Along with wanting to look and feel good physically, many of us want to increase our mental and spiritual stability. Mind-body exercises combine awareness with movement to enhance both physical fitness and mental well-being.
In fact, the most ancient traditions all have a mental and spiritual focus. Modern activities may also engage the mind in different ways—helping us actually obtain better physical results by our mental focus. Professional athletes use not only videotapes to increase their prowess, but also visualization techniques that help them achieve greater athletic feats. We’re talking about the mind-body connection here: mind-body exercises come in a variety of styles.
What are your goals? Presumably you have a set of physical goals you want to meet, either for fitness, increased health, decreased pain or illness or weight loss. What are your internal goals? Do you want to feel more relaxed, more intensely focused? Do you want to improve your balance, endurance or flexibility? Are you worried about your posture; your musculature? Considering what you want to get out of a new workout will help you make the best choice.
One popular mind-body exercise focuses more on generating awareness to change habitual behavior than it does on burning calories. In the Alexander Method, teachers work with students to improve the way they hold their bodies, the way they breathe and sit and walk. People don’t realize how important these everyday, “natural” postures are, but your breathing, walking and sitting can affect your health and well-being in dramatic ways. If your body isn’t properly aligned, it can affect your breathing and the way your whole body uses oxygen. The Alexander Technique helps people discover correct posture and replace old habits that may have been getting the in way of healthy movement—and stillness.
Balance, Smoothness and Calmness
Tai Chi and Chi Gung (or Qi Gong) are two ancient, movement based, meditative techniques that originally came from China and are practiced there by millions of people every day. They are considered martial arts, and can be taken to a martial focus, but most people use the exercises to enhance strength and well-being. The focus is on learning a series of gentle movements that gently stretch the body while also massaging the internal organs and joints. Senior citizens and people with joint disorders like arthritis find Tai Chi and Qi Gong help ease the pain of their illness while providing strength and balance to the muscles of the body. You learn a series of movements which become a sequence to be practiced each time you exercise. The movements are like a slow dance; very pleasant and relaxing once you’ve learned them. Simply doing the movement slows the mind, calms it and makes you feel happy and content. Chances are you’ll be feeling like you’re onto something very good.
Stretching and Balance
Yoga is the way to go if you want to increase your flexibility and give your muscles and joints a good stretch. It’s also great for building strength and balance, since you hold poses for longer and longer periods of time. It takes a lot of strength to stand still, especially if you’re standing on one leg! Yoga includes standing postures but also postures done on a mat, including shoulder and head stands. The added benefit of Yoga is its emphasis on breathing. You’ll learn when and how to breathe to reap the maximum benefits of the exercise.
Pilates isn’t a mind-body exercise in the meditative way that Yoga and Tai Chi or Qi Gong are, but it does use your mind to influence and improve your body. The Pilates’ concept of the core is important, as it teaches students to become aware of the muscles of the torso. When you are aware of a particular muscle, you can find ways to use it to greater advantage, so that even thinking about how your core works can improve your physical fitness.