Eastern workouts pump body and mind

Photo by Devon D’Ewart, Flickr

For everyone who believes in new years resolutions, one that almost always makes the top of the list is to get in shape. For those considering a new workout routine, it’s important to consider that popular choices of physical activity in the city such as yoga, tai chi and gym workouts, offer different benefits for the body. So when thinking about which fitness classes to take, consider that yoga and tai chi work on connecting mind, body and spirit, but for those who like high-powered, cardiovascular workouts, a gym provides that avenue.

Vancouverites’ fascination with yoga is evident, from the ubiquitous yoga centres around town to the athletic street wear that local clothing designers have popularized. But yoga is more than a fad. According to the American Yoga Association, some yoga techniques date back more than 5,000 years. Yoga gained popularity in North America in the 1960s because of youth culture’s fascination with the East.

Certified Iyengar yoga teacher and owner of Yoga on 7th, Eve Johnson, suggests that yoga is popular because there’s no other form of exercise that does so much for your life. According to Johnson, the body and the mind is a continuum, and by regularly doing yoga you begin to think about your body differently – it’s about being kind to your body and to yourself.

“It’s not a workout, it’s a work-in,” she says.

Another Eastern exercise that works on connecting the mind and the body and has received attention in the West is the ancient martial art, tai chi. Tai chi belongs to an ‘internal’ style of martial arts, distinguished by soft movements, compared to ‘external’ or ‘hard’ styles, like kung-fu.

Tai chi is based on Taoist philosophy – on the interaction of yin and yang, opposite but complementary energies that run through the universe.

“We have the soft movement with some power emission. So in every single movement, it embodies this yin and yang philosophy,” says Helen Liang, president of martial arts school, Shou-Yu Liang Institute.

Tai chi is especially good for improving flexibility, balance, coordination and breathing, says Liang.

When thinking about what it means to be physically fit, André Potvin, president of Infofit Educators, says that physical fitness can be measured in five components: cardiovascular, muscle strength and endurance, flexibility and body composition. A physically fit person is someone who exceeds the average norm for his or her age in several of these components, according to Potvin.

The gym provides an environment that inspires people to become healthier by helping them work on their muscle tones, reducing fat and increasing cardiovascular fitness, says Potvin.

Liang suggests that going to the gym is good for young people who want to do high impact exercises. But even though tai chi looks gentle, Liang says there’s a misconception that it’s easy.

“Tai chi does not give you that type of heavy breathing, but at the same time you feel like you’ve exercised and you’re sweating,” Liang says.

When comparing the work0out one can get in a gym versus a yoga studio, Johnson urges people to consider that by using machines in a gym, one can strengthen the major muscles; however, yoga is good for strengthening both the major and supporting muscles. This is done through different poses, such as a handstand, says Johnson.

Helen Liang | Photo courtesy of
the Shou-Yu Liang Institute

In order to stay fit and healthy by doing yoga, Johnson suggests being kind to yourself and finding a class you feel safe in. Johnson encourages people to do yoga because it results in lifestyle changes, due to the meditative and introspective aspects of the practice.

“[Yoga] helps you achieve mental clarity and lets you be at peace with yourself,” says Johnson.

But no matter what kind of exercise regime it is, Liang says that it is all about persistence and practice.

“Even if it’s ten minutes a day, it makes a whole world of difference,” says Liang.

For Potvin, maintaining a healthy body is about eating right and making time for physical activities.

“Learn how to eat healthy, which includes purchasing a cookbook that deals with raw, organic, alkaline forming foods. Get into a rhythm of grocery shopping for healthier food choices. [And] organize your weekly schedule to include specific times for physical activity,” says Potvin.