If you exercise regularly, or even if you don't, you've probably tried all kinds of fitness programs. Exercising the body is vital for maintaining weight, building strength and stamina, and for overall health and well-being. We all know the importance of exercise, but for most of us, exercising is a chore — and a bore.
What if you found an exercise that kept you so mentally and spiritually engaged that you forgot you were exercising?
If you were able to achieve the same physical goals but could focus so intently that your mind and body almost became one, exercise would no longer be just exercise. It would transform into an art form that allows your body to become an extension of your creative force and mental energy.
If you are interested in an exercise program that offers more than just physical fitness, there are several options that provide a deep connection between mind, emotions and body. In fact, the trend in health clubs across the country is away from classes that focus just on muscle and cardiovascular training to ones that include whole-body maintenance. You can be at any fitness level to enjoy these programs. Here are three options for switching up your fitness routine to stimulate both body and soul.
Ballet did not begin as an exercise program. It is a form of artistic expression that has its beginnings in the courts of Europe for opera and stage performances. As it has evolved over the years, ballet has become more strenuous and physically demanding, requiring intense focus, discipline and stamina. However, more and more adults (men and women) are taking recreational ballet classes as a way of keeping fit, flexible, and emotionally engaged. There are amazing benefits to taking regular ballet classes:
- Ballet sculpts and tones your body. The movements taught in ballet class are designed to create long and lean muscles without building up a lot of bulk.
- Ballet promotes great posture. In order to perform the various positions, turns and combinations in ballet class, your body must be placed in correct posture and alignment. As a result of this very specific and repetitive training, you will continue to carry “ballet posture” outside of class.
- Ballet promotes strength and flexibility. Ballet requires stretching and extending limbs and muscles, and holding these positions using the strength of core muscle groups. Stretching and strength exercises at the ballet barre are an important part of every ballet class. Over time, you will see tremendous improvement in strength and flexibility.
- Ballet promotes stamina. Although ballet looks elegant and easy, it requires a great deal of strength and stamina. Repetitive movements, jumps, and dance combinations provide aerobic exercise that gets the heart pumping.
- Ballet stimulates mental focus and discipline. In order to achieve correct positions and proper alignment, you must maintain a high level of concentration and body awareness. Also, the instructor gives a series of movement combinations (in French) that must be quickly memorized and repeated in the classroom. Ballet requires both mental and physical stamina.
- Ballet encourages artistic expression. It is an art form, after all. The technical aspects of ballet requires discipline of the body and mind, but the artistic element of dance requires opening your heart and soul. Ballet is a way of expressing and communicating feelings, ideas and events. A ballet dancer enjoys moving to beautiful and inspiring music and expressing the emotions that the music draws forth.
- Ballet is for anyone. You can be a complete novice and walk into a beginning ballet class and reap great benefits from just one class. Of course, as with any exercise, you will get better with more practice.
Tai chi began in China as a martial art, but as it developed, it took on the purpose of enhancing physical and mental health. It is a series of low impact, weight bearing, and aerobic movements that enhance physical and mental health. There are a variety of styles of tai chi, but they all involve slow, gentle movements, deep breathing and meditation — sometimes called “moving meditation.” Tai chi is believed to improve the flow of energy in the body, leading to healthy living and providing a wide range of benefits.
A tai chi class might include the following:
Warm-up. Easy motions to help you loosen your joints and muscles and help you focus on your breath and body.
Instruction and practice of tai chi forms. Forms are sets of movements which may include a dozen or fewer movements. Long forms may include hundreds of movements. Focusing the mind solely on the movements helps produce a state of mental calm and clarity.
Qigong. This translates as “breath work” or “energy work” and consists of a few minutes of gentle breathing sometimes combined with movement. The idea is to relax the mind while mobilizing the body's energy. It may be practiced standing, sitting or lying down.
There are numerous benefits to the practice of tai chi.
- Tai chi improves balance, coordination, flexibility and strength. The Oregon Research Institute found that tai chi participants performed better at moderate to rigorous activities after six months of practice than non-participants.
- Tai chi helps reduce pain and stiffness associated with conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, and fibromyalgia.
- Tai chi improves the quality and length of sleep according to The Oregon Research Institute. The sleep benefits from tai chi are the same as those gained from drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy.
- Tai chi strengthens the immune system, particularly against the viral disease Shingles. Researchers have found that tai chi produces an immune response to Shingles similar to that promoted by the vaccine for the virus.
- Tai chi reduces stress. The practice of tai chi has a calming and meditative effect that reduces stress and anxiety.
Qigong is a form of Taoist yoga. Taoism suggests that the health of the mind and body is dependent upon a clear, strong balance flow of qi or life force. The benefits of qigong extend to every physical system of the body, as well as the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. Qigong is an integration of physical postures, breathing techniques, and focused intentions. The practices of qigong can be classified as martial, medical or spiritual, but all styles have three things in common: they all involve posture (whether moving or stationary), breathing techniques, and mental focus. There are a wide variety of qigong practices which can be very gentle, as with tai chi, or it can be extremely vigorous with styles such as Kung Fu.
A unique feature of qigong is the ability to train the mind to direct the body's energy, or chi, to any part of the body.
The practice can relax the mind, muscles, tendons, joints and inner organs, helping to improve circulation, relieve stress and pain, and restore health.
Other benefits of qigong include:
- greater stamina, strength and vitality
- enhanced immune system
- lower blood pressure
- better coordination
- reduced stress and anxiety
If you would like to read more about these mindful exercise options, please check out these resources.
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