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How downward dog and tai chi in the park can help mind and body alike.

Denver therapist Julie Rudiger started doing yoga to stretch. It became her favorite way to work out.

"A lot of people seem to underestimate the physical benefits of yoga," Rudiger says. "But the practice has made me stronger and more flexible, physically and emotionally."

Yoga, Pilates, and tai chi are examples of “mind-body" fitness, because they emphasize both physical and mental strength.

"The movements [also referred to as poses or postures] strengthen your body and improve your flexibility by teaching you how to move your body and focus your mind," says Kevin W. Chen, PhD, associate professor in the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

In general, mind-body practices help control weight, reduce blood pressure, ease stress, and improve sleep. During one 3-month study, people doing yoga lowered both their LDL (bad) cholesterol and their triglycerides more than 12 points.

What About Calories?

If you're interested in burning more calories, some advanced yoga and Pilates sessions move at a faster pace.

For instance, a 155-pound person can burn about 298 calories in a regular 1-hour yoga class. Doing Bikram or power yoga will burn even more calories. These classes require students to hold complex poses for longer periods, offering a more intense workout.

You need to learn the basics first, so that you avoid injury when you move on to more advanced classes.

Yoga for Building Strength

Similar to aerobics classes or weightlifting workouts, the intensity level within each discipline varies by style and instructor.

"Doing these mind-body exercises consistently will build up strength," Chen says. "Don't worry about making mistakes or getting all of the movements right. In the beginning, just being there and doing it is enough."

"My brother is a marathon runner and he might be able to outrun me, but I'm more flexible and have better core strength," Rudiger says. "I bring that up whenever someone says yoga is just a stretching class."

Getting Started With Mind-Body Exercise

Interested in trying this kind of exercise? Chen has some suggestions:

Make the call. Before going to exercise classes for the first time, call the studio. "The instructor should know how much experience you have before you start a class," he says. If you need help picking a class that suits your skill level, ask whether the studio offers a specific style of yoga, Pilates, or tai chi most suited to a beginner.

Try before you buy. Although they are all mind-body exercises, Pilates, yoga, and tai chi are very different practices, and there are a number of styles within each. Chen suggests test-driving classes and instructors until you find a good fit.

Dress for it. Prepare to go barefoot during your session. Taking off your shoes helps you feel grounded, an important part of the mind-body philosophy. Also, wear comfortable clothes that aren't too baggy. Oversized T-shirts will ride up during inverted (upside-down) poses.

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