Tone Your Body, Tone Your Mind
I love intense workouts, but they’re not keeping me from having intense stress-outs. Can you give me some advice on how I can tone both my body and mind at the same time so I can keep fit while learning to relax more?
Buff in Boston
People who love working out but can’t seem to stop stressing out need to know that it is possible to get a sweat on and at the same time reduce their stress. Of course, this can come naturally over the course of heavy workout when our body releases endorphins in the form of “runner’s high,” or through the euphoria we can attain when we reach difficult fitness goals. But more focused approaches exist. As a whole health consultant, I recommend to readers any of these five great paths to stronger muscles and a more peaceful mind:
1. Power Yoga is great for those seeking to combine a cardio workout with the well-known mind-calming benefits of regular yoga practice. The term “power yoga” originally was just a catchy synonym coined about ten years ago for a variation of Ashtanga yoga, but is now more broadly considered to be a series of physically challenging poses in no set order. Power yoga develops strength and flexibility while keeping you on the move. At the same time, it emphasizes balancing body, mind and spirit like other yoga forms. Since classes can differ I recommend talking to instructors before signing up with a particular class to make sure it provides enough of a relaxation focus for you.
2. Martial Arts are famous of course for cultivating mental and spiritual discipline while building physical strength and agility. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the many styles of martial arts practiced in the US. But I suspect that fitness enthusiasts might find more gratification from practicing “hard” (or “external”) styles such as Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Kickboxing, than the “softer” (or “internal”) styles of T’ai Chi and Aikido, although the latter are typically more meditative. Martial arts instruction can vary enormously on the extent to which they emphasize the self-defense, meditative, dance, exercise, spiritual, or energetic aspects of their style. Moreover, instruction can be very formal and traditional, or more relaxed and westernized. .I strongly recommend sitting in on a class before signing up, and asking the instructor about their teaching philosophy to see how much it emphasizes stress reduction.
3. NIA, stands for Neuromuscular Integrative Action. While it is not as well-known as Power Yoga, it has become a fashionable form of mind-body exercise. NIA is difficult to define, as it is a hybrid exercise that combines elements of martial arts, healing arts, and dance. Unlike power yoga, the NIA Technique can adapt itself more easily to all levels of physical ability. In a typical NIA class, participants are barefoot and are led through a series of movement exercises set to eclectic and energizing music. Instructors encourage a mindful, healing attitude to the exercises, emphasizing the joy of movement, emotional catharsis, free expression, and healing visualizations, in a sense taking the class on a journey towards greater self-awareness while getting a good workout at the same time. To find a NIA class near you, visit www.nia-nia.com.
4. The Roth Five Rhythms™ is a form of ecstatic dance developed by the artist, dancer and healer Gabrielle Roth. As a dancer, Roth discovered that people can experience emotional release, greater mind-body awareness, and healing when taken through a series of five dance-movements: the graceful, loose and flexible flowing; the fiery, angular and passionate staccato; the wild and uncontrolled chaos; the soulful, stylish lyrical; and finally the wise, inspiring and compassionate stillness. Roth’s stated philosophy is “Put your psyche in motion and it will heal itself”. Five Rhythms™ classes take participants on a very personal and self-expressive journey through these rhythms, which can be a strenuous workout for those in need of one. To find a qualified teacher near you, visit Gabrielle Roth’s website at www.ravenrecording.com or call the Moving Center at 212-760-1381.
5. Readers, you might find it odd for me to add Fencing to this list. But as Syd Fadner, Director of the Boston Fencing Club, points out, "Fencing is a sport that challenges mind, body and spirit. A combat sport that requires tactical thinking, emotional resiliency and physical conditioning, fencing encompasses a unique combination of fine motor skills and adrenal response. Students learning the sport of fencing develop focus, balance and endurance, while learning to respond effectively to the challenges of competition. It is sometimes described as chess at a hundred miles an hour." A western cousin of Asian martial arts sword forms, fencing's adherents argue that one need not go around the world to find a form of vigorous exercise that cultivates the mind. Getting started in fencing is easy, and does not require owning a sword (or a chandelier!). To find a class near you, contact the United States Fencing Association at www.usfencing.org.
Before you go out and sign up with any class, though, remember that we can cultivate calmness and peace of mind in whatever we do, whether its kickboxing, walking, or just washing the dishes. Whenever we choose a hard and strenuous physical activity, we should take a moment and try to see the softness and gentleness that lies inside of it. Not only might we find there the relaxation we seek, but this awareness may also take us to a higher level of performance and a deeper appreciation for balance in all aspects of our lives.
First published in Natural Awakenings Boston Natural Awakenings magazine's "Ask Karlo" column, April 2005.
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