or fitness level.
A practice developed in India thousands of years ago, yoga involves postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and mental techniques to focus awareness. There are many types of yoga, including gentler, meditative styles, such as Kripalu, and vigorous, athletic styles such as Ashtanga and Jivamukti. All forms focus on deep, rhythmic breathing, coupled with either holding or moving through specific postures. The goal is to unite your body, mind, and spirit. Some studies show that in addition to building your strength, flexibility, and endurance, yoga may help reduce your stress and anxiety, help lower your blood pressure, and decrease your risk factors for heart disease.
Tai chi is a specific and popular form of qigong that has its roots in the martial arts. You perform the slow, graceful movements of tai chi while standing —unlike in yoga and some other forms of qigong, in which you either stand, sit, or lie down. You do Tai chi in a specific sequence, while shifting your weight from one leg to another, stepping forward and backward and from side to side. Longer forms may involve up to 100 movements, while shorter forms may involve only 20 to 40. Tai chi may help ease pain and stiffness, improve balance, and may help reduce your falls if you are an older adult.
How to get started
Books and videos can be helpful, but taking a class is a good way to learn the proper postures and breathing techniques. Check your local fitness clubs, college recreation departments, newspapers, the YMCA, community centers, and martial arts schools.