The health benefits and varieties of yoga, tai chi and tae-bo are discussed. Tips for finding classes and evaluating instructors are included.
Full Text :COPYRIGHT 2000 Consumers Union of the United States, Inc.
Yoga has been practiced in India for several millennia as a system of physical, mental, and spiritual discipline. Since being introduced in the U.S. in the early 1900s, it has attracted growing interest. In the past three years yoga classes at fitness centers have more than doubled in popularity, according to a national industry survey.
Studies from India have claimed that yoga practice has beneficial effects on, among other things, the cardiovascular, respiratory, and endocrine systems. In the West, studies have found yoga helpful for asthma, arthritis of the hand, lowering blood pressure, and improving mood.
If you're shopping for a yoga class, you'll soon discover that there are different "schools" of yoga, such as Kripalu, Iyengar, and Kundalini. These are all variations of hatha yoga, which is the physical (as opposed to spiritual) aspect of yoga practice. Yoga techniques vary in their physical pace, in some details of the various yoga postures, and in the emphasis placed on breathing and meditation. Many teachers practice an eclectic blend of yoga styles.
Ashtanga or "power" yoga is catching on in some metropolitan areas. Unlike most other styles, it involves a strenuous aerobic workout. "It's great for people who are already fit, but unfit, stressed people should avoid it because they can hurt themselves," says Duke University's Ralph LaForge.
A typical hatha yoga class will start with some breath-control exercises, called pranayama, then move on to a series of yoga postures, or asanas. The purpose of the asanas is to put the spine through its full range of motion and to promote flexibility and strength throughout the entire musculoskeletal system. Asanas fall into five broad categories: standing, seated, prone, supine, and inverted (upside down). The poses can be held for a few seconds or for a strenuous few minutes, depending on the teacher and your own ability. For the many poses that involve stretching, always stretch slowly and gently, and stop if it hurts.
Some traditional yoga positions have been cited for risk of neck and knee injuries. People with glaucoma or high blood pressure should be cautious about inverted postures. Those with knee or back problems may require modification or elimination of some asanas.
Most yoga classes also involve some form of meditation. "Integral to yoga practice are stress-management tools," observes Mara Carrico, author of "Yoga Basics": "moving slowly, listening to your own breathing, not forcing."
FINDING A CLASS
Check with local community centers, Y's, health clubs, adult-education programs, and colleges to find a class. There is no single national certification or licensing program for yoga instructors. Look for an instructor who has had formal yoga teaching instruction and is a regular practitioner of yoga.
Before signing on, ask the instructor if you can sit in on a class or two--or request an individual session so the instructor can evaluate your strength and flexibility. Be sure to mention any medical problems. Beware of any teacher who forces students to move too quickly or press themselves beyond the point of comfort. Also, warns Carrico, an ethical yoga instructor will not claim to be able to cure diseases.
Meditating in motion with tai chi.
The public parks in China are often full of elderly people performing slow, graceful, balletic movements. They're doing tai chi chuan--tai chi, for short--an ancient regimen that's been called "moving meditation." Tai chi has evolved far from its centuries-old origin as a martial art into a surprisingly effective exercise for balance and cardiovascular health. An Atlanta study of 200 people in their 70s found that 15 weeks of tai chi training cut their risk of falling nearly in half, and reduced their blood pressure as well.
Tai chi practitioners explain that the continuously changing series of postures are designed to achieve a harmonious flow of energy--known to traditional Chinese medicine as "chi"--throughout the body. The movements are coordinated with breathing patterns and done slowly so the practitioner can focus on the dynamic changes in balance, flexibility, and muscular tension. Tai chi also contains components of meditation: conscious focus on movement, breathing, and sequential relaxation of various parts of the body.
As with yoga, there are various styles of tai chi, but all involve choreographed patterns of movements, called forms. It can take years to learn all the forms of a particular style, but beginners can master simple movements relatively quickly.
Tai chi is perhaps the best-studied of the Asian movement systems, and most of the studies have focused on its benefits for older people. It has been shown to improve cardiovascular endurance, but studies show that its most striking beneficial effects are on posture, strength, and balance--skills that deteriorate in old age, resulting in serious falls and injuries.
"The human frame is phenomenally unstable," explains Robert Whipple, an expert on balance and gait at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. "We stand on a narrow foundation, and the only thing that's keeping all our jointed segments under control is constant muscular compensation. Tai chi has come up with the best possible biomechanical scenarios for keeping a person stable--to maximize your standing base by widening your stance, and to keep your head and torso as vertical as possible."
As the ultimate low-impact exercise, tai chi can be done safely by virtually any ambulatory person. The only exception is someone with knee problems, because many of the movements are done in a low squat.
In spite of its relative safety, however, tai chi is a more vigorous workout than you might suspect. A 1992 Australian study of 96 practitioners found it had the same effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones as brisk walking.
FINDING A CLASS
Check out community centers, senior centers, health clubs, and Y's; also try martial-arts academies, which frequently offer tai chi along with other martial arts. As with yoga, there is no centralized certification authority, so you should ask your prospective teacher about his or her training and background.
Kicking away stress with Tae-Bo.
Tae-Bo is terrific exercise, but it's not for beginners. That's the consensus of fitness experts we consulted about the best-selling videos featuring Tae-Bo's creator, martial-arts champion Billy Blanks.
Featuring a nonstop routine of high steps, kicks, and punches set to a pulsating disco beat, Tae-Bo combines the intensity and high enthusiasm of aerobic dance with the self-defense moves of the martial art of kickboxing. Tae-Bo and other cardiovascular forms of kickboxing can provide a thorough whole-body aerobic workout that burns a lot of calories--some 350 to 450 per hour for a 135-pound woman, according to a recent University of Mississippi study.
However, compared with many exercises, cardio-kickboxing moves are highly risky, says Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. "You're supporting yourself on one leg, and if you go to the limit, kicking parallel to the floor, it puts you at increased risk for hip, knee, and low-back injuries." Overenthusiasm can be risky with Tae-Bo. Don't try to match the high kicks and powerful punches of Blanks and the trained students on the instructional tapes.
FINDING A CLASS
Currently Tae-Bo itself is taught through the videos and a small number of company-certified instructors at licensed studios in California and Texas. However, other forms of cardio-kickboxing are on the menu at many martial-arts academies and health clubs.
Before you begin classes, unless you're already in good condition, improve your overall fitness level with a few weeks of aerobic exercise or light weight training.
Look for a kickboxing instructor certified by the American Council on Exercise or the YMCA. In class or watching a video, don't try to match the instructor move for move. Instead, go easy until you've learned the proper form and built up your strength and flexibility. Never fully extend or snap your elbow or knee in punches or kicks; that can damage tendons and ligaments.
"Breathing away tension with yoga." Consumer Reports Feb. 2000: 44+. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Dec. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A63130884
Disclaimer:This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.
United States Judo Association - USJA
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