Part 1: Easy Does It
Why work out en masse instead of on your own? Unlike solo exercising, group fitness provides motivation and social interaction, as well as personalized instruction. And instruction is key when picking up something new. As the new millennium approaches, interest is booming in the Far Eastern forms of exercise, which are gentle and mindful of movement and total body conditioning. Simultaneously, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there's a resurgence of the hard-core, "no pain no gain"-style workouts of yesteryear. This two-part series explores both trends in group fitness and guides you to styles right for you. Look for Part Two in two weeks!
Yoga: Where Mind and Body Meet
Yoga, a discipline developed in India more than 5,000 years ago, is the mother of all mind-body exercises. Yoga focuses on postures that heighten awareness of the body, and it seeks to integrate mind and body. Yoga has many varieties including ashtanga (a challenging power yoga), viniyoga (which is slow and purposeful) and restorative yoga (which is very tranquil). The movements of yoga help develop balance and flexibility and teach you how to relax your mind and body. According to Donna Morton, a Los Angeles-based, certified yoga instructor, "It's important to stay inwardly focused on each position and listen to your body." In other words, pay attention to how your body moves and feels during each movement instead of just focusing on a result, such as beefed-up biceps.
Don't Get Caught in a Knot
One of the plusses of yoga is that it encourages you to work within your body's abilities. Instead of trying to match what the person next to you is doing or simply following the instructor, you'll learn to challenge yourself without overstepping your capabilities. How do you know if you've hit a boundary? Morton says, "Pain, shaking muscles or the desire to hold your breath while performing the movements are signs that you're pushing yourself too hard."
Pilates: Healing and Stretching
Pilates, a movement therapy which combines stretching with proper alignment, is lately attracting attention, but it has actually been around for some time. It was created in the 1920s by German-born Joseph Pilates, who studied a number of exercise forms, including yoga. Thanks to a background in engineering, Pilates was able to design full-body workout equipment, which he used as physical therapy for himself and others. More recently, Pilates has been popularized by the dance world because of its emphasis on posture and flexibility. Pilates addresses issues of injury prevention, correct breathing, dynamic stretching (stretching while moving as opposed to stretching and holding) and strengthening.
Into the Mainstream
Today Pilates is taught in settings ranging from fitness studios to huge teaching hospitals. According to Los Angeles-based certified Pilates trainer Carol Argo, "Pilates conditions the body from the inside out, focusing on the center of the body, particularly the spine and the pelvic area." Workouts can be taught in training sessions that use the Reformer, a piece of Pilates equipment with a set of pulleys, or in classes that focus on floor work, which requires no equipment. The Pilates method demands more personal supervision than other exercise programs because precision is integral to the movements. Avoid classes where the numbers are too large for the trainer to advise students individually.
Tai Chi: The Soft Side of Martial Arts
Tai chi, practiced regularly in China by people of all ages, is one of the most nonaggressive forms of the martial arts. Its controlled, fluid movements resemble a dance, and its slow speed makes the moves comfortable and easy to execute. Because it is a martial art, tai chi philosophy is combative: Its purpose is to help "fight" fatigue and stress. The circular motions of the limbs and the body as a whole increase endurance and strength without the use of external weights. Its meditative quality improves mental clarity. Participants learn a series of movements while focusing on executing the movements from their center, or "tan-tien". An excellent introduction to the discipline of martial arts, tai chi is also a great way to simply chill out.
Many of these mind-body styles of exercise are being blended into combination classes that offer a mix of styles and techniques. It is not unusual for teachers to add a yoga or tai chi warm-up or cool-down to a traditional cardiovascular or sculpting workout. Health-club schedules may list these mind-body approaches to exercise under different names, such as Mind and Muscle, Flexible Strength or Balanced Body Workout.