Is a gentler approach to fitness and well-being the key to health and happiness?
Picture a peaceful setting, perhaps outside in nature, where the inviting warmth of the sun sifts through the trees. You find a nice place to sit as you get ready to practice yoga. Or maybe Pilates or qigong.
Longtime Colorado Springs resident Pam Van Scotter has been practicing qigong (pronounced chee gong) for many years. “It’s an ancient Chinese practice related to the tai chi family,” she says. “For me, qigong is a powerful way to practice wellness and healing through simple movements, intention, and visualization… My intent is to connect my mind to my body and be mindful of the chi energy (the aliveness and life force) within. The movements are slow and, for me, meditative, which allows me to focus on key centers in my body that promote wellness and healing.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Van Scotter practices five to six times a week, often outside near a small pond and trickling waterfall, for 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. “Practicing in the morning frames my day; practicing in the evening brings closure to the day—and a peaceful night’s sleep.”
Yoga, Pilates, and qigong/tai chi are all centered on gentle movements and mindful breathing. They can be practiced in group settings or solo.
Strike a Pose
Veteran yoga instructor Brian Kleiner, who teaches at several Colorado Springs facilities in addition to working with a private clientele, began practicing in New York City in 1993 and got serious about the practice in 1995 following a car accident that left him with fractures in his lumber spine. “Initially what interested me in yoga was the philosophical aspect,” he says, “and later on, the physical benefits kept me hooked.”
Kleiner, who has lived at several yoga ashrams and monasteries across the country and is certified to teach through both the Kripalu Center and the Silvananda Yoga Vedanta Center, says of the practice, “Conscious breathing calms the nervous system, which leads to lower cortisol levels in the bloodstream. The breath and the mind are intimately connected, ultimately.”
The purpose of yoga, in Kleiner’s words, is “to wake up. To truly be conscious in the deepest sense of the word.”
For many of us, gentle exercise is an unfamiliar concept. Kleiner says, “I find that there is a general misconception leading people to believe that more is better, which, in many cases, is just simply not true. In order to remain flexible and malleable, one must simply move. This idea is defined in Newton’s first law…an object in motion stays in motion… The gentleness of traditional yoga yields results by putting the practitioner in the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ side of the nervous system as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ side. In the parasympathetic nervous system, the practitioner is relaxed, which obviously and inevitably leads to less muscular tension.”
Body in Balance
Pilates, says Dawn King, Sun Pilates Studio owner, master Pilates trainer, and certified GYROTONIC® instructor, “is an exercise system based on achieving proper posture and alignment. As simple as that sounds, many people—especially in our technology-based culture—are suffering from some ailment that can be directly related to poor posture. Back pain, joint pain, and even nerve pain can have roots in the misalignment of our bones. Pilates exercises are aimed at correcting muscle imbalances that pull our skeletal system off balance. They work to create space between otherwise compressed vertebrae, joints, and organ systems. In essence, Pilates works to combat the usual ‘wear and tear’ that we experience as we age and/or engage in strenuous exercise or sport. A consistent Pilates practice has proved to be a wonderful form of preventative care, athletic cross-training, flexibility, core strength, mindful breathing, and rehabilitative exercise.”
Yoga (of Indian origin) and qigong (of Chinese origin) began thousands of years ago. Pilates (originally known as Contrology, as in control), “was created by Joseph Pilates during World War I while he was detained at an internment camp,” says King. “He developed the system as a way to keep other detainees physically fit and active as well as to rehabilitate those who were bedridden. His main objective was to keep people moving, flexible, and strong…”
All three practices support a strong connection between body and mind and can be undertaken by folks of all ages. According to numerous studies, injuries and chronic issues respond well to these approaches.
“Inevitably,” says Kleiner, “through regular practice, yoga leads to an overall state of improved mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical fitness. The exercises, in and of themselves, will keep the body strong while the underlying philosophy leads the practitioner to more consciousness, consistency, and stress-free living.”
Among the primary benefits of Pilates, says King, are increased energy, proper alignment and posture, and deeper body awareness. “Other benefits include more optimal organ function, increased endurance and focus, and an overall feeling of bliss.”
“For me,” says Van Scotter, “practicing qigong is about centering, awareness, and connecting mind, body, and spirit using chi. It is so easy to live in one’s mind and, when exercising, to focus on the physicality of that activity in the body. What is important to me is to integrate the mind and body—to practice wholeness.”