Moving Parts: Use Your Body to Stay HealthyOct 01, 2019 02:47PM ● By Patricia Staino
There’s no doubt that regular exercise is an important component of a vibrant life. Even knowing that, “exercise” can sound like a dirty word, like something we must do—along with working for a living and cleaning the house—before we can make time for the fun stuff. What if we replaced exercise with something joyful, calming and inspirational, something we look forward to in the way we anticipated recess as a child? Why can’t moving our body feel more like play?
Study after study has demonstrated that moving our bodies is the key to aging gracefully, repelling disease, keeping our minds sharp and creating a general sense of well-being. There’s an adage that you’re only as old as your joints feel, and most people over a certain age would probably agree. While media (and social media) hype may have us believe that our only hope is to jump on the next big workout trend—like Peloton, Pound or Battle Ropes, for example—more people are turning to kinder, gentler and yes, more traditional movement to restore both body and soul.
While yoga comprises a host of mental, physical and spiritual practices, in the Western world it often focuses on the asanas and vinyasas. The American Osteopathic Association says that among the many physical benefits, yoga lessens chronic pain, lowers blood pressure, reduces insomnia, increases flexibility and muscle strength, improves energy, maintains a balanced metabolism and aids in weight loss. Further, just last month Harvard Medical School announced research it says proves that yoga “provides a retreat from the chaos of life,” citing in particular its tendency to boost body image, encourage mindful eating habits, reduce stress and increase overall physical fitness.
Dating back to 600 BC, the poses and philosophy are well-established—and there is something reassuring and grounding in following a tradition that for centuries has provided a mindfulness so easily lost in our fast-paced modern lives. However, if you want to switch up your yoga practice, try teaching your Downward Facing Dog some new tricks.
Try black light yoga, done under a black light, often to upbeat music—so you won’t be sure if you’re at the yoga studio or an after-hours club—or buti yoga, which is inspired by primal dance and includes fast-paced cardio and strength moves. Or try Cat and Cow with a joyful baby goat on your back. The notions may make purists shudder, but there’s nothing wrong with adding a little goofiness to your practice once in a while. The key thing is that you’re moving!
Tai Chi and Qigong
Tai chi, which translates roughly to “supreme ultimate”, is a Chinese martial art that comprises three elements of practice: health, meditation and the physical movements. Developed around 1200 and taught as a battle technique in the 16th century, it has been taught openly in the US only since 1939. Today, tai chi focuses on a sequence of slow, deliberate movements emphasizing a straight spine, abdominal breathing and a natural range of motion that is gentle on muscles and joints. Once considered a form of self-defense, the practice is now regarded as a low-impact regimen that is quite popular in retirement homes and senior centers.
Qigong is similar to tai chi in that it uses a series of slow movements in sequence, but it is less disciplined, and the moves are more free-form and adaptive according to the participant’s abilities. According to the Tai Chi Society, both tai chi and qigong are ancient practices that cultivate the qi—the life energy that flows through the body’s energy pathways—by combining movement, breathing and meditation. The main difference between the two is that tai chi is considered a martial art, while qigong is a method of wellness. Tai chi’s moves are more complex and athletic, and it can take months of practice to master just one.
Both practices can decrease stress, increase aerobic capacity, improve energy and stamina, develop flexibility and balance and build strength. There are some studies that indicate they may also enhance the quality of sleep, boost the immune system and reduce the risk of falls in older adults.
It seems that even the most creative fitness types choose not to mess with the basics of the movements; while there are no black light or hip-hop versions just yet, some studios are combining the moves with yoga and Pilates. As an added benefit, since many classes take place outside, they can be a spirit-boosting experience that connects you to the natural world.
Thinking of dance as exercise may seem a bit like cheating because it’s so much fun. It’s also affordable and accessible—just turn on the radio and throw your hands in the air—requires no special clothing or equipment, no training or gym membership, and can be practiced by almost anyone, almost anywhere. Sure, if you prefer ballet, toe shoes and tutus can get pricey; but in general, dance is one of easiest forms of exercise to take up right here, right now.
In just the past year, two studies reported that dancing may keep us healthy into old age, possibly reducing the risk of disability and dementia. One of the studies, which examined 32 past studies (involving 3,500 people ages 50 to 85), found evidence that one to two hours of dance (or tai chi) per week could improve cognition, even in adults who already had some impairment.
Now more than ever, there are many options from which to choose. Many gyms, dance studios, parks and rec departments and community centers offer classes in tap, hip-hop, belly dance, dance fitness, Zumba and our current favorite—Bokwa. It fuses step aerobics, hip-hop and African dance with steps that trace out letters and numbers on the floor. It’s intense, it’s sweaty and every cell will be vibrating when you’re done.
Unlike specific dance forms where there may be prescriptive techniques, choreography and directions, there is growing interest in forms of dance called meditative movement. In these, there is minimal instruction, no learning specific steps and no way to do it right or wrong. All that’s needed is a willingness to move and an openness to be moved.
Across Connecticut we can find classes, meet-ups and community events including Ecstatic Dance, Journey Dance, Yoga Dance, Chakra Dance, Shake Your Soul, Contact Improvisation and other forms of meditative movement. Each of these forms views dance as a language to connect with our heart and soul and provide physical entrance into our inner world.
Just Do It
Healthy movement isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Start small and over time build your stamina; the easiest way to do that is to find an activity you love. Even just a few steps at a time will increase your energy and put a smile on your face.
Patricia Staino is the managing editor of Natural Awakenings’ Fairfield County and Hartford editions.